Herman Melville – 1819-1891
Melville went to sea as a young man and used his experiences as the basis for his first two novels, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), South Seas adventure tales that were popular successes. His next work, Mardi (1849), was far more experimental and failed to find a public. He returned to simpler, more popular fare with Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850), then embarked upon his masterpiece, Moby-Dick (1851), an epic story woven around a sea captain’s obsessive quest for vengeance against the white whale—Moby-Dick—that had severed his leg. Filled with brilliant philosophical digression, the book is a mighty allegory of humanity’s relation to nature and, indeed, the universe itself.
The book was a popular and critical failure, as was most of the rest of Melville’s literary output. Although he continued to write sporadically, he supported himself and his family as a custom’s inspector. His literary reputation came posthumously, with the rediscovery of his work in the late 1920s. Since then, he has come to be widely regarded as the greatest of all American novelists.