Herman Melville

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Herman Melville in May 1870 Herman Melville signature.svg

Herman Melville , born as Herman Melvill , (born August 1, 1819 in New York City , New York , † September 28, 1891 there ) was an American writer , poet and essayist . His sea ​​novel Moby-Dick is one of the most important works in world literature .


Herman Melville was the third of eight children of the import merchant Allan Melvill, who came from Scottish immigrants, and Maria Gansevoort Melvill, who came from an originally Dutch patrician family. Allan Melvill also came from a respected family. As a businessman, however, he showed little talent. In order to be able to finance an upper-class lifestyle, he went into debt considerably. His company in New York City went bankrupt in 1830 , whereupon he tried to keep the large family afloat as a seller in a fur shop in Albany . In 1831 Herman had to leave school. The father died a year later, mentally and physically exhausted. After his death, the mother changed the family name to "Melville". Herman worked as a commercial assistant in a bank, as an assistant on his uncle's farm and helped out in his brother's fur shop.

In 1839 Melville was briefly hired as a cabin boy on a mail ship on the route from New York to Liverpool , England . He then tried his hand at a primary school teacher in New York City, but gave up this position again in 1840 and set sail on January 3, 1841 in Nantucket on board the whaler Acushnet . But the conditions on the fishing trip to the Pacific seemed so unacceptable to Melville that in 1842 he ' deserted ' during the first stop on the island of Nuku Hiva ( Marquesas ) . He escaped with the sailor Richard Tobbias Greene and they fled together through the mountains to reach the valley of Taipivai, where they were captured by the Typees. After a few days, Melville's companion managed to escape from captivity, while Melville, injured in the leg, observed the lives of the Typees for four weeks.

He escaped from Nuku Hiva on the Australian whaler Lucy Ann and came to Tahiti ( Society Islands ). There Melville was arrested on board the Lucy Ann because of his participation in the rebellion, but was able to escape from a prison to Moorea . He then hired as a helmsman on the whaler Charles and Henry to Nantucket and settled in April 1843 Hawaii to sign off. In August of the same year he was hired in Honolulu as a simple seaman on the North American frigate United States and returned to Boston , Massachusetts in October 1844 with a stopover in Peru . In 1846 he wrote his first novel "Taipi" followed by "Omoo" in 1847. Both books were quickly received by his readers. In Boston he married Elizabeth Shaw on August 4, 1847. They had two daughters and two sons, whose older son took his own life when he was 18 and the younger, Stanwix, died of tuberculosis when he was 35.

In 1849 Melville traveled to England to deliver the White Jacket manuscripts to his local publisher . He made trips to Paris and the Rhineland . In February 1850 he returned to New York City. In the same year, the Melvilles bought a small farm called Arrowhead near Pittsfield , Massachusetts, on which they stayed until 1863, with the money of their father-in-law Shaw . The building is now listed as a National Historic Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places . During this time Melville ran the court, wrote his books and occasionally gave lectures on his experiences in the Pacific.

From 1856 onwards Melville was plagued by severe rheumatism and his family and father-in-law urged him to take a vacation trip that took him to England, where he met the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne , the Mediterranean Sea and the Holy Land . He returned in May 1857.

In 1860 he sailed on the clipper Meteor under the command of his younger brother Tom for San Francisco , California . Although he had originally planned a trip around the world , he soon hurried back from there by steamer. In 1863 he sold the Pittsfield farm and moved to New York. However, from the 1860s onwards he was no longer able to make a living from writing, although he was still literary to the end. Therefore, in 1863, he accepted a position as customs inspector at the port, which he held until his retirement on December 31, 1885.

Herman Melville died at the age of 72; his grave is in Woodlawn Cemetery in the New York borough of Bronx .

Literary work

Herman Melville (1860)
  • 1846 Melville wrote the novel Typee (German Taipi) , in his experiences on the island of Nuku Hiva flow
  • In 1847 he wrote in Omoo about his stay in Tahiti
  • In 1849, Mardi was a more extensive and much more fictional version of Typee
  • In 1849, in Redburn's first voyage , he processed experiences of his first sea voyage as a cabin boy
  • In 1850 he reported in White-Jacket or, the World in a Man-of- War about the experiences on the trip with the USS United States (English title: White jacket or The world on a warship )

Also in 1850, immediately after acquiring the farm, Melville began to process the experiences on the Acushnet and the Charles and Henry . The novel, first published in England in three volumes under the title The Whale and dedicated to Hawthorne, tells the story of the fishing trip and story of the whaling ship “Pequod” and its captain Ahab, who is obsessed with the hunt for the legendary white sperm whale , from the perspective of the first-person narrator Ismael was. He hunted the whale with a doggedness that led to the destruction of the ship and his own death. In addition to this central plot, the author's philosophical, semi-scientific, historical and mythological considerations are predominantly woven in.

