Father: Allan Melvill
Mother: Maria Gansevoort Melvill
New York City, New York
Albany, New York
Lansingburgh (later Troy), New York
American novelist, short-story writer, poet
ran father's felt and fur business with his brother Gansevoort after their
critic for literary journal
worked as a farm hand for an uncle, Thomas Melvill
1819: Born August 1 in New York, New York
1830: Father's business collapses; family moves to Albany
1832: Father, Allan Melvill, dies
1834: Finishes school
1835: Attends Albany Classical School; becomes active member of a
local debating society
1837: Brother Gansevoort goes bankrupt with family business; family
Lansingburgh, New York
1839: (June) Becomes cabin boy on St. Lawrence, a merchant
ship sailing from New York City for Liverpool, England
1841: (January) Sails on whaler Acushnet from New Bedford,
Massachusetts, on a voyage to the South Seas
1842: (June) Acushnet anchors in Marquesas Islands (present-day
French Polynesia); (July) Melville and a companion jump ship; (August)
registers on Australian whaler Lucy Ann; (November) Signs as harpooner
on his last whaler, Charles & Henry, out of Nantucket, Massachusetts
1843: Signs as a seaman on United States
1844: (October) Discharged from United States in Boston, Massachusetts
1846: Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life
1847: Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas;
(August) marries Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of chief justice of Massachusetts
1849: Mardi; Redburn, His First Voyage
1853: Fire at his publishers destroys most of his books; "Bartleby
1854: The Encantadas
1855: Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile; Benito
1856: Took tour of Europe and the Levant; The Piazza Tales
1857: The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade
1860: Takes a tour with his brother Thomas, captain of the clipper
"Meteor," around Cape Horn
1866: Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War
1867: son Malcolm commits suicide by shooting himself
1886: Second son, Stanwix, who went to sea in 1869, dies in a San
1891: writes Billy Budd, Sailor, which is not published until
1924; dies of a heart attack on September 28, in New York, New York
Issues and Themes
Herman Melville is remembered as the man who wrote the novel Moby-Dick.
However, Melville accomplished a great deal more in his life. He
was born into a prosperous New York family that proudly traced genealogical
lines to the noble family of Melvill of Scotland on his father's side and,
on his mother's side, the Gansevoorts, who were of Dutch ancestry and had
ruled immense manors along the Hudson River. He was the third of
eight children and was considered to be slow and dull by his parents (Compton's).
The Melville family added the "e" to their last name in the 1830s.
Both of Melville's grandfathers had been heroes in the American Revolution.
His grandfather, Major Thomas Melvill, had been a ringleader of the Boston
Tea Party. His other grandfather, General Peter Gansevoort, successfully
defended Fort Stanwix during the revolution. These great ancestral
lines awarded no such fame to Melville. He died more or less forgotten
in 1891. Only after his death did he receive the honor and recognition
that he had always felt he deserved.
His first novel, Typee, appeared in 1846 and brought him instant
recognition. Typee, a novel about Polynesian life, was Melville's
own story of living with a tribe of cannibals of Nuku Hiva. At the age
of 27, Melville met and married Elizabeth Shaw. The wedding location
had to be changed at the last minute for fear that admirers would "crash"
the wedding (Madden). Following Typee, Melville produced a sequel,
Omoo, which is a story about beach combing in Tahiti and Eimeo.
Melville's early years as a seaman seemed to fuel his ideas and words into
stories. Melville had written five books by age 30 and had moved
to a farm in the Berkshires to work on a new book called "The Whale."
After completing "The Whale," which was now called Moby Dick,
Melville was physically and emotionally exhausted. Moby Dick
earned some favorable reviews, sold well, and remained in print for many
years. However, it was far from a sensation, and his income from
writing was not enough to support his family. Melville tried the
lecture circuit and even politics, but to no avail. Moby-Dick was
not recognized as a masterpiece until the 1920s. An exciting adventure
story on one level, it also is a profound study of man's struggle against
the forces of evil on a more psychological level. Melville taught himself
the art of verse, and he then went on to write poetry for 30 years.
In August of 1891, Melville gathered poems he had written into a collection,
which he called "Weeds and Wildings" and dedicated to his wife.
Melville's life and writings are filled with problems between sons and
fathers. His father, Allan Melvill, was a bankrupt merchant who left
his family in economic dire straits. Allan Melvill chose his fortune
over his family. Melville himself had a rocky relationship with his
son Malcolm, who committed suicide. He drew on his own father-son
relationships in many of his major works, such as Redburn, Moby-Dick,
Pierre, and Billy Budd. In Redburn, the narrator,
Wellingborough Redburn, praises his dead father, "but contrasts his own
humble position as a sailor with that of his father, a successful business
man" who died bankrupt (Robillard). In Moby-Dick, the character
Ishmael, an unhappy, fatherless son, seeks a father figure and finds
one in Queequeg, and the main character of Pierre, Pierre Glendennin,
reveres a dead father who was not who Pierre thought he was (Robillard).
In Billy Budd, Billy, a young sailor, discovers a "father figure"
in Captain Vere, but is betrayed by him in the end. All these stories
illustrate Melville's theme.
Melville compared himself to the century plant, which flowers after
100 years. In the years since his death, Melville's reputation indeed has
blossomed. After years of neglect, he has secured a reputation as a great
Billy Budd, Sailor
Compare and contrast Billy Budd and John Claggart. Identify the characteristics
that define the two as character foils. Are Billy Budd and
John Claggart one in the same? Do you consider both characters as
a complex mixture of attributes?
How does the vocabulary affect the tone of the story? How does Melville
use this vocabulary to his advantage?
Do you think the portrayal of Captain Vere as a kindhearted, brave leader
is rather ironic? Why or why not? How does your initial impression
of Captain Vere compare to your final impression?
What is the importance of the exposition in Billy Budd?
In the sixth paragraph of "Issues and Themes," the words "father figure"
were placed in quotations to call attention to the irony in this phrase.
How is your view of a father-son relationship similar to or different from
the relationship between Billy Budd and Captain Vere? Do you even
consider their relationship to be that of a father and son?
At his execution, Billy Budd praises Captain Vere. After all that
has occurred, why does Billy Budd remain steadfast in his commitment to
There were plenty of other men Billy could have chosen to fill this position
of father figure. Do you think that his choice was a conscious or
Billy Budd is loaded with implicit allusions. Think about
why Melville chose this literary device, rather than state the obvious.
How would the story be different without these allusions?
What other literary devices does Melville employ in Billy Budd?
Do the names of the ships hold any significance to the story or its characters?
"Herman Melville." Compton's Encyclopedia. Vol 14.
Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1986.
"Herman Melville." The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1986
"Herman Melville." The Norton Anthology of American Literature.
Shorter Fourth Edition. New York: W.W.Norton & Company,
Madden, J., ed. "Contemporary
Estimates of Melville and His Works." The Life and Works of
Herman Melville. 1997. http://www.melville.org/estimate.htm
---. The Life and
Works of Herman Melville. 1997. http://www.melville.org/melville.htm
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor. Norton Anthology of
American Literature. Shorter Fourth Edition. New York:
W.W.Norton & Company, 1995. 1069-1122.
Robillard, Douglas. "Melville and Aratus." Notes and Queries.
Vol 40, n4. Oxford University Press, 1993. 477-479.
Sharma, Akash, ed. Herman
Melville - Biography - Early Life. 1997. http://okemos.k12.mi.us/~henry/text/melvilbe.htm
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