What Herman Melville did... and why you should care
"Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."1
These words (plus the well-known "Call me Ishmael") begin Herman Melville's masterpiece Moby-Dick. They are also autobiographical.
Writer Herman Melville lived a life as full of adventure as his books. The son of a formerly prominent New York family, Melville overcame his family's fall from grace in his youth by seeking adventure on the seas. When he returned to solid American ground after a few years as a sailor in his twenties, he realized that he had a gift for spinning fantastic tales out of his experiences. He achieved fame and popularity as a writer with novels inspired by his personal experiences, like Typee and Omoo. He could have had a very comfortable career churning out the adventure novels that the public wanted to read, but Herman Melville wanted more.
As Melville began challenging himself in his fiction - experimenting with narratives and philosophy - a confused and unappreciative public turned away. Moby-Dick, the book we now think of as a metaphysical classic, made barely a splash in the publishing world when it was released in 1851. Still Melville kept writing, turning out stories, novels and poems that no one wanted to read, let alone buy. He died in 1891 at the age of 72, "an absolutely forgotten man" in the words of one post-mortem article.2 But though conventional wisdom at the time judged him a failure, time proved differently. Melville never sold out. He refused to set aside what he knew he had to write in order to write what he knew would sell. Within a generation or two of his death, scholars and readers reappraised Melville, and today he is considered a master of fiction truly before his time.
Like his unfortunate Captain Ahab, Melville never got the validation he sought during his lifetime. But—like Ahab—he went down trying, and his legacy lives on.