Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819, the third of the eight children born to Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill (the "e" was added in the 1830s). The Melvills were a socially prominent New York family; Allan Melvill was a dry-goods merchant in New York City. The business collapsed in 1830 and Allan Melvill died in 1832. Within a few years, Herman joined his older brother, Gansevoort, in the family business.
During the 1830s the business was still foundering, and in 1939 Herman was sent out as cabin boy on a merchant ship sailing from New York City to Liverpool, England. When he returned he took various teaching positions and then tried unsuccessfully to find work in the west. In 1841, he sailed on the whaler Acushnet to the South Seas. Melville's adventures in Polynesia became the subject of his first novel, Typee (1846). His second book Omoo (1847) described his travels in the South Sea islands, including Tahiti, where Melville joined a mutiny with his shipmates. He was imprisoned in a Tahitian jail but escaped. Both books were acclaimed by the reading public.
In November, 1843, after another expedition on a whaler, Melville enlisted as an able seaman on the frigate United States, and in that capacity he returned to Boston in 1845.
Melville rejoined his family, whose fortunes had revived. In 1847, he married Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of the chief justice of Massachusetts. He began to write for a literary periodical and work on more books, the fruits of which was Mardi (1849), a more serious work than the earlier books, making use of allegory and metaphysics. Mardi marked Melville's emergence as a writer of genius, although it did not sell well. Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850) proved much more popular.
Melville then began work on Moby-Dick, which was published in 1851. It made little impact at the time but is now recognized as one of the great works of American literature. Melville's next books, Pierre; or The Ambiguities (1852) and Israel Potter (1855) likewise brought him no immediate success.
In 1856, to recharge his creative energies, Melville traveled to Europe. The following year, the final novel to be published in his lifetime appeared. This was The Confidence-Man (1857), a despairing satire on America.
After 1860, Melville turned his attention to poetry. His volume of verse, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), drew its inspiration from the Civil War. A second volume of verse, John Marr, and Other Sailors appeared in 1888, and a third, Timoleon, in 1891. In the meantime, Melville had returned to writing prose. He began writing Billy Budd in 1888, and completed it only four months before his death. The novel was not published until 1924.
Melville died on September 28, 1891.