Herman Melville: Biography
"There has died and been buried in this city, during the current week, at an advanced age, a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines," the New York Times wrote a week after Herman Melville's death on 28 September 1891. "Yet forty years ago the appearance of a new book by Herman Melville was esteemed a literary event, not only throughout his own country, but so far as the English-speaking race extended. . . . he has died an absolutely forgotten man."3
When Herman Melville died at the age of 72 in his home in New York City, more people knew him as a retired customs inspector than as a great writer. It had been so long since he'd published anything popular that the few people who remembered his name thought he was dead already. Yet his disappearance from the public's memory was in some ways by choice. Melville knew what kind of books readers wanted to buy. He was just tired of writing them, and couldn't quite convince people to read the new fiction he wanted to write. Melville started out as a chronicler of popular tales based on his own experiences as a sailor. But starting with Moby-Dick in 1851, his stories, novels, and poems took an experimental turn, pondering questions of existence and philosophy, toying with traditional ideas of plot and narrative. Though he's now recognized as a master of fiction, readers then found him just weird. Melville was truly a man ahead of his time.
Reading Melville today can be a daunting experience. He's wordy. Some of his characters, like the frustratingly passive law clerk in "Bartleby, the Scrivener," are confounding. Perhaps you'll think differently, however, when you consider that his books are the product of a true original. Herman Melville said what he thought and wrote what he wanted, even when it was unpopular. He chose honest obscurity over sell-out fame. And eventually it paid off, even though Melville wasn't around to see it. "Whoever . . . turns back now to the books that were so much read and so much talked about forty years ago has no difficulty in determining why they were then read and then talked about," the New York Times concluded. "His difficulty will be rather to discover why they are read and talked about no longer."4