Genius Ignored, Chapter 6: Melville [Life/Biography]

[Summary: In his 20’s Melville was a popular writer of sea stories. The more ambitious works (e.g. Moby Dick) which followed were not successful. He was unable to make a living from writing.]


Moby-Dick, a novel?! Is y’r Homer a novelist? Is y’r Book o’ Job a novel? Y’r novel’s a piddlin’, dainty form. When y’ c’n stuff a whale in a ten-gallon bucket — that‘s when y’r Moby-Dick‘ll be a novel!!” — Rufus (“Rusty”) Frye, Boatswain’s mate, U.S.S. Liberty


                               from a 19th-century hymn






In his twenties Melville wrote a number of very popular sea stories. These were followed by more serious, ambitious works (such as Moby-Dick) which were much less successful with the public and failed to find an audience even in more educated, literary circles. At the age of 37 he abandoned the idea of making his living from writing. Increasingly forgotten, his only literary output over the next thirty years was poems which he and his relatives paid to have published. Around his seventieth year, interest in his work began to revive. A final flowering of his genius, Billy Budd, Foretopman, was written at that time but was not published until thirty years after his death.

Link back to Genius Ignored –Table of Contents

[Photograph by Rodney Dewey, 1861,

Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819, in New York City, the son of Allan Melvill and Maria Gansevoort. Both grandfathers, Major Thomas Melvill and General Peter Gansevoort, were Revolutionary War heroes. The families were well-educated and, at least in the case of the Gansevoorts, well-to-do. The Melvills were men of the world: Herman’s father’s frequently traveled to Europe in connection with his importing business and his uncle, Thomas Melvill, Jr., had lived in Paris for a number of years.

{November 20, 1819, the South Pacific: After men in boats of the whale ship Essex wounded a large sperm whale, the whale escaped and went directly for the ship itself. It rammed the hull so forcefully with its head that the ship sank in less than ten minutes.}The young Herman was good-natured but somewhat slow; his older brother Gansevoort was considered the promising one. When Allan Melvill’s importing business had problems in the late 1820s, he borrowed heavily from his father and other relatives. The business failed anyway and in 1830 he moved his family to Albany, N.Y., where he became a partner in a fur cap factory and retail store. In January, 1832, following exposure to extreme cold on a trip from New York City to Albany, he died.

When the extent of the family’s indebtedness became clear, the boys were forced to leave school. Gansevoort, at age 16, assumed responsibility for the fur business. Herman, age 13, went to work in a bank and in the fur shop, and at various times over the next five years did also attend school.

Around this time Herman’s mother changed the spelling of the family’s name from “Melvill” to “Melville”.

Herman had an indirect exposure to the sea in these years: two cousins sailed for the South Seas on the crews of whalers in 1835, and a third cousin became an officer in the United States Navy.

In April, 1837, the fur business went bankrupt. That fall Herman, by then 18, taught at the Sikes District School (near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where the family of his uncle, Thomas Melvill, Jr., was living). On December 30, 1837, he wrote his uncle Peter Gansevoort: “My scholars are about thirty in number, of all ages, sizes, ranks, characters, & education; some of them who have attained the ages of eighteen can not do a sum in addition, while others have travelled through the Arithmatic [sic]; but with so great swiftness that they can not recognise objects in the road on a second journey: & are about as ignorant of them as though they had never passed that way before.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 71]

In the fall of 1838 Herman took a course in surveying & engineering at the Lansingburg Academy in hopes of getting a job in the construction of the expanding Erie Canal. In May, 1839, two brief “Fragments for a Writing Desk”, written by Melville, were published in the Democratic Press and Lansingburgh Advertiser. The attempt to find a surveying job — or any job — that spring had failed. His brother Gansevoort arranged a position for him on the St. Lawrence, a merchant ship bound for Liverpool. This four-month journey to England and back would later be the basis for Melville’s novel, Redburn, His First Voyage.

His family continued to have financial problems. On October 4, 1839, Peter Gansevoort wrote to Judge Lemuel Shaw of Boston, friend of the old major Thomas Melvill –and of his son (Herman’s father) as well– : “It is with the most painful feelings that I inform you, that by the failure in business, some time since, of her son Gansevoort, Mrs. Melville has become entirely impoverished — mortgages are foreclosing upon her real estate & as I have just heard, the furniture is now advertised for sale . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 96]

During the fall of 1839 and the spring of 1840 Herman taught at the Greenbush & Schodack Academy. When the school year ended, Melville and a friend headed west — taking the Erie Canal across New York, boats across Lake Erie and Lake Michigan to Chicago, by horse to Galena, Illinois (where Herman’s uncle Thomas Melvill, Jr., was then living), by boat down the Mississippi River (later, the setting for his novel, The Confidence-Man), up the Ohio River, and by land across Pennsylvania. By November Herman was back in New York, looking for a job.

In January, 1841, Melville shipped as an ordinary seaman on the Acushnet, a whaler, bound for the South Seas, expected to be out at least 18 months. He was 21 years old.

 [And let me in this place movingly admonish you, ye ship-owners of Nantucket! Beware of enlisting in your vigilant fisheries any lad with lean brow and hollow eye; given to unseasonable meditativeness; and who offers to ship with the Phaedon instead of the Bowditch in his head. Beware of such an one, I say; your whales must be seen before they can be killed; and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of sperm the richer. (Moby-Dick, Chapter 35)}In March, 1841, the Acushnet landed in Rio de Janeiro to unload some sperm oil.

{May, 1841, the South Atlantic: “[The Bristol whaler John Day] was then to the east of the Falkland Islands . . . At 2 o’clock in the afternoon a gigantic whale breached within 300 feet of her, shooting his full length out of water, and raising such a sea by his fall that the ship rolled as if in a gales. [‘Mocha Dick’ then] swam slowly about . . . His actions were menacing, but the Captain at once decided to attack him. Three boats were lowered, and as the whale made off to windward the first mate put a harpoon into him. That was the first iron ‘Mocha Dick’ had ever felt. He sounded at once and ran for three miles, and when he came up it was to slue around and head for the boat. His action was so unexpected and his speed so great that he caught the boat unprepared and ran right over it . . .
“. . . Nothing was left of the boat but splinters , and two of her crew were killed or drowned. The other boats advanced to the attack . . . One of the boats got hold of the floating line, but had scarcely secured it when the tricky fighter came up under the other and sent it skyward with the bottom knocked out . . .

“The crew had enough of ‘Mocha Dick’, and while he hauled off and lay waiting for another attack the remaining boat was hauled up and the ship sneaked away. The English Captain [had previously] vowed that if he ever encountered that whale he would kill him or lose his whole outfit of men and boats, but an hour’s fighting satisfied him that he had undertaken too big a job.” (“The Career of Mocha Dick”)} [quoted in Leyda, p. 118]


In May they rounded Cape Horn and spent the next six months cruising the western coast of South America. In July the Acushnet met another Nantucket ship which had on board a son of Owen Chase. {Owen Chase had been the first mate of the ill-fated Essex (see above) and had written an account of its sinking.} “I questioned him concerning his father’s adventure; . . . he went to his chest & handed me a complete copy . . . of the Narrative [of the Essex catastrophe]. This was the first printed account of it I had ever seen . . . The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea, & close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect upon me.” [Melville’s memoir of Owen Chase, quoted in Leyda, p. 119]

In January, 1842, the Acushnet headed west along the equator. They did not have very good luck in their whaling and the captain and officers became increasingly ill-tempered and tyrannical. By the time the ship dropped anchor in the Marquesas Islands on June 23, 1842, the crew was thoroughly dispirited. Melville and his shipmate Toby (Richard Tobias Greene) deserted into the interior of the island, ending up in the valley of the supposedly hostile, cannibalistic Taipis (Typees). Melville was their captive for almost a month. He had hurt his leg during the escape from the ship and when, after a week, it was clear that it wasn’t getting any better, the Typees let Toby go get medical help. Before he could do so, however, Toby was impressed by another whaler. Melville was eventually rescued by a party sent out from a third ship in need of men.

Though there’s a question as to whether the Typees were actually cannibals, their reputation would certainly have been sufficient to make Herman’s stay suspenseful. His close contact with people so different from any he had known — the tattoos, the nakedness, the sexual freedom, the unhurried pace of life — could hardly fail to make an impression on this alert, sensitive 22-year-old.

