Bartleby the Scrivener (Melville)

Author Bio
Birth—August 1, 1819
Where—New York, New York, USA
Death—September 28, 1891
Where—New York, New York
Education—Albany Academy until age 15

Herman Melville was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist and poet, whose work is often classified as part of the genre of dark romanticism. He is best known for his novel Moby-Dick and novella Billy Budd, the latter of which was published posthumously.

Melville was born in New York City in 1819, as the third child of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill. (After her husband Allan died, Maria added an "e" to the family surname.) Allan Melvill sent his sons to the New York Male School (Columbia Preparatory School). Overextended financially and emotionally unstable, Allan eventually declared bankruptcy, dying soon afterward and leaving his family penniless when Herman was 12.

Melville attended the Albany Academy from October 1830 to October 1831, and again from October 1836 to March 1837, where he studied the classics. Melville's roving disposition and a desire to support himself led him to seek work as a surveyor on the Erie Canal. This effort failed, and his brother helped him get a job as a cabin boy on a New York ship bound for Liverpool. He made the voyage, and returned on the same ship. Redburn: His First Voyage (1849) is partly based on his experiences of this journey.

After teaching for a stint (1837-1840), Melville spent the next four years at sea, travelling in the South Pacific Ocean, stopping off for periods in Hawaii and the Marquesas Islands (where he lived mong the Typee natives). He returned to Boston in 1844. These experiences were described in Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), and White-Jacket (1850), which gave Melville overnight notoriety as a writer and adventurer.

In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw (daughter of chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Lemuel Shaw); the couple had four children, two sons and two daughters. In 1850 they purchased Arrowhead, a farm house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, now a museum. Here Melville lived for thirteen years, occupied with his writing and managing his farm. While living at Arrowhead, he befriended the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived in nearby Lenox. Melville, an intellectual loner for most of his life, was tremendously inspired and encouraged by his new relationship with Hawthorne during the period he was writing Moby-Dick (1851). Melville dedicated that work to Hawthorne, though their friendship was on the wane only a short time later, when Melville wrote Pierre (1852). Sadly, these works did not achieve the popular and critical success of his earlier books.

His The Confidence-Man (1857), winning general acclaim in modern times, received contemporary reviews ranging from the bewildered to the denunciatory.

By 1866 his professional writing career can be said to have come to an end. To repair his faltering finances, Melville's wife and her relatives used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York (a humble but adequately paying appointment), and he held the post for 19 years. In a notoriously corrupt institution, Melville soon won the reputation of being the only honest employee of the customs house.

As his professional fortunes waned, Melville's marriage was unhappy, plagued by rumors of his alcoholism and insanity and allegations that he inflicted physical abuse on his wife. Her relatives repeatedly urged her to leave him, and offered to have him committed as insane, but she refused.

In 1867 his oldest son, Malcolm, shot himself, perhaps accidentally. While Melville worked, his wife managed to wean him off alcohol, and he no longer showed signs of agitation or insanity. But recurring depression was added-to by the death of his second son, Stanwix, in San Francisco early in 1886.

Melville retired in 1886, after several of his wife's relatives died and left the couple legacies that Mrs. Melville administered with skill and good fortune.

Upon his death in September 1891, he left an unfinished piece; not until the literary scholar Raymond Weaver published it in 1924 did the book—which we now know as Billy Budd, Sailor—come to light. Later it was turned into an opera by Benjamin Britten, a play, and a film by Peter Ustinov. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)

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