Herman Melville


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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 American writer.


Billy Budd, Sailor


Written and designed by Myra Jones and Melissa Adams, students, University of North Carolina at Pembroke, 1997
Edited by Mark Canada, Ph.D., professor of English, University of North Carolina at Pembroke

© Mark Canada, 1997

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