The ship which recruited him was the Lucy Ann, an Australian whaler which proved even more unbearable than the Acushnet.He and a companion, John B. Troy, abandoned the ship at the first opportunity (Tahiti, October). Taking refuge on the island of Eimeo, they gravitated toward villages, such as Papetoi, which had not been spoiled by Western influences — and where they could easily hide out.

In November, 1842, Melville signed with the crew of a third whaler, the Charles and Henry. The cruise lasted for five months and seems to have been more agreeable than the previous two. In May he was certified for discharge at Lahaina, Maui, in the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands. He worked at a store in Honolulu for three months, finding the Hawaiian natives, debilitated by missionary Christianity and other “civilization”, to compare very unfavorably with the “savages” of Typee and Papetoi.

In August, 1843, he enlisted as an ordinary seaman in the United States Navy and headed for home: the frigate United States, after cruising the Pacific, would end up in Boston, Massachusetts. The United States was much different than the whaling ships Melville had been on. Though only twice as large as the whalers, it had twenty times as many men and maintained a severe military discipline. Formal, public floggings with the cat-o’-nine-tails were common; in his fourteen months aboard the United States he witnessed 163 of them. [Howard, p. 72]

Curiously, he found a number of crewmates with literary interests. The most notable was Jack Chase, captain of the maintop: ” . . . Jack Chase was a finer gentleman and better scholar than anyone [Melville] had actually known to claim these titles. He had a kinder heart than usually went with the soft palms of a conventional gentleman; and he was a master of languages who could recite long passages from Camoens’ sailors’ epic, The Lusiad, in the original Portuguese, and talk in English of Rob Roy and Don Juan, Macbeth and Ulysses, and Bulwer’s Pelham.” [Howard, p. 74] Such a companion no doubt reinforced the burgeoning interest in literature which Melville soon exhibited. And, as we shall see, Jack Chase would remain in the author’s memory for a very long time.

The fourteen months aboard the United States were later the basis for Melville’s novel, White-Jacket.

In October, 1844, the United States arrived in Boston Harbor and Melville was discharged from service. He returned to the family home in Lansingburg, N.Y., and that winter began recording his adventures in the Marquesas. The result was published in London in February, 1846, under the title Narrative of a Four Months’ Residence among the Natives of a Valley of the Marquesas Islands. The reviews were universally favorable:

“The author is no common man. The picture drawn of Polynesian life and scenery is incomparably the most vivid and forcible that has ever been laid before the public.” [The Critic, March 7, 1846, quoted in Leyda, p. 205]

“Since the joyous moment when we first read Robinson Crusoe — and believed it all, and wondered all the more because we believed — we have not met with so bewitching a work as this narrative . . .” [John Bull, March 7, 1846, quoted in Leyda, pp. 205-6]

On March 13 Evert Duyckinck, editor of Wiley & Putnam’s “Library of Choice Reading”, wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne:

 “Next week a Frenchy coloured picture of the Marquesan islanders will appear in the Library [of Choice Reading] from the pen of a Mr. Melville, who according to his story, was graceless enough to desert from a new England whale ship, preferring the society of cannibals to the interminable casks of corned beef and impracticable bread which so afflicted his imagination in the hold of that vessel. It is a lively and pleasant book, not over philosophical, perhaps — but I will send you a copy. “This American edition, entitled Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, was published in New York on March 17. It was dedicated to Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. (The Melvill family friend had been promoted.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne reviewed Typee:

“The book is lightly but vigorously written; and we are acquainted with no work that gives a freer and more effective picture of barbarian life . . . He has that freedom of view — it would be too harsh to call it laxity of principle — which renders him tolerant of codes of morals that may be little in accordance with our own; a spirit proper enough to a young and adventurous sailor, . . .” [Salem Advertiser, March 25, 1846, quoted in Leyda, pp. 207-8]His brother Gansevoort who had obtained a minor position with the U.S. diplomatic delegation in London was sick. He wrote Herman on April 3, 1846:

“. . . my thoughts are so much at home that much of my time is spent in disquieting apprehensions as to matters & things there . . . I sometimes fear I am gradually breaking up . . . A degree of insensibility has been long stealing over me, & now seems permanently established, which, to my understanding is more akin to death than life. Selfishly speaking I never valued life much — it were impossible to value it less than I do now. The only personal desire I now have is to be out of debt.” [quoted in Leyda, pp. 208-9]He died on May 12.


The reviews of Typee which followed Hawthorne’s in the U.S. were equally favorable, but two controversies ensued. The first had to do with the work’s authenticity: some questioned whether a young man who wrote so well could have ever actually been a common sailor; others felt the narrative was basically true but that certain parts had been fabricated. The second had to do with its morality: religious people criticized both the off-handed treatment of the vices of the Polynesians and author’s unfair attack upon the Christian missions.

A letter from Richard Tobias Greene appeared in the July 1, 1846, edition of the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser:

“In the New York Evangelist I chanced to see a notice of a new publication in two parts, called ‘Typee a residence in the Marquesas,’ by Herman Melville. In the book he speaks of his comrade in misfortune, ‘Toby,’ who left him so mysteriously, and whom he supposed had been killed by the Happar natives. The Evangelist speaks rather disparagingly of the book as being too romantic to be true, and as being too severe on the missionaries. But to my object: I am the true and veritable ‘Toby,’ yet living, and I am happy to testify to the entire accuracy of the work, so long as I was with Melville . . . I request Melville to send me his address, if this should chance to meet his eye . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 220]Toby’s appearance silenced the authenticity critics — perhaps prematurely; it seems that certain parts were almost certainly made up. One indisputable exaggeration: the narrator says that his stay in Typee valley was almost four months, whereas we know that Melville was there less than a single month.


In December, 1846, Melville signed an agreement with Harper & Brothers to publish a sequel to Typee entitled Omoo: a Narrative of Adventure in the South SeasOmoo was an elaboration of Melville’s two-week stay on the island of Eimeo (where he had gone after leaving the Marquesas). In January, with Omoo at the printer, Melville began work on a third novel (Mardi).

A June 11, 1847, letter from Helen Melville (Herman’s sister) to Augustus Van Schaick, in Rio de Janeiro:

” . . . Herman’s Omoo has been wonderfully successful. In one week after it was issued the whole edition of 3,000; or 3,500 was disposed of and another was put in progress. It has been more highly spoken of on both sides of the Atlantic than its predecessor even, as containing more instructive matter. He bears himself very meekly under his honors however, and to prove it to you, I may mention casually, that he is now at work in the garden, very busy hoeing his favorite tomatoes . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 247]In June 26, 1847, edition of his New-York Weekly Tribune, Horace Greeley reviewed Omoo:

“‘OMOO’, by HERMAN MELVILLE, is replete alike with all the merits and the faults of its forerunner, ‘Typee.’ All of us were mistaken who thought the fascination of ‘Typee’ owing mainly to its subject, or rather to the novel and primitive state of human existence it described. ‘Omoo’ dispels all such illusions and proves the author a born genius, with few superiors either as a narrator, a describer, or a humorist. . . . ‘Typee’ and ‘Omoo’ doubtless in the main true narratives, are worthy to rank with Robinson Crusoe and in vivacity with the best of Stephen’s Travels. — Yet they are unmistakably defective, if not positively diseased in moral tone, and will very fairly be condemned as dangerous reading for those of immature intellects and unsettled principles. Not that you can put your finger on a passage positively offensive; but the tone is bad . . . Reiterating my regret that he has chosen so to write that his statements will not have that weight with the friends of Missions which the interest of Truth requires, I bid adieu to ‘Omoo’.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 248]And “G.W.P.” in the July, 1847, American Review: “Here is a writer who spices his books with the most incredible accounts and dark hints of innumerable amours with the half-naked and half-civilized or savage damsels of Nukuheva and Tahiti. . . .” [quoted in Leyda, pp. 249-50]

The following gossip column was cut from a New York newspaper around July, 1847: “Herman Melville, Esq., author of ‘Typee’ and ‘Omoo,’ we are happy to learn is likely to find more happiness in civilization than he ever enjoyed in the romantic Valley of the Marquesas. We expect to find the full particulars in a few days under the proper head, in some Boston newspaper.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 253-4]

On August 4, 1847, the 27-year-old Melville married Elizabeth K. Shaw, daughter of Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, of Boston. They decided to live in New York City, joining forces with Herman’s younger brother Allan and his new wife in purchasing a large house on Fourth Avenue. (They borrowed $2000 from Elizabeth’s father at this time: $1000 of which went toward the house and $1000 of which was saved to serve as an emergency fund.)

