Herman Melville (1819-1891) was an American novelist and poet, best known for his novel Moby Dick. Born in New York City, he had a privileged upbringing until around 1830, when the family went into debt. After his father’s death in 1832, Melville got a job as a bank clerk. Throughout his teens he continued his education while working. In 1839, he joined the crew of the merchant ship St. Lawrence, beginning a five-year career as a sailor.
Melville’s experiences on whaling ships would provide much of the inspiration for his novels. His first book, Typee, published in 1846, was based on the three weeks he spent living among a tribe of native “cannibals” after he and a fellow crewmember jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands.
While his writing career was flourishing with the success of Typee and its sequel Omoo, Melville was also starting a family. He and Elizabeth Shaw were married in 1847, and had four children. In 1850 they moved to Massachusetts, where Melville befriended fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne. In 1851, he completed his masterwork, Moby Dick.
Like Melville's other novels, Moby Dick (subtitled “The Whale”) contains many autobiographical elements, both in his depiction of life aboard a whaling vessel and in the character of Ishmael, the narrator, who bears a resemblance to the author. However, the plot of Moby Dick derives from two actual events: the sinking of the Essex, a Nantucket ship that was rammed by a sperm whale off the South American coast in 1820; and the killing of a ferocious albino sperm whale known as "Mocha Dick," which had been attacking ships for over two decades.
Initially the book was not well received and his later novels were even less popular—Pierre actually triggered rumors of insanity. He briefly focused on short fiction before turning primarily to poetry during the latter half of his career. In his later years, after his literary reputation had declined and both his sons had died young, Melville struggled with depression. Still, he continued writing for the rest of his life, leaving his last work (the novella Billy Budd) unfinished at the time of his death from a heart attack at the age of 72.
The posthumous publication of many of his works revived Melville’s popularity, and by the early 20th century Moby Dick had become an American classic. Today, Moby Dick is widely considered one of the greatest books of all time, and is Melville’s most famous work.