Herman Melville: A Biography And Analysis

Throughout American history, very few authors have earned the right to
be called “great.” Herman Melville is one of these few. His novels and poems
have been enjoyed world wide for over a century, and he has earned his
reputation as one of the finest American writers of all time. A man of towering
talent, with intellectual and artistic brilliance, and a mind of deep insight
into human motives and behavior, it is certainly a disgrace that his true
greatness was not recognized until nearly a generation after his death.
Born in the city of New York on August 1, 1819, Melville was the third
child and second son of Allan Melvill(it wasn\'t until Allan\'s death in 1832 that
the “e” at the end of Melville was added, in order to make a more obvious
connection with the Scottish Melville clan), a wholesale merchant and importer
then living in comfortable economic circumstances, and of Maria Gansevoort
Melvill, only daughter of “the richest man in Albany,” the respected and
wealthy General Peter Gansevoort, hero of the defense of Fort Stanwix during the
American Revolution. In total, Allan and Maria had eight children. On his father\'
s side, his ancestry, though not so prosperous as on his mother\'s, was equally
distinguished. Major Thomas Melvill, his grandfather, was one of the “Indians”
in the Boston Tea Party during the events leading to the war and who had then
served his country creditably throughout the hostilities. The Melvill family
kept on their mantelpiece a bottle of tea drained out of Major Melvill\'s clothes
after the Tea Party as a momento of this occasion.
Herman attended the New York Male High School from about the age of
seven until 1830. By that time, Allan Melvill\'s business had begun to fail, due
to his credit being overextended. After futile attempts to re-establish himself,
he eventually found it necessary to accept the management of a New York fur
company back in Albany. The family moved there in the autumn of 1830, and during
that time Herman attended, along with his brothers Gansevoort and Allan, the
Albany Academy. Just as luck seemed to again be favoring the Melvills, Allan\'s
business affairs again suffered a setback. Excessive worry and overwork finally
took their toll upon his health. By January, 1832, he was both physically and
mentally very ill. On January 28, 1832, Allan Melvill died. The shock of his
father\'s financial collapse and his tragic death only slightly more than a year
later took its toll on Herman\'s emotions. He was to draw upon this memory two
decades later in his writing of Pierre.
In order to support the family, Herman took a position as an assistant
clerk at a local bank, and his brothers Gansevoort and Allan took over their
late father\'s fur business. Possibly because of his mother\'s concern over his
health, Herman left his position at the bank in the spring of 1834 and spent a
season working for his Uncle Thomas\'s farm near Pittsfield.
During the winter months of early 1835, Herman left Pittsfield and
joined his brothers in the fur business. Now fifteen and a half, he kept the
books of the firm for the following two years. At some time during this period
he enrolled as a student in the Albany Classical School. He also became am
member in the Albany Young Men\'s Association, a club for debating and reading,
of which his brother was already a member. Such clubs, in absence of public
libraries, were popular in many cities and served a most useful educational
Within a year or two of education at the Albany Classical School, he
had become qualified as a school teacher. He left his brothers at the now
failing fur company and became a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse outside of
Pittsfiesd. On his first day of the new job, the inexperienced teacher was
confronted with thirty students of all ages and levels of skill. Some were his
age, and a few utterly illiterate. In such extreme conditions Herman found it
hard to maintain discipline, let alone teach. After six weeks, he gave up and
returned to Albany.
For a few months, Herman looked for work without success. His leisure
hours, though, were filled with excitement. Early in 1838 he organized a
debating club and promptly got into a dispute over the presidency of the club
with a rival member, which he eventually won.
Before long, Maria Melvill was forced to admit that she could no longer
afford to live in Albany. Faced with the prospect of having to constantly ask
her brother Peter for money,