On February 16, 1849, their first child, a son, Malcolm, was born.

On February 24 Melville wrote to his editor/friend Evert Duyckinck: “I have been passing my time very pleasantly here. But chiefly in lounging on a sofa (a la the poet Gray) & reading Shakespeare. It is an edition in glorious great type, every letter whereof is a soldier, & the top of every ‘t’ like a musket barrel. Dolt & ass that I am I have lived more than 29 years, & until a few days ago, never made close acquaintance with the divine William. Ah, he’s full of sermons-on-the-mount, and gentle, aye, almost as Jesus. . . . I am mad to think how minute a cause has prevented me hitherto from reading Shakespeare. But until now, any copy that was come-atable to me, happened to be in a vile small print unendurable to my eyes, which are tender as young sparrows. But chancing to fall in with this glorious edition, I now exult over it, page after page.” [quoted in Leyda, pp. 288-9]


Again on March 3 to Duyckinck: “. . . Emerson is more than a brilliant fellow. . . . I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more; & if he dont attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can’t fashion the plummet that will. I’m not talking of Mr. Emerson now — but of the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up again with blood-shot eyes since the world began. . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 292]


And once again on April 5: “. . . This going mad of a friend or acquaintance comes straight home to every man who feels his soul in him, — which but few men do. For in all of us lodges the same fuel to light the same fire. And he who has never felt, momentarily, what madness is has but a mouthful of brains. . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 296]


The London edition of Mardi was published in March, 1849, and the American followed in April. Its central theme is the narrator’s pursuit of the fair, ethereal Yillah (representing pure, ideal happiness). Much philosophy and political/religious allegory is introduced; fresh to the world of ideas, Melville wanted to include everything he’d been reading and thinking. In the process, however, he neglected such minor points as real characters and a coherent story.

The London reviews were universally negative; the U.S. reviews were mixed:

“We have seldom found our reading faculty so near exhaustion, or our good nature as critics so severely exercised, as in the attempt to get through this new work by the author of the fascinating ‘Typee’ and ‘Omoo.’

“‘Typee’ and ‘Omoo’ were written under the immediate inspiration of personal experience . . .

“The present work aims at a much higher mark and fails to reach it . . .” [George Ripley, New-York Daily Tribune, May 10, 1849, quoted in Parker, pp. 16-7]


On June 5 Melville wrote to his English publisher, Richard Bentley:

“The critics on your side of the water seem to have fired quite a few broadsides into ‘Mardi’; . . . the metaphysical ingredients (for want of a better term) of the book, must of course repel some of those who read simply for amusement. . . . You may think, in your own mind that a man is unwise, — indiscreet, to write a work of that kind, when he might have written one perhaps calculated merely to please the general reader, & not provoke attack, however masqued in an affectation of indifference or contempt. But some of us scribblers, My Dear Sir, always have a certain something unmanageable in us, that bids us do this or that, and be done it must — hit or miss. . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 306] 

In August, 1849, Redburn: His First Voyage was published and Melville also completed the writing of White-Jacket. It seems that both of these interesting, highly readable books (Redburn at 300 pages and White-Jacket at 400) were written between March, 1849, and August, 1849.

On October 6, 1849, Melville wrote to Lemuel Shaw (his father-in-law): “. . . no reputation that is gratifying to me, can possibly be achieved by either of these books [Redburn or White-Jacket]. They are two jobs, which I have done for money — being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood. . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 316]

Shortly afterwards, Melville left on a three-month voyage to Europe for the twin purposes of securing the best possible terms for the English publication of White-Jacket and gathering materials for future books. The October 13 entry in a journal which he kept of the trip: “Last evening was very pleasant. Walked the deck with the German, Mr Adler till a late hour, talking of ‘Fixed Fate, Free-will, fore-knowledge absolute’ &c.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 319]

Reviews of Redburn started to appear in November. They were universally favorable. Early in 1850 White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War was published. Its reviews, too, were unanimously positive.

In May, 1850, he replied to a letter from Richard Henry Dana (author of Two Years Before the Mast) with whom he had been corresponding:

” . . . About the ‘whaling voyage’ — I am half way in the work, & am very glad that your suggestion so jumps with mine. It will be a strange sort of a book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree; — & to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves. Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 374] 

In July, 1850, Melville went to stay at his cousin Robert Melvill’s farm near Pittsfield, Mass. That summer he read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse. In the story, “The Artist of the Beautiful,” he triple-scored the following passage: “It is requisite for the ideal artist to possess a force of character that seems hardly compatible with its delicacy; he must keep his faith in himself, while the incredulous world assails him with its utter disbelief; he must stand up against mankind and be his sole disciple, both as respects his genius, and the objects to which it is directed.”


Melville wrote an anonymous article “Hawthorne and His Mosses” which appeared in the August, 1850, issue of Literary World:

“A papered chamber in a fine old farm-house — a mile from any other dwelling, and dipped to the eaves in foliage — . . . A man of a deep & noble nature has seized me in this seclusion. His wild, witch voice rings thro’ me; . . . Now, it is that blackness in Hawthorne, of which I have spoken, that so fixes & fascinates me[,]. . . that furnishes the infinite obscure of his back-ground, — that back-ground, against which Shakspeare plays his grandest conceits, the things that have made for Shakspeare his loftiest but most circumscribed renown, as the profoundest of thinkers . . . Through the mouths of the dark characters of Hamlet, Timon, Lear, and Iago, he craftily says, or sometimes insinuates things, which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint of them. Tormented into desperation, Lear, the frantic king, tears off the mask, & speaks the sane madness of vital truth.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 388-9] 

In September, 1850, Melville, borrowing $3000 from his father-in-law, purchased a $6500 farm outside of Pittsfield. He struck up a personal acquaintance with Hawthorne who was living in nearby Lenox.

On December 13 he wrote to Evert Duyckinck: “I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is covered with snow. I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, & I had better go on the roof & rig the chimney. . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 401]

In May, 1851, he wrote Hawthorne: “But I was talking about the ‘Whale.’ As the fishermen say, ‘he’s in a flurry’ when I left him some three weeks ago. I’m going to take him by the jaw, however, before long, and finish him up in some fashion or other. What’s the use of elaborating what, in its very essence, is so short-lived as a modern book. Tho’ I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.” [quoted in Leyda, pp. 410-1]

And again shortly after:

” . . . I am pulled hither & thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, — that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar. My dear Sir, a presentiment is upon me, — I shall at last be worn out & perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, — it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches. . . . I have come to regard this matter of Fame as the most transparent of all vanities. I read Solomon more & more, and every time see deeper & deeper and unspeakable meanings in him. I did not think of Fame, a year ago, as I do now. My development has been all within a few years past. I am like one of those seeds taken out of the Egyptian Pyramids, which, after being three thousand years a seed & nothing but a seed, being planted in English soil, it developed itself, grew to greenness, and then fell to mould. Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then & now, that I have not unfolded within myself. But I feel that I am now come to the inmost leaf of the bulb, and that shortly the flower must fall to the mould . . .” [quoted in Leyda, pp. 412-3] 

Around the same time, also to Hawthorne: “In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work & slave on my ‘Whale’ while it is driving thro’ the press. That is the only way I can finish it now, — I am so pulled hither & thither by circumstances.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 414]

June 29, 1851, to Hawthorne: “Shall I send you a fin of the ‘Whale’ by way of a specimen mouthful? The tail is not yet cooked — tho’ the hell-fire in which the whole book is broiled might not unreasonably have cooked it all ere this. This is the book’s motto (the secret one), Ego non baptiso te in nomine — but make out the rest yourself.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 415]

An account sheet drawn up by Herman’s brother Allan around this time shows sales of Herman’s books and his income from his books to date.

Title      Copies sold in US   $ for English rights $ 1/2 profits in US       Total $

Typee                7437             708.40                        939.74                  1646.14

Omoo               5649              644.00                       1237.50                 1881.50

Mardi               2291               970.65                        402.25                  1372.90

Redburn          3695              484.00                       401.36                      885.36

White-Jacket  3714               968.00                       612.36                    1580.36

Moby-Dick    [none yet]         702.08                    [none yet]                    702.08



Thus, up to this point, Herman had been making about $1200 per year from his writing. He and his family had been able to live in reasonable comfort but they certainly hadn’t been able to save anything.