Illustration from an 1892 edition of the novel Moby Dick

Already on his South Seas voyage in 1841 Melville had met the captain Owen Chase (whom Melville called Chace ) and before that he had met his son. The son showed him the book written by his father at the time in the position of chief mate about the sinking of the whaler Essex after a sperm whale attack, of which only a few copies existed. It was not until 1850, however, through the efforts of his father-in-law, Shaw, that Melville came into possession of a copy of this book in Nantucket. The beginning of the tragedy described in this book - the sperm whale attack - impressed Melville so much that he turned it into the brilliant end of Moby Dick .

In addition, Melville drew on numerous literary works: William Shakespeare , Ralph Waldo Emerson , Thomas Carlyle and also works by his friend, Hawthorne , who lived near him , were on his reading list. In August 1850 the work was largely finished, but did not reach the publishers until the following year.

Melville wrote the following to his British publisher Richard Bentley in 1851:

“In the latter part of the coming autumn I shall have ready a new work […] a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries and illustrated by the authors own personal experience, of two years & more as a harpooneer […] I do not know that the subject treated of has ever been worked up by a romancer; or, indeed, by any writer in any adequate manner. "

"In the coming late autumn I should be finished with a new work [...] an adventure novel based on certain wild legends from the sperm whale fishing areas in the south, embellished with the author's own personal experiences from his more than two years as a harpooner [...] me I did not know that the subject under discussion was ever adequately dealt with by a novelist, indeed by any writer at all. "

- Herman Melville

Only about 3,000 copies of Moby Dick were sold during his lifetime .

The short story Bartleby, the Scrivener , published in 1853, is considered one of Melville's most important works and a forerunner of existential and absurd literature. His short story Benito Cereno , published for the first time in 1855, is also counted among the most important shorter stories of Melville and classic highlights of American short prose.Its method of indirection and an ironic perspective narrative technique shaped a narrative method that was later developed and perfected by Henry James .

The verse epic Clarel from 1876 with 18,000 verses about a pilgrimage to the Holy Land was printed in 300 copies during Melville's lifetime, most of which had to be crushed. When he died in New York City in 1891, he was busy revising his last work, Billy Budd, Foretopman , which was only published in 1924 and taken by Benjamin Britten as the basis for the opera Billy Budd .

Melville's first two novels, in which he processed his South Seas stories, were great successes. When he then turned away from the naturalistic adventure novel, his works no longer satisfied critics and audiences.

Melville's work was already forgotten when he died; in the library catalog of Yale University , Moby Dick was only listed in the cetology (the science of marine mammals) category and was collecting dust. It was not until the 1920s that a circle of New York literary scholars, including Carl van Doren (1885–1950), Lewis Mumford , Carl van Vechten and Raymond Weaver (1888–1948), helped his work to gain recognition.

With Moby Dick , Melville created an extremely exciting and complex adventure novel, a parable for the invincibility of nature and human destiny.

Melville belonged to the Young America group, whose concern was to promote American national literature as a sign of cultural emancipation from the aristocratic- feudal culture of Europe, especially England. The American scene was to be represented, both geographically and socially and politically. Such American literature should go beyond the representation of actual conditions to capture the democratic zeitgeist as a vision of an ideal future society.


