Herman Melville in Antebellum Period
Herman Melville (1819-1891) is one of the most prominent authors in the history of American literature. From 1841-42, Melville spent eighteen months on a whaling ship, but escaped with a friend during a stop in the Marquesas Islands. The two men were captured by a tribe of cannibals but treated kindly, and were later rescued by an Australian whaler. After returning to America in 1844, Melville wrote two books on his traveling experiences. His time on the whaling ship later provided the basis for Moby-Dick, his 1851 masterpiece about a deranged whaling captain's fanatical search for the great white whale for whom the book was titled.
Despite its current status as a great work of literature, Moby-Dick was not really appreciated in Melville's time. After its publication, Melville had to support himself by working in the New York Custom House, where he remained for nineteen years. The term "Confidence Man"—which survives today as "con man"—was most famously memorialized as the title of Melville's last major novel, published in 1857. In the story, a man sneaks aboard a Mississippi steamboat and proceeds to engage the passengers in a number of cons, deceiving them by misrepresenting himself in various guises. Underappreciated in his own time, Melville and his genius have clearly shaped American culture in the years since.