In the prologue to his biography of Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford
states that Melville shares with Walt Whitman the distinction
of being the greatest imaginative writer America has produced.
He says that in depth of religious insight there is no one in
the nineteenth century to compare with him except Dostoyevsky.
Herman was born in New York City of Scottish-Dutch ancestors.
One of his grandfathers joined the Boston Tea Party of 1773. A
series of misfortunes, beginning with his fathers early
death, preceded his shipping out on the whaler Acushnet.
He jumped ship in Polynesia, whose island story Typee he
wrote in 1848. This early work remained in print throughout his
lifetime and was distributed worldwide thanks partly to its erotic
Despite financial difficulties, he continued to writewith
high encouragement by his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melvilles
masterpiece Moby-Dick, a tale of his whaling expedition,
initially received small praise and small sales. Years of rheumatic
pain during his writing short stories for magazines were relieved
by his appointment as an inspector of customs in New York City,
where he joined the All Souls Unitarian Church.
When he died, there was only one obituary notice which contained
only four lines. Not until the 1950s did Herman Melville find
recognition for what the Encyclopaedia Britannica names
a novel not equaled in scope by any previous piece of American
literature and never matched in its portentous portrayal of human
struggle with the forces of the universe.