Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819. The family name was Melvill, and he added the “e” to the name. His father was a merchant from New England. His mother came from an old, socially prominent New York Dutch family.
Melville lived his first 11 years in New York City. After the collapse of the family’s import business in 1830 and Allan Melvill’s death in 1832, Herman’s oldest brother, Gansevoort, assumed responsibility for the family and took over his father’s business.
After two years as a bank clerk and some months working on the farm of his uncle, Thomas Melvill, Herman joined his brother in the business. About this time, Herman’s branch of the family altered the spelling of its name.
Inexperienced and now poor, Melville tried a variety of jobs between 1832 and 1841. He was a clerk in his brother’s hat store in Albany, worked in his uncle’s bank, taught school near Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
In 1839, at the age of 20, Melville took his first voyage across the Atlantic sea as a cabin boy on the merchant ship the St. Lawrence. After this expedition and a year exploring the West, Melville joined the crew of the whaling ship Acushnet in January of 1841.
He later sailed for a year and a half aboard the Acushnet; Melville and a fellow seaman deserted the ship, only to be captured by cannibals in the Marquesas Islands, the Typee. But the natives turned out to be gentle hosts.
More than five months after deserting the Acushnet, Melville’s adventures were not over. He later joined the crew of whaler Charles and Henry, where he worked as harpooner.
When the Charles and Henry anchored in Maui Island five months later in April of 1843, Melville took up work as a clerk and bookkeeper in a general store in Honolulu.
On August 17, 1843, he enlisted as a seaman on the frigate “United States,” flagship of the Navy’s Pacific Squadron.
His four years during his twenties (1841-1845) working on whaling ships provided him with material for his first three novels. Melville was also able to communicate the fear and terror of a whale hunt, a feat that would make his greatest work, Moby Dick, a literary tribute to the whaling industry.
Melville returned to his mother’s house determined to write about his adventures. His subsequent writings borrowed from his own experiences as well as other peoples’ fantastic stories that he heard during his travels.
The books that recounted his experiences and made his reputation were Typee (1846); Omoo (1847); Mardi (1849), a complex symbolic romance set in the South Seas; Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850).
Melville then began Moby-Dick, another “whaling voyage,” as he called it, similar to his successful travel books. He had almost completed the book when he met Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, etc.) Hawthorne inspired him to radically revise the whaling documentary into a novel of both universal significance and literary complexity.
Melville had a brief stay in Hawaiʻi.
In 1843, he spent four months in Hawaiʻi; at some point early in his stay he worked in a Honolulu bowling alley as a pinsetter. He also spent time beachcombing in Lāhainā.
He describes surfing in passages of Mardi and a Voyage Thither (his first pure fiction work – reportedly based on his travels linked to his brief stay in the Islands:)
“Past the break in the reef, wide banks of coral shelve off, creating the bar where the waves muster for the onset, thundering in water bolts that shake the whole reef till its very spray trembles. And then is it that the swimmers of Ohonoo most delight to gambol in the surf.”
“For this sport a surfboard is indispensable, some five feet in length, the width of a man’s body, convex on both sides, highly polished, and rounded at the ends. It is held in high estimation, invariably oiled after use, and hung up conspicuously in the dwelling of the owner.”
“Ranged on the beach, the bathers by hundreds dash in and, diving under the swells, make straight for the outer sea, pausing not till the comparatively smooth expanse beyond has been gained. Here, throwing themselves upon their boards, tranquilly they wait for a billow that suits.”
“Snatching them up, it hurries them landward, volume and speed both increasing till it races along a watery wall like the smooth, awful verge of Niagara. Hanging over this scroll, looking down from it as from a precipice, the bathers halloo, every limb in motion to preserve their place on the very crest of the wave.”
“Should they fall behind, the squadrons that follow would whelm them; dismounted and thrown forward, as certainly would they be run over the steed they ride. ’Tis like charging at the head of cavalry; you must on.”
“An expert swimmer shifts his position on his plank, now half striding it and anon, like a rider in the ring, poising himself upright in the scud, coming on like a man in the air.”
“At last all is lost in scud and vapor, as the overgrown billow bursts like a bomb. Adroitly emerging, the swimmers thread their way out and, like seals at the Orkneys, stand dripping upon the shore.” (Herman Melville)
Melville died September 28, 1891. (The inspiration and information, here, is primarily from pbs-org)
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