On October 22, 1851, Elizabeth gave birth to their second son, Stanwix.

That same October The Whale was published in London. (Melville decided to change the title to Moby-Dick: or, The Whale after the final draft had been sent to England. He tried to send word of the change, but it was too late.)


Moby-Dick has the sort of interesting, well-written descriptions that we find throughout Melville’s work:

“It was a sight full of quick wonder and awe! The vast swells of the omnipotent sea; the surging, hollow roar they made, as they rolled along the eight gunwales, like gigantic bowls in a boundless bowling-green; the brief suspended agony of the boat, as it would tip for an instant on the knife-edge of the sharper waves, that almost seemed threatening to cut it in two; the sudden profound dip into the watery glens and the hollows; the keen spurrings and goadings to gain the top of the opposite hill; the headlong, sled-like slide down its other side;– all these, with the cries of the headsmen and harpooneers, and the shuddering gasps of the oarsmen, with wondrous sigh of the ivory Pequod bearing down upon her boats with outstretched sails, like a wild hen after her screaming brood;–all this was thrilling. Not the raw recruit, marching from the bosom of his wife into the fever heat of his first battle; not the dead man’s ghost encountering the first unknown phantom in the other world;–neither of these can feel stranger and stronger emotions than that man does, who for the first time finds himself pulling into the charmed, churned circle of the hunted sperm whale.”  (Moby-Dick, Chapter 48)

“Perhaps a very little thought will now enable you to account for those repeated whaling disasters–some few of which are casually chronicled–of this man or that man being taken out of the boat by the line, and lost. For, when the line is darting out, to be seated then in the boat, is like being seated in the midst of the manifold whizzings of a steam-engine in full play, when every flying beam, and shaft, and wheel, is grazing you. It is worse; for you cannot sit motionless in the heart of these perils, because the boat is rocking like a cradle, and you are pitched one way and the other, without the slightest warning; and only by a certain self-adjusting buoyancy and simultaneousness of volition and action, can you escape being made a Mazappa of, and run away with where the all-seeing sun himself could never pierce you out.” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 60)


“The crotch alluded to on the previous page deserves independent mention. It is a notched stick of a peculiar form, some two feet in length, which is perpendicularly inserted into the starboard gunwale near the bow, for the purpose of furnishing a rest for the wooden extremity of the harpoon, whose other naked, barbed end slopingly projects from the prow. Thereby the weapon is instantly at hand to its hurler, who snatches it up as readily from its rest as a backwoodsman swings his rifle from the wall. It is customary to have two harpoons reposing in the crotch, respectively called the first and the second irons.

“But these two harpoons, each by its own cord, are both connected with the line; the object being this: to dart them both, if possible, one instantly after the other into the same whale; so that if, in the coming drag, one should draw out, the other may still retain a hold. It is a doubling of the chances. But it very often happens that owing to the instantaneous, violent, convulsive running of the whale upon receiving the first iron, it becomes impossible for the harpooneer, however lightening-like in his movements, to pitch the second iron into him. Nevertheless, as the second iron is already connected to the line, and the line is running, hence that weapon must, at all events, be anticipatingly tossed out of the boat, somehow and somewhere; else the most terrible jeopardy would involve all hands.” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 63)


“Stripped to our shirts and drawers, we sprang to the white-ash, and after several hours’ pulling were almost disposed to renounce the chase, when a general pausing commotion among the whales gave animating token that they were now at last under the influence of that strange perplexity of inert irresolution, which when the fishermen perceive it in the whale, they say he is gallied. The compact martial columns in which they had been hitherto rapidly and steadily been swimming, were now broken up in one measureless rout; and like King Porus’ elephants in the Indian battle with Alexander, they seemed going mad with consternation. In all directions expanding in vast irregular circles, and aimlessly swimming hither and thither, by their short thick spoutings, they plainly betrayed their distraction of panic. This was still more strangely evinced by those of their number, who, completely paralysed as it were, helplessly floated like water-logged dismantled ships on the sea. Had these leviathans been but a flock of simple sheep, pursued over the pasture by three fierce wolves, they could not possibly have evinced such excessive dismay. But this occasional timidity is characteristic of almost all herding creatures. Though banding together in tens of thousands, the lion-maned buffaloes of the West have fled before a solitary horseman. Witness, too, all human beings, how when herded together in the sheep-fold of a theatre’s pit, they will, at the slightest alarm of fire, rush helter-skelter for the outlets, crowding, trampling, jamming, and remorselessly dashing each other to death. Best, therefore, withhold any amazement at the strangely gallied whales before us, for there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 87)


In addition to these felicitous descriptive passages, Moby-Dick has some pretty good dialog:

“Is this the Captain of the Pequod?” said I, advancing to the door of the tent.
“Supposing it be the Captain of the Pequod. what dost thou want of him?” he demanded.

“I was thinking of shipping.”

“Thou wast, wast thou? I see thou art no Nantucketer–ever been in a stove boat?”

“No, Sir, I never have.”

“Dost know nothing at all about whaling, I dare say–eh?”

“Nothing , Sir; but I have no doubt I shall soon learn. I’ve been several voyages in the merchant service, and I think that—-”

“Marchant service be damned. Talk not that lingo to me. Dost see that leg?–I’ll take that leg away from thy stern, if ever thou talkest of the marchant service to me again. Marchant service indeed! I suppose now ye feel considerable proud of having served in those marchant ships. But flukes! man, what makes thee want to go a whaling, eh?–it looks a little suspicious, don’t it, eh?–Hast not been a pirate, hast thou?–Didst not rob thy last Captain, didst thou?–Dost not think of murdering the officers when thou gettest to sea?”. . .

“Very good. Now, art thou the man to pitch a harpoon down a live whale’s throat, and then jump after it? Answer, quick!”

“I am, sir, if it should be positively indispensable to do so; not to be got rid of, that is; which I don’t take to be the fact.”

“Good again. . . .” (Moby Dick, Chapter 16)


But Melville’s real achievement in Moby-Dick is not in descriptions or dialog. Steeped in Shakespeare, emboldened by the example of his friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, with a theme finally big enough to support them, Melville unleashes the dark poetic thoughts, the deep questionings, which had been building up.

“If, then, to the meanest of mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disasterous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! . . .” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 26) 

Though Ahab soars high, he’s well-grounded in specifics: the “augur hole, bored a half inch or so, into the [deck]” for his leg bone; the pillow which Dough-Boy, the steward, finds in the morning “frightful hot, as though a baked brick had been on it.”…

[Ahab:] “Hark ye yet again,–the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event–in the living act, the undoubted deed–there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. . . .” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 36)
[Ahab:] “. . . Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow–Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 36)


“. . . The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning, to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in the statue devil;–Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously tranferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and, then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 41)


Standing between the knight-heads, Starbuck watched the Pequod’s tumultuous way, and Ahab’s also, as he went lurching along the deck….

“I have sat before the dense coal fire and watched it all aglow, full of its tormented flaming life; and I have seen it wane at last, down, down, to dumbest dust. Old man of oceans! of all this fiery life of thine, what will at length remain but one little heap of ashes!” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 118)


[Ahab:] “All your oaths to hunt the White Whale are as binding as mine; and heart, soul, body, lungs, and life, old Ahab is bound. And that ye may know to what tune this heart beats; look ye here; thus I blow out the last fear!” And with one blast of his breath he extinguished the flame.

As in the hurricane that sweeps the plain, men fly the neighborhhod of some lone, gigantic elm, whose very height and strength but render it so much the more unsafe, because so much the more a mark for thunderbolts; so at those last words of Ahab’s many of the mariners did run from him in a terror of dismay. (Moby-Dick, Chapter 119)


“Great God! but for one single instant show thyself,” cried Starbuck; “never, never wilt thou capture him, old man–In Jesus’ name no more of this, that’s worse than devil’s madness. Two days chased; twice stove to splinters; thy very leg once more snatched from under thee; thy evil shadow gone–all good angels mobbing thee with warnings:–what more wouldst thou have?–Shall we keep chasing this murderous fish till he swamps the last man? Shall we be dragged by him to the bottom of the sea? Shall we be towed by him to the infernal world? Oh, oh,–Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 134)


[Ahab, after Moby Dick has rammed the Pequod:] “. . . Oh ye three unsurrendered spires of mine; thou uncracked keel; and only god-bullied hull; thou firm deck, and haughty helm, and Pole-pointed prow,–death-glorious ship! must ye then perish, and without me? Am I cut off from the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains? Oh, lonely death on lonely life. Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole forgone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”

The harpoon was darted; the stricken whale flew forward; with igniting velocity the line ran through the groove;–ran foul. Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone. Next instant, the heavy eye-splice in the rope’s final end flew out of the stark-empty tub, knocked down an oarsman, and smiting the sea, disappeared in its depths. (Moby Dick, Chapter 135)


After the original life-buoy had been lost some extra caulking had been applied to Queequeg’s (unused) coffin and it had been made to serve as a replacement. Now, with the boats and the ship all on their way to the bottom, this coffin/life-buoy bobs to the surface and Ishmael is rescued.

