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Featured Books

Featured Books

Moby Dick: or the Whale (Modern Library) [ILLUSTRATED]Summary and Reviews of Moby Dick: or the Whale (Modern Library) [ILLUSTRATED]
Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (Modern Library Classics)Summary and Reviews of Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (Modern Library Classics)
Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (Penguin Classics)Summary and Reviews of Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (Penguin Classics)
Redburn: His First Voyage (Dodo Press) (Paperback)Summary and Reviews of Redburn: His First Voyage (Dodo Press) (Paperback)
White-Jacket, or the World in a Man-Of-War (Classics of Naval Literature)Summary and Reviews of White-Jacket, or the World in a Man-Of-War (Classics of Naval Literature)
Pierre Or The AmbiguitiesSummary and Reviews of Pierre Or The Ambiguities
Mardi: A Voyage Thither, Vol. I & IISummary and Reviews of Mardi: A Voyage Thither, Vol. I & II
The Confidence Man (Norton Critical Editions)Summary and Reviews of The Confidence Man (Norton Critical Editions)
Herman Melville: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Tales, Billy Budd (LibSummary and Reviews of Herman Melville: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Tales, Billy Budd (Library of America)
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Herman Melville

Click the banner or the individual items listed to buy and read Melville's work.

Herman Melville (1819-1891) toppled quickly from privilege to poverty when his father died bankrupt. His ancestors on both his mother's and father's side of the family were wealthy, but his brother's bankruptcy caused Melville to resort to a wide range of low paying jobs after being forced to quit school permanently in 1837. He worked as a clerk, a farm laborer, and finally a schoolteacher during which time he lived with his students' families and was cheated out of his salary.

Desperately, Melville turned to the life of a sailor. He started out as a merchant sailor on short voyages and eventually moved to longer voyages on whale ships. These experiences provided Melville with material for his novels, including Moby-Dick, later in life. During the time he spent on these ships, Melville became disturbed about how the white man treated what they called "savages" in the regions where they landed. He wrote ironically of "rapacious hordes of enlightened men" shooting guns at naked natives on the shore from their warships and seizing the "depopulated land." He would also reflect on how well the supposedly savage cannibals treated each other compared with the "Christians" on board the ships on which he sailed treated each other.

Melville decided to stay behind in a "savage" land and lived among the Typee tribe in a sort of voluntary captivity for a short time. He realized he did prefer the "civilized" life and escaped after about three weeks, but he retained his sympathy for the plight of the natives besieged by the white man. In his first two books, Typee and Omoo, Melville fictionalized his experiences among these exotic people. Typee, his first novel, was hugely popular, but it was Omoo in which Melville was able to more explicitly criticize his fellow white males without his publishers' censorship.

Melville married the daughter of the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1847, but Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw turned out to be a staunch supporter of the Fugitive Slave Law and racial segregation, which caused conflict in Melville's heart if not his marriage. His writing increasingly included themes of oppressed groups under the tyranny of the powerful. After an unpopular attempt at experimental writing, he turned back to realistic narrative with Redburn and White-Jacket or The World as a Man-of-War. Both these early books foreshadowed themes in later works, such as "Bartleby the Scrivener," Benito Cereno, and Billy Budd.

Melville's next work was the culmination of all the development he had gone through in the years before.  Moby Dick, Melville's masterpiece and arguably America's greatest novel, was a philosophical work that used the symbol of the whale man to show the potential of anyone who pursues his calling in an honorable way. Unfortunately, for Melville, his reading public did not appreciate the attacks on traditional religion that were a part of Moby Dick so he was forced to try to imitate the psychological romance of the successful Hawthorne in his next book, Pierre; or, the Ambiguities. This plan backfired since the thinly-veiled attacks on Christianity and other parts of the establishment that Melville employed turned this attempt at convention into satire, which may have contributed to Melville's development as a literary figure but didn't help him gain readers in his own time.

Melville regained his contemporary literary status by contributing to popular magazines, Harper's and Putnam's. He turned primarily to short fiction and serialization with biting prose that used the dominant racist language of his readers to make them see their error. Stories like Benito Cereno and "Bartleby the Scrivener," commented on society from the perspective of the oppressor but always with irony, so that the perceptive reader knew the narrator did not really believe what he said. This ironic style developed and culminated in Melville's final book, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, an allegory in which Melville used Biblical symbols and a being disguised as a black man and later white gentlemen to test the character of the people around him. Melville spent his last years in much the same condition he was in after his brother's bankruptcy, spending the last nineteen years of his life as a Customs inspector. His writing lives on however, and today his literary reputation is almost peerless.


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