Herman Melville

On this date in 1819, Herman Melville was born in New York City, one of eight children. He was baptized as a newborn by the Dutch Reformed Church. His father died when he 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 two books were Melville’s most popular writings during his lifetime. 

Moby-Dick, with its famous first line “Call me Ishmael” (1851), is now his most celebrated work but 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 to 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, 2011.)

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, he became a member of the Church of All Souls (Unitarian). He and Elizabeth Knapp Shaw had wed in 1847. Her father was chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. They had four children: Malcolm, Stanwix, Elizabeth and Frances, all born two years apart. Two sons died before Melville, Malcolm at 18 of a gunshot wound, perhaps self-inflicted, and Stanwix at 36 of tuberculosis. D. 1891.

Photo: Melville in 1870 in a portrait by Joseph Oriel Eaton.

Freedom From Religion Foundation