Moby-Dick is a very long book, not uniformly excellent or interesting. But it dares greatly and soars high, and is among the very greatest of our literature.

The English reviews of The Whale were mixed. (Of those I could find: two were positive; four, negative; and two, neutral.) Three reviews appeared in London periodicals on October 25, 1851:

“This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned the writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed . . .
“We have little more to say in reprobation or in recommendation of this absurd book . . . Mr. Melville has to thank himself only if his horrors and his heroics are flung aside by the general reader, as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature, — since he seems not so much unable to learn as disdainful of learning the craft of an artist.” [from The Athenaeum, quoted in Leyda, p. 430-1]


“This sea novel is a singular medley of naval observation, magazine article writing, satiric reflection upon conventionalisms of civilized life, and rhapsody run mad.” [from The Spectator, quoted in Leyda, p. 431]


“Of all the extraordinary books from the pen of Herman Melville this is out and out the most extraordinary. Who would have looked for philosophy in whales, or for poetry in blubber? Yet few books which professedly deal in metaphysics, or claim parentage of the muses, contain as much true philosophy and as much genuine poetry as the tale of the Pequod’s whaling expedition . . .” [from John Bull, quoted in Leyda, p. 431]


In November, 1851, Hawthorne read Moby-Dick and wrote Melville about it. Melville responded to Hawthorne’s letter:

” . . . your joy-giving and exultation-breeding letter is not my reward for my ditcher’s work with that book, but it is the good goddess’s bonus over and above what was stipulated for — for not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows, or any one of them. Appreciation! Recognition! Is love appreciated? Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of this great allegory — the world? Then we pygmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended . . . A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb. . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 435]


In November, 1851, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale was published in New York. It was dedicated as follows: “In token / of my admiration for his genius, / This Book is Inscribed / to / NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE.”

Reviews in the U.S. were mixed but more favorable than in London. (Of those I could find: nine were positive; five, negative; and one, neutral.)

The New-York Daily Tribune, November 22, 1851, (assumed to be Greeley writing) was positive and insightful:

” . . . We part with the adventurous philosophical Ishmael, truly thankful that the whale did not get his head, for which we are indebted for this wildly imaginative and truly thrilling story. We think it is the best production which has yet come from that seething brain, and in spite of its lawless flights, which put all regular criticism at defiance, it gives us a higher opinion of the author’s originality and power than even the favorite and fragrant first-fruits of his genius, the never-to-be-forgotten Typee.” [quoted in Parker, p. 37]Melville’s November 25, 1851, statement from Harper’s shows that in the two weeks since its publication 1,535 copies of Moby-Dick had been sold (to booksellers).

Hawthorne wrote (privately) to Evert Duyckinck, on December 1: “What a book Melville has written! It gives me an idea of much greater power than his preceding ones. It hardly seemed to me that the review of it, in the Literary World, did justice to its best points.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 438]

Moby-Dick was reviewed by George Ripley in the December Harper’s New Monthly Magazine:   ” . . . Beneath the whole story, the subtle, imaginative reader may perhaps find a pregnant allegory, intended to illustrate the mystery of human life. Certain it is that the rapid, pointed hints which are often thrown out, with the keenness and velocity of a harpoon, penetrate deep into the heart of things, showing that the genius of the author for moral analysis is scarcely surpassed by his wizard power of description. . . .” [quoted in Parker, p. 43]

To-Day, A Boston Literary Journal, January 10, 1852: ” . . . The book before us is a new disappointment. It is a curious mixture of fact and fancy . . . Over this mixture is thrown a veil of a sort of dreamy philosophy and indistinct speculation, just sufficient to obscure the value of the facts stated, and which in our opinions does not improve the quality of the tale.” [quoted in Leyda, pp. 444-5]

Southern Quarterly Review, January, 1852: ” . . . In all the scenes where the whale is the performer or the sufferer, the delineation and action are highly vivid and exciting. In all other respects, the book is sad stuff, dull and dreary, or ridiculous. . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 446]


In the first two weeks Moby-Dick had sold 1500 copies; in the next ten weeks it sold only 470. Harper & Bros. had prepared what they considered a conservative first printing of 2915 copies. Now there was serious question as to whether even these would be sold. Moby-Dick was not going to be a popular success. (Melville, of course, had predicted this. But he had to have been disappointed nonetheless.)

After Moby-Dick had gone to press, Melville had started immediately on a fifth book, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities. It’s about a young author and his family. There are flashes of brilliance, but there is far more cliché and melodrama. The confused characters never really come to life and fail to express the grand passions, the tragedy, Melville obviously intended.

It was published in July, 1852. Mardi had gotten mostly negative reviews; all the reviews of Pierre were negative. The review in the Boston Post was typical: “The author of one good book more than offsets the amusement derived from it by the reading public, when he produces a score of trashy and crazy volumes; and in the present case, and after the delivery of such stuff as ‘Mardi’ and the ‘White Whale,’ we are not disposed to stand upon much ceremony. . . . ‘Pierre; or the Ambiguities’ is, perhaps, the craziest fiction extant.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 455]

Even the Duyckincks’ Literary World was highly negative:

” . . .The most immoral moral of the story, if it has any moral at all, seems to be the impracticability of virtue; . . . But ordinary novel readers will never unkennel this loathsome suggestion. The stagnant pool at the bottom of which it lies, is not too deep for their penetration, but too muddy, foul, and corrupt . . . Mr. Melville can think clearly, and write with distinctness and force . . . Why does he give us incoherencies of thought, in infelicities of language?” (August 21, 1852) [quoted in Leyda, p. 458]In the first eight months after it was published, Pierre sold only 283 copies. (150 copies had been sent gratis to reviewers!)

It’s my guess that Pierre — an obviously flawed and problematic book — following so quickly on the heels of Moby-Dick had a negative effect upon critical opinion of its predecessor. Those who thought they had recognized genius in Moby-Dick may have begun to have second thoughts. The bottom line is that we do not hear the Hawthornes and Greeleys and Ripleys of the literary world saying much more good about Melville or Moby-Dick.


Melville’s family felt that his attempt to make a living as a writer was damaging him both mentally and physically. In 1853 when Hawthorne obtained a position as U.S. Consul in Liverpool, they attempted to get Herman a similar position, but failed.

On May 22, 1853, Elizabeth gave birth to their third child, also Elizabeth.

Fitz-James O’Brien’s six-page review of Melville’s work published in the February, 1853, issue of Putnam’s Monthly contained only two references to Moby-Dick: “Typee, the first and most successful of Mr. Melville’s books, commands attention for the clearness of its narrative, the novelty of its scenery, and the simplicity of its style, in which latter feature it is a wondrous contrast to Mardi, Moby Dick, and Pierre. . . .” [quoted in Parker, p. 65]  And later: “Typee, his first book, was healthy; Omoo nearly so; after that came Mardi, with its excusable wildness; then came Moby Dick, and Pierre with its inexcusable insanity. . . .” [quoted in Parker, p. 67]

After Pierre Melville decided to try his hand at shorter works. The first, printed in the November, 1853, Putnam’s Monthly, was a gem, “Bartleby, the Scrivener; A Story of Wall-Street”. This was followed by “Cock-a-doodle-do”, “The Encantadas”, and a number of others. In July, 1854, through March, 1855, Melville’s short novel Israel Potter was published in installments in Putnam’s. Though Melville earned less money writing these stories than he had writing novels, it was less demanding and he was able to devote time to farming, providing an important supplement to his writing income.

On March 2, 1855, a fourth and final child, their second daughter, Frances (“Fanny”), was born to Herman and Elizabeth.