  • Typee , 1846 (German Taipi) - posner.library.cmu.edu
  • Omoo , 1847 (German Omu)
  • Mardi , 1849, (German Mardi and a trip there)
  • Redburn , 1849
  • White-Jacket or The World in a Man-of-War , 1849 (German white jacket or the world on a warship )
  • Moby-Dick , 1851
  • Pierre: or, The Ambiguities , 1852 (German Pierre or the ambiguities , filmed by Leos Carax )
  • Bartleby, the Scrivener , 1853 ( Bartleby the scribe )
  • The Encantada, or Enchanted Isles , 1854 (dt. The Encantada, or Enchanted Isles )
  • Benito Cereno , 1855
  • Israel Potter , 1855 (German 1960 Israel Potter. His fifty years in exile. ND Leipzig 1991)
  • The Piazza Tales , 1856 (dt. Piazza Tales , here was also the first time in 1853 published Long Short Story Bartleby, the Scrivener involved in a slightly different version, as The Lightning-Rod Man , published in 1854 in Putnam's Monthly , and Benito Cereno , first time 1855 also published in Putnam's Monthly )
  • The Confidence-Man , 1857 (German masquerades or trust versus trust)
  • Battle Pieces , 1866
  • Clarel , 1876
  • John Marr and Other Sailors , 1888
  • Timoleon , 1891
  • Billy Budd , 1924

German editions of the present

Audio books

  • Moby Dick . Translated by Friedhelm Rathjen (first publication of this German translation in the Zweausendeins Verlag 2004). Voiced by Christian Brückner. Baumhaus Verlag, Frankfurt (Main) 2007, ISBN 978-3-8339-5075-9 .


  • Herman Melville is the great-great-great-uncle of Richard Melville Hall, also known as Moby .
  • The extinct whale Livyatan melvillei , which occurred in the mid-Miocene 13 to 12 million years ago in the Pacific, was named after the biblical and mythological sea monster Leviathan and after Melville.
  • Numerous characters and locations in his novel Moby Dick were the basis for naming geographical objects on the Antarctic Peninsula . The Melville Glacier located there bears his name in his honor.


  • Joyce Sparer Adler: Was in Melville's Imagination. University Press, New York 1981, ISBN 0-8147-0575-8 .
  • Newton Arvin : Herman Melville . 1950, ISBN 0-8021-3871-3 .
  • Rüdiger Barth , Marc Bielefeld: Herman Melville. In: Wild Poets. The greatest adventurers in world literature. Malik, Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-89029-300-4 .
  • Christian Bertram: For example Bartleby - Herman Melville: Thinking about suffering . In: Heinze, Kupke, Kurth (Ed.): The measure of suffering . Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2003, ISBN 3-8260-2400-1 .
  • John Bryant: A Companion to Melville Studies. Greenwood Press, Westport CT 1986.
  • John Bryant: Melville and Repose. Oxford University Press, New York 1993.
  • Andrew Delbanco: Melville. His World and Work. Knopf, New York 2005, ISBN 0-375-40314-0 .
  • Jean Giono : Greetings from Melville. Vision of an encounter . Translated from the French by Walter Gerull-Kardas. Goverts, Hamburg 1944.
  • Daniel Göske (Ed.): Herman Melville: One life . btb Random House, Munich 2006, ISBN 978-3-442-73105-3 .
  • Arno Heller : Herman Melville . Biography. Lambert Schneider / wbg, Darmstadt 2017, ISBN 978-3-650-40189-2
  • Robert S. Levine: The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1998, ISBN 0-521-55571-X .
  • Lewis Mumford : Herman Melville . Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York 1929.
  • Hershel Parker: Herman Melville. A biography . University Press, Baltimore MD
    1. 1819-1851 , 1996, ISBN 0-8018-5428-8 .
    2. 1851-1891 , 2002, ISBN 0-8018-6892-0 .
  • Alexander Pechmann: Herman Melville, Leben & Werk , Böhlau, Vienna / Cologne / Weimar 2003, ISBN 978-3-205-77091-6 , (= literary history in studies and sources , volume 8).
  • Laurie Robertson-Lorant: Melville: A Biography. Clarkson Potter, New York 1995, ISBN 0-517-59314-9 .
  • Michael Paul Rogin: Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville. Knopf, New York 1983, ISBN 0-394-50609-X .
  • Ferdinand Schunck: The lyrical work of Herman Melville. Bouvier, Bonn 1976, ISBN 3-416-01222-4 .

Web links

Commons : Herman Melville  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files
Wikisource: Herman Melville  - Sources and full texts

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Herman Melville 1841
  2. knerger.de: The grave of Herman Melville
  3. ^ Armin Staats: Melville · Moby Dick. In: Hans-Joachim Lang (Ed.): The American novel · From the beginning to the present . Bagel Verlag, Düsseldorf 1972, ISBN 3-513-02213-1 , pp. 103-141, here pp. 103f.
  4. Review. In: Die Zeit , No. 3/2007