American Literature Herman Melville
Dennis Berthold
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0075


Herman Melville (b. 1819–d. 1891) was born in New York City into a proud and prosperous family. In 1830, however, his father’s importing business failed, and the family moved upstate to Albany to be near his mother’s relatives. Melville attended school in Albany, but after his father’s death in 1832 he had to balance education with work to help support the family. In 1839 he took a four-month trading voyage to Liverpool, and two years later he signed onto the Acushnet, a whaler bound for the Pacific Ocean. He jumped ship in the Marquesas and began four years of beachcombing, working in Tahiti and Hawaii, and sailing aboard various ships in the South Pacific. He joined the US Navy in 1843 and returned home in 1844 on the United States, a warship. These experiences fueled six lengthy novels published between 1846 and 1851 and earned him considerable fame and modest commercial success. But Moby-Dick (1851) was greeted with scorn, and reviewers begged him to return to writing pleasing travel narratives of the South Seas like Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) or realistic accounts of shipboard life like Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850). Instead, he gave them Pierre (1852), a lurid tale of sexual obsession that destroyed his reputation as a novelist for good. He turned to magazine fiction from 1853 to 1856 and produced a serialized novel and several superb tales such as “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno” and collected five of them as The Piazza Tales (1856). Reviewers hardly noticed his last published novel, The Confidence-Man (1857), a dark satire set on a Mississippi riverboat. He took a life-changing journey alone to Italy and the eastern Mediterranean from 1856 to 1857 and never published fiction again. He tried lecturing for three years and tried to publish a book of poetry in 1860, but both attempts failed. He continued to write poetry and in 1866 published Battle-Pieces, verses inspired by the Civil War. The same year he landed a job as customs inspector on the New York docks working for $5 per week, and in 1876 he privately published Clarel, an epic poem based on his 1857 trip to the Holy Land. After his retirement in 1885, he published two additional volumes of poetry and at his death left behind manuscripts of many poems and his searching novella, Billy Budd. The “Melville Revival” of the 1920s began the long resuscitation of his reputation, and today the white whale of Moby-Dick is an internationally recognizable literary icon. Melville’s works have inspired creative artists in every medium from film and drama to novels and operas, and only William Shakespeare attracts more scholarly attention. Once regarded as a failure, Melville has become a writer for the world.

General Overviews

Because Melville wrote in so many different genres, few critical monographs deal with his entire corpus. Even Miller 1962 omits Battle-Pieces (1866), now considered along with Whitman’s Drum-Taps (1865) as one of the best poetic responses to the Civil War. Otherwise, Miller’s book is still a good, if dated, introduction for the novice. Bowen 1960 lucidly explains the fundamental tensions that drive both the fiction and the poetry and how Melville advances his themes through a series of conflicted heroes, a recurring topic in much later criticism. Berthoff 1962 focuses on Melville’s artistry and does a good job helping readers understand why Melville writes such complex prose, a style that itself is almost poetic. Superior in providing social and historical context are three notable brief overviews aimed at students: Gunn 2005, Hayes 2007, and Kelley 2008. Bryant 1986 and Kelley 2006 are encyclopedic collections of essays on individual works and recurrent themes that cover all aspects of Melville’s writing in depth and are recommended for their thoroughness, scholarly detail, and sound interpretations over a wide range of subjects and contexts.

  • Berthoff, Warner. The Example of Melville. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962.

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    Close readings of the fiction analyze Melville’s blend of realism and symbolism, especially in Moby-Dick and Billy Budd. Offers perceptive rhetorical analyses of setting, character, narration, and style, providing a concise introduction to Melville’s artistic achievement and literary technique.

  • Bowen, Merlin. The Long Encounter: Self and Experience in the Writings of Herman Melville. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

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    Organized thematically around personality types and their struggle to attain selfhood in Melville’s major fiction and Clarel. Protagonists versus antagonists and optimists versus pessimists create the basic conflict between the self and the universe, and individual characters employ defiance, submission, or an “armed neutrality” to achieve selfhood.

  • Bryant, John, ed. A Companion to Melville Studies. New York: Greenwood, 1986.

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    Twenty-five substantial essays on every Melville work and on major topics such as religious and political beliefs, aesthetics, and contemporary influence. Essays assess essential criticism and include a works-cited list. A fine starting point for study of a particular work or theme.

  • Gunn, Giles, ed. A Historical Guide to Herman Melville. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195142822.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Six original essays by leading scholars that place Melville in the history of his own time and examine his social, political, and cultural relevance to today’s readers. Covers biography, romanticism, class, the marketplace, cosmopolitanism, and religion, with a useful illustrated chronology.

  • Hayes, Kevin J. The Cambridge Introduction to Herman Melville. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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    A compact overview of Melville’s life, contexts (such as existential, psychological, visual, American), major writings, and rediscovery from the 1880s to the 1950s. Highly selective annotated bibliography.

  • Kelley, Wyn. Herman Melville: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470694084Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    An up-to-date, accessible, and balanced overview of Melville’s entire literary output, including his poetry and unpublished work. Finds Melville’s “Agatha” letter to Hawthorne as a key to his fictional technique.

  • Kelley, Wyn, ed. A Companion to Herman Melville. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

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    Thirty-five original, wide-ranging essays and short bibliographies that cover nearly all of Melville’s writings and address themes and topics such as race, class, travel, philosophy, gender, the sea, cosmopolitanism, and sexuality. A good starting point for general and advanced readers.

  • Miller, James E., Jr. A Reader’s Guide to Herman Melville. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1962.

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    Melville exposes the evil beneath the masks of innocence donned by his major characters as he repeatedly seeks order in an amoral universe. Explications of all the novels, “Bartleby,” “Benito Cereno,” and Clarel make this a fairly complete if somewhat schematic and ahistorical overview of Melville’s works.

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