Later that same March, the previously serialized Israel Potter was published as a book. It was well-reviewed. Priced at $.75, it sold 2500 copies in the first six weeks — but didn’t make Melville much money. In the summer of 1855 Melville developed severe back problems/sciatica which would plague him for the next several years, greatly restricting his physical activity and reducing the farm income upon which he and his family had come to rely.

The Piazza Tales, a collection of Melville’s short stories, was published in May, 1856. It got good reviews but sold only 1047 copies in the first three months. That summer Herman began work on The Confidence-Man.

On September 1, 1856, Lemuel Shaw (Herman’s father-in-law) wrote his son, Samuel:

“I suppose you have been informed by some of the family, how very ill, Herman has been. It is manifest to me from Elizabeth’s letters, that she has felt great anxiety about him. When he is deeply engaged in one of his literary works, he confines him[self] to hard study many hours in the day, with little or no exercise, & this specially in winter for a great many days together. He probably thus overworks himself & brings on severe nervous affections. He has been advised strongly to break off this labor for some time, & take a voyage or a journey, & endeavor to recruit. . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 521]On October, 1856, Melville left on an extended tour of the Near East, Greece, and Italy. Lemuel Shaw lent/gave Herman $1500 to pay the expenses of the trip. Just before he left, his brother Allan signed an agreement on his behalf with Dix & Edwards to publish The Confidence-Man.

The first step in Melville’s voyage took him to Liverpool, where he would get a boat to Constantinople. While there he visited the Hawthornes. A November, 1856, entry in Hawthorne’s journal:

“A week ago last Monday, Herman Melville came to see me at the Consulate, looking much as he used to do (a little paler, and perhaps a little sadder), in a rough outside coat, and with his characteristic gravity and reserve of manner. . . . [He] has not been well, of late; he has been affected with neuralgic complaints in his head and limbs, and no doubt has suffered from too constant literary occupation, pursued without much success, latterly; and his writings, for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind. . . . I do not wonder that he found it necessary to take an airing through the world, after so many years of toilsome pen-labor and domestic life, following upon so wild and adventurous a youth as his was.
” . . . on the intervening day, we took a pretty long walk together, and sat down in a hollow among the sand hills (sheltering ourselves from the high, cool wind) and smoked a cigar. Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated;’ but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists — and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before — in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. 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 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 Leyda, pp. 527-9]
And again on November 18:

“He sailed from Liverpool in a steamer on Tuesday, leaving his trunk behind in my consulate, and taking only a carpet-bag to hold all his travelling-gear. This is the next best thing to going naked; and as he wears his beard and moustache, and so needs no dressing-case — nothing but a tooth-brush — I do not know a more independent personage. He learned his travelling habits by drifting about all over the South Sea, with no other clothes or equipage than a red flannel shirt and a pair of duck trowsers. Yet we seldom see men of less criticizable manners than he.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 531]{Between February, 1852, and December, 1856, Moby-Dick had sold only 500 additional copies, making the total sales 2500 copies in the first five years. (By comparison, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter had sold more than 10,000 copies over the same period of time.) [from McSweeney, p. 18]}

In December, 1856, he was in Constantinople and Egypt; in January, 1857, Palestine and Jordan; early February, Greece; mid-February through Mid-April, Italy; late April, Switzerland, Germany, and The Netherlands.

In March, 1857, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade was published in both New York and London. Though it is doubtful that Melville would have ranked it as high in purpose as Moby-Dick and Pierre, it was certainly not just a “pot-boiler”. The stories take place on a steamer, filled with passengers, traveling up and down the Mississippi River — no doubt similar to the steamer Melville himself had traveled on in 1840. The confidence man, appearing in a variety of disguises, swindles people by gaining their trust and then capitalizing on their greediness, virtuousness, etc. No one is exempted: the believer, the skeptic, the lover, the misanthrope — all humans are fools. It’s not surprising that Melville should have written this book when he did: sick, “damned by dollars” more than ever, with evidence mounting that he was not going to be considered a great author — he had reason to feel out of sorts.

On April 21, 1857, Lemuel Shaw, Jr., (Herman’s brother-in-law) wrote to his brother Samuel:

“Elizabeth has gone to Pittsfield to set her house in readiness to receive her husband whom she expects sometime in May. A new book by Herman called ‘The Confidence Man’ has recently been published. I have not read it; but have looked at it & dipped into it, & fear it belongs [to] that horribly uninteresting class of nonsensical books he is given to writing — where there are pages of crude theory & speculation to every line of narrative — & interspersed with strained & ineffectual attempts to be humorous. I wish he could or would do better, when he went away he was dispirited & ill — & this book was left completed in the publisher’s hands.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 574]On May 20, 1857, Melville arrived back in New York.

On June 2 Lemuel Shaw, Jr., wrote his brother Samuel again: “Herman says he is not going to write any more at present & wishes to get a place in the N.Y. Custom House. Lizzie & her children returned to Pittsfield with Herman . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 580]

The Confidence-Man was well-received in England, but was generally ignored in the United States. Mrs. Stephens’ New Monthly, June, 1857: “It is the most singular of the many singular books of this author. Mr. Melville seems to be bent upon obliterating his early successes . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 580].

The Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, July 1, 1857: “The ‘Confidence-Man’ shows him in a new character — that of a satirist, and a very keen, somewhat bitter observer . . . Few Americans write so powerfully as Mr. Melville, or in better English, . . .” [quoted in Parker, pp. 98-9]

Upon his return from Europe Melville did not go to work in the Custom House. He decided to try his hand at lecturing, choosing as his topic “Statuary in Rome”. The lecture was noticed in the December 3, 1857, issue of the Boston Evening Transcript: “The lecture was quite interesting to those of artistic tastes, but we fancy the larger part of the audience would have preferred something more modern and personal.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 586]

The announcement of Melville’s speaking engagement in the Springfield Journal and Courier is interesting:

” . . .We know little of Mr. M. personally — farther than that he is a native of Pittsfield, Mass., where he now resides — a farmer of staid and sober demeanor, and a gentleman of scholarly tastes, and connected by birth and marriage with some the of first families of the country. Without the best advantages of culture in his early youth, he has advanced over difficulties of considerable magnitude, to a position of peculiar elevation as an American literary man.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 588]The lecture was reviewed in the January 12, 1858, issue of the Cleveland Daily Herald: ” . . . a subdued tone and general want of animation prevents his being a popular lecturer. . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 589]

In her memoir of her husband Elizabeth Melville would later write: “A severe attack of what he called crick in the back laid him up at his Mothers in Gansevoort in March 1858 — and he never regained his former vigor & strength.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 593]

For the 1858-9 season Melville prepared another lecture, “The South Seas”, which he delivered at least ten times between December, 1858, and March, 1859. For 1859-60, the topic was to be “Traveling: Its Pleasures, Pains, and Profits”, but there were few takers and Melville decided to give up lecturing.

Despairing of making his living from literature — even from the “pseudo-literary” occupation of lecturing — he now turned to the literary form which he and his contemporaries considered the most noble: poetry. It was a sad misjudgement of his own strengths; one which almost certainly would never have been made — and certainly not persisted in — if his prose works had received the appreciation they deserved.

In May, 1860, Herman decided to accompany his younger brother, Captain Thomas Melville, on a voyage of his clipper ship Meteor around Cape Horn to San Francisco. Before the trip Herman and his father-in-law straightened out some legal affairs: Herman gave Lemuel Shaw the deed to the Pittsfield estate (to pay off his $5500 debt) and Lemuel Shaw, in turn, passed the deed on to his daughter Elizabeth (Herman’s wife) and subtracted this amount from her potential inheritance.

That Melville did not yet feel completely licked as an author can be seen in the fact that before leaving on the trip he gave Evert Duyckink detailed instructions concerning the publication of poems he had written. (Number 5 was “For God’s sake don’t have ‘By the author of “Typee” “Piddledee” &c on the title-page'”). Duyckinck forwarded the manuscript to various publishers. None was interested.

In the spring of 1861 (with a new administration in office) Melville’s friends tried once again to get him a consulship — Herman himself traveled to Washington — but the efforts were, once again, in vain.

On March 29, 1861, Elizabeth’s father, Lemuel Shaw, died. In his will he left her (in addition to the Pittsfield estate which had already been conveyed) property with an annual income of $500. This was probably as much or more than Herman was making at this time.

