Herman Melville

On this date in 1819, Herman Melville was born in New York City, one of eight children. His father died when Herman was 12, forcing him to quit school and go to work to help support his family. In 1839, Melville became a cabin boy, and sailed the South Seas, later joining the U.S. Navy. He was shipwrecked among the Typee cannibals, and dramatically rescued. These and other exploits inspired the fictionalized account Typee (1846) and its sequel, Omoo (1847). These first two books were Melville's most popular writings during his lifetime. Moby-Dick (with its famous first line, "Call me Ishmael," 1851), now his most celebrated work, was a literary and financial disappointment at the time. The book is a multi-layered, allegorical tale about whaling and one man's obsession. "I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb," Melville wrote his friend and neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom the book was dedicated. Hawthorne wrote of Melville: "He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be truly one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us." (Quoted in Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick) Melville, the prototypical struggling artist, obtained a steady income in 1862, when he was appointed customs inspector on the New York City docks, where he worked for many years. Raised Calvinist, Melville became a member of the Church of All Souls (Unitarian), New York City. His writing was full of questioning, anguished doubt, and explorations of "good and evil." D. 1891.

“Backward and forward, eternity is the same; already we have been the nothing we dread to be.”

"Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian."

—-Herman Melville, "Mardi" (1849) in The Writings of Herman Melville, Vol. 3, edited by Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker and G. Thomas Tanselle, 1970

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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