In October, 1863, because of Herman’s health problems, they decided to sell the farm and move back to New York City. On May 19, 1864, Nathaniel Hawthorne died. Though he had been back in the United States for several years, Hawthorne and Melville had not had much contact. His death apparently triggered some feelings in Melville. Herman wrote the first stanza of his poem “Monody” that same year:

To have known him, to have loved him,

After loneness long;

And then to be estranged in life,

And neither in the wrong;

And now for death to set his seal —

Ease me, a little ease, my song!


Also in 1864 Elizabeth received from Dr. George Hayward (a family friend?) a legacy of $3000 which helped temporarily alleviate their financial difficulties.

Melville also began to write poems about the [Civil] War. In 1864 he visited the Union front in Virginia with his brother Allan. Individual poems were printed in magazines in 1864-5 and his collection, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of War, was published in 1866. The reviews were generally negative; The Nation, September 6, 1866: “It is impossible, in view of what Mr. Melville has done [in his earlier works] and of his intention in his present book, not to read his ‘Battle Pieces’ with a certain melancholy. Nature did not make him a poet. His pages contain at best little more than the rough ore of poetry . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 683] It sold fewer than 500 copies and Melville, who had made himself responsible for the expenses of publication, lost about $400 on it.

On December 5, 1866, at the age of 47, Melville took the oath of office as Inspector of Customs at New York. His first post was at District Office No. 4, North River, at 207 West Street. His salary was (and would remain for the 19 years he worked there) roughly $1000 per year. His mother felt the job was good for him: “Herman’s health is much better since he has been compelled to go out daily and attend to his business. . . .” [letter to Catherine Gansevoort (Herman’s cousin), March 11, 1867, quoted in Leyda, p. 686]  For Melville, the man, this may very well have been true; for Melville, the author, work at this job was a capitulation, an acceptance of more limited time and energy for literary pursuits.

In May, 1867, Herman acquired Camoens’ Poems from the Portuguese. In Sonnet VI he marked this passage:

My senses lost, misjudging men declare,

And Reason banish’d from her mental throne,

Because I shun the crowd, and dwell alone . . .


On September 11, 1867, the Melvilles’ oldest son Malcolm died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It may have been an accident, but was probably suicide.


The first issue (January, 1868) of the revived Putnam’s Monthly contained the following note:

“There are others [contributors], who have strangely disappeared from the world of letters, . . . where, let us ask, is Herman Melville? Has that copious and imaginative author, who contributed so many brilliant articles to the MONTHLY, let fall his pen just where its use might have been so remunerative to himself, and so satisfactory to the public?” [quoted in Leyda, p. 694]On August 4, 1869, the Melvilles’ second son, Stanwix, shipped as a sailor on the Yokohama, bound for Canton, China.

In May, 1870, Melville wrote a note to his mother:

“The other day I visited out of curiosity the Gansevoort Hotel, corner of ‘Little twelfth Street’ and West Street. I bought a paper of tobacco by way of introducing myself: Then I said to the person who served me: ‘Can you tell me what this word “Gansevoort” means? is it the name of a man? and if so, who was this Gansevoort?’ Thereupon a solemn gentleman at a remote table spoke up: ‘Sir,’ said he, putting down his newspaper, ‘this hotel and the street of the same name are called after a very rich family who in old times owned a great deal of property hereabouts.’ The dense ignorance of this solemn gentleman, — his knowing nothing about the hero of Fort Stanwix [Melville’s maternal grandfather], aroused such an indignation in my breast, that disdaining to enlighten his benighted soul, I left the place without further colloquy. Repairing to the philosophic privacy of the District Office I then moralized upon the instability of human glory and the evanescence of — many other things.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 711]A Manual of American Literature, published in the fall of 1872, contained a paragraph on Melville:

” . . . His two best works are, perhaps, Typee and Redburn . . . [Typee] and its successors attracted great attention at the time of their appearance, and although interest in them has since abated, they are still excellent in point of style. Melville is a writer of forcible and graceful English, although in some of his works he lapses into mysticism.” [quoted in Parker, p. 103]On January 9, 1873, Melville’s brother-in-law, John Hoadley wrote to George Boutwell:

“There is one person in the employment of the Revenue Service, in whom I take so deep an interest, that I venture a second time to write you about him; — not to solicit promotion, a favor, or indulgence of any sort, — but to ask you, if you can, to do or say anything in the proper quarter to secure him permanently, or at present, the undisturbed enjoyment of his modest, hard-earned salary, as deputy inspector of the Customs in the City of New York — Herman Melville. — Proud, shy, sensitively honorable, — he had much to overcome, and has much to endure; but he strives earnestly to so perform his duties as to make the slightest censure, reprimand, or even reminder, — impossible from any superior — Surrounded by low venality, he puts it all quietly aside, — quietly returning money which has been thrust into his pockets behind his back, avoiding offence alike to the corrupting merchants and their clerks and runners, who think that all men can be bought, and to the corrupt swarms who shamelessly seek their price; — quietly, steadfastly doing his duty, and happy in retaining his own self-respect —
“By the rules of any conceivable ‘civil service’, he must be secure against removal. . . . The pittance he receives ekes out his slender income and that of his wife, . . . I most earnestly wish that . . . in the event of any general change in the Custom House in New York, Mr. Melville might find a sheltering arm thrown over him. . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 730-1]
In the years at the Custom House Melville made one last attempt to create a really sizable, significant work of art: Clarel, a 600-page “Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land”. Though some of the pilgrims are religious people and though different philosopical and religious ideas are discussed, it is not a religious poem. The focus is on the pilgrims and their relationships as people. In August, 1875, Peter Gansevoort learned of the poem and sent his nephew a check for $1200 to cover the cost of its publication.

On February 2, 1876, Melville’s wife Elizabeth wrote his cousin Catherine (Gansevoort) Lansing:

” . . . The fact is that Herman, poor fellow, is in such a frightfully nervous state, & particularly now with such an added strain on his mind, . . . If ever this dreadful incubus of a book (I call it so because it has undermined all our happiness) gets off Herman’s shoulders I do hope he may be in better mental health — but at present I have reason to feel the gravest concern & anxiety about it . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 747]Clarel was published in June, 1876. The reviews were negative:

” . . . something of a puzzle, in design and execution. . . . The reader soon becomes hopelessly bewildered, . . .” [New-York Daily Tribune, June 16, 1876, quoted in Leyda, p. 750]” . . . Such merit as Mr. Melville’s poem has is in its descriptions and in the Oriental atmosphere which he has given in an honest and sincere style, but verse is certainly not the author’s forte.” [The New-York Times, July 10, 1876, quoted in Leyda, p. 751]Financially, things had been on a pretty even keel since Herman had started working at the Custom House. Though Elizabeth’s income had been reduced by the destruction (in the Great Boston Fire of 1872) of property inherited from her father, there was a reasonable expectation that she would soon be receiving much larger inheritances from a variety of other elderly relatives. (And she did, in fact, receive more than $50,000 between 1880 and 1890.) But for Melville, the author, the creator, this had been a period of continued decline; now, at age 56, he hit rock bottom. That day in November, 1851, when he had read Hawthorne’s “exultation-breeding” response to Moby-Dick must have seemed a lifetime ago. That faith in himself, that “requisite for the ideal artist”, had slowly, finally, been eliminated. He would produce no more works for general publication; just a few small ones, printed privately.

Melville’s earlier books continued to sell in minute quantities. Between August, 1876, and February, 1878, Harper’s reported 33 sales of Omoo, 35 of Redburn, 58 of White-Jacket, and 66 of Moby-Dick. Though the numbers are too small to have any real significance, they would seem to indicate that — though it would be years before any shift in critical opinion of the relative merit of Melville’s works — Moby-Dick was finding more readers than these previously more popular works. The bottom line, however, was that the absolute numbers were still very low. Between 1860 and 1880, 500 copies of Moby-Dick had been sold. (In comparison, 15,000 copies of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter had been sold.) [based on McSweeney, p. 18]

On February 24, 1882, the Melvilles’ daughter Frances gave birth to their first grandchild, a daughter.

In a December, 1884, chat column in the New-York Herald, eight years after the publication of Clarel, was heard the first faint pianissimo of a sound which, though it would take decades, would eventually grow to a deafening roar: “In Washington the other day I met A. A. Hayes, a well-known writer of short stories for the magazines. He showed me a letter from W. Clark Russell, the Englishman, whose sea stories are having such a run. ‘. . . I feel that the best sea stories ever written are those by Henry [sic] Melville and Richard H. Dana, jr. If you know that fine writer, Melville, why not write his life? Why not let the world know as much as can be gathered of his seafaring experiences and personal story of the greatest genius your country has produced . . .'” [quoted in Leyda, p. 784] (Note: It’s almost certainly the Herald columnist who got Melville’s name wrong, not Russell.)

Around the same time Melville started corresponding with James Billson, another Englishman, who expressed great appreciation of his work and who sent to Melville various English publications which the latter enjoyed.

The September, 1884, issue of the London Contemporary Review contained “Sea Stories”, a critical article by Russell in which he fired a second salvo on Melville’s behalf:

“Who are the poets of the deep? Their names may be counted upon the fingers of one hand: they are Herman Melville, and I rank him first; . . . Whoever has read the writings of Melville must I think feel disposed to consider ‘Moby Dick’ as his finest work . . . Melville takes this vessel, fills her full of strange men, and starts her on her insane quest, that he may have the ocean under and around him to muse upon, as though he were in a spacious burial-ground, with alternations of sunlight and moonlight and deep starless darkness to set his thoughts to. ‘Moby Dick’ is not a sea-story — one could not read it as such — it is a medley of noble impassioned thoughts born of the deep, pervaded by a grotesque human interest, . . . It is . . . madly fantastic in places, full of extraordinary thoughts, yet gloriously coherent . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 786]The “Sea Stories” article was reprinted in the June 21, 1885, issue of The Philadelphia Times and later that year was included in a Harper’s Handy Series collection of Russell’s work.

Robert Buchanan included the following as a postscript to a poem about Whitman and Melville which appeared in the August 25, 1885, issue of The Academy (a London periodical): ” . . . I sought everywhere for this Triton, who is still living somewhere in New York. No one seemed to know anything of the one great imaginative writer fit to stand shoulder to shoulder with Whitman on that continent.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 792] Billson forwarded a copy to Melville.

In the November 28, 1885, Literary World: “Dropping into a bookstore the other day, my attention was attracted by an old gentleman with white hair [Melville], . . . Had he possessed as much literary skill as wild imagination his works might have secured him a permanent place in American Literature.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 794]

On December 31, 1885, after 19 years of service, Melville resigned from his Customs Inspector post.

On February 23, 1886, their son Stanwix died of tuberculosis at the age of 35 in San Francisco. In his early twenties he had roamed the western United States and Central America; for the past decade he had been living in San Francisco, working at a variety of menial jobs.

In 1888 Melville privately published a small collection of sea poems, John Marr and Other Sailors. He included an “Inscription Epistolary to W. C[Clark] R[Russell]”: “Well . . . with what conscientious satisfaction did I but just now, in the heading of this inscription, salute you, W. C. R., by running up your colors at my fore. Would that the craft thus embravened were one of some tonnage, so that the flag might be carried on a loftier spar, commanding an ampler horizon of your recognising friends.”

In November, 1888, Melville began writing Billy Budd, Foretopman. In addition to the acknowledged role that he played in inspiring John Marr, I suggest that Russell (and Billson and Buchanan) played an equally important role in inspiring Billy Budd. Clearly, Melville had a story inside him, but it is doubtful that it would ever have been put onto paper without this stimulus.

Charles F. Richardson’s American Literature, also published in 1888, contained several paragraphs on Melville in its chapter on “The Lesser Novelists”:

” . . . the personal narrative or fiction of ‘Typee,’ ‘Omoo,’ and ‘Moby Dick’ . . . represented the restless facility which has always been an American trait, and which occasionally develops into some enduring literary success. . . . That [Mayo’s] ‘Kaloolah’ has barely outlived Melville’s sprightly but now forgotten improvisations in literature is due to the combination . . . of the improbably romantic and the obviously satirical. Melville made some essays in the same direction, but failed completely for lack of a firm thought and a steady hand.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 812]The January, 1889, issue of America included an article by (W. Clark) Russell:

“I know not if the works of the author of ‘Omoo,’ and ‘Typee,’ and ‘Redburn’ are much read and esteemed in the United States, but I am sure there is no name in American letters that deserves to stand higher for beauty of imagination, for accuracy of reproduction, for originality of conception, and for a quality of imagination that in ‘Moby Dick,’ for instance, lifts some of his utterances to such a height of bold and swelling fancy as one must search the pages of the Elizabethan dramatists to parallel.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 813]A reference to Melville appeared in a Boston paper in September, 1889: “‘Moby Dick’ which followed ‘Omoo’ and ‘Typee,’ did not come up to the high standard established by these delightful books . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 816]

Edward Bok wrote about Melville in his syndicated column “Literary Leaves”:

“There are more people to-day who believe Herman Melville dead than there are those who know he is living. And yet if one choose to walk along East Eighteenth Street, New York City, any morning about 9 o’clock, he would see the famous writer of sea stories — stories which have never been equalled perhaps in their special line. Mr. Melville is now an old man, but still vigorous. He is an employe of the Customs Revenue Service, and this still lingers around the atmosphere which permeated his books. Forty-four years ago, when his most famous tale, ‘Typee,’ appeared, there was not a better known author than he, and he commanded his own prices. Publishers sought him, and editors considered themselves fortunate to secure his name as a literary star. And to-day? Busy New York has no idea he is even alive, and one of the best informed literary men in this country laughed recently at my statement that Herman Melville was his neighbor by only two city blocks. ‘Nonsense,’ said he. ‘Why, Melville is dead these many years!’ Talk about literary fame? There’s a sample of it.” [quoted in Leyda, p. 827]In April, 1891, Melville finished Billy Budd. The story takes place on His Majesty’s Ship Indomitable ((in some editions, the Bellipotent) in 1797, the year of the Great Mutiny. Claggart, the ship’s master-at-arms, is outwardly sane, but inwardly very sick. He develops a horrid antipathy for young, handsome Billy Budd. In the presence of the ship’s commander, Captain Vere, Claggart accuses him of plotting mutiny. Billy, a stutterer, is afflicted with a “convulsed tongue-tie; . . . the intent head and entire form straining forward in an agony of ineffectual eagerness to obey the injunction to speak and defend himself . . .” Finally, in a paroxym of frustration, he strikes the master-at-arms in the head, killing him. The Captain believes Claggart’s accusations to have been false, but is forced nonetheless, by law and circumstance, to have Billy hung. The Captain’s anguished deliberation and Billy’s understanding acceptance prove them both to be no common men.

Improbably, reaching back in his memory almost half a century, Melville dedicated the story to “Jack Chase, Englishman: Wherever that great heart may now be here on Earth or harbored in Paradise; Captain of the main-top in the year 1843 in the U. S. Frigate ‘United States.'”

In addition to working on Billy Budd, Melville had been revising unpublished poems and writing a few new ones. In 1891 he collected them into two volumes. The first, Timoleon and Other Ventures in Minor Verse, was published privately (in an edition of only 25 copies) in May, 1891. The second, Weeds and Wildings Chiefly: with a Rose or Two, a collection of lyric poems, was dedicated to Elizabeth whom he had come to love and rely on more than ever in these later years. He did not get a chance to publish this second volume; he started having heart problems and died on September 28, 1891.

There were only two brief obituaries. That in The New York Press was headlined “Death of a Once Popular Author”:

“There died yesterday at his quiet home in this city a man who, although he had done almost no literary work during the past sixteen years, was once one of the most popular writers in the United States. Herman Melville probably reached the height of his fame about 1852, his first novel having been printed about 1847 . . . Of late years Mr. Melville — probably because he had ceased literary activity — has fallen into a literary decline, as the result of which his books are now little known. . . .” [quoted in Leyda, p. 836]The manuscript of Billy Budd lay in a box with Melville’s other papers until the early 1920s when it was finally discovered and published — to universal acclaim.



  • Howard, Leon. Herman Melville: A Biography. Berkeley: University
  • Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819-1891. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951.
  • McSweeney, Kerry. Moby-Dick, Ishmael’s Mighty Book. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. ISBN: 0-8057-7954-X.
  • Parker, Hershel, (Editor). The Recognition of Herman Melville: Selected Criticism since 1846. Ann Arbor (University of Michigan Press). 1967.


Melville on the Web


Copyright © Lucius Furius 1997; links updated, 2001; last updated, 2023.Link back to Genius Ignored –Table of Contents