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Herman Melville: Childhood

Herman Melville was born 1 August 1819 in New York City, the third of the eight children of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill. (Maria added the "e" to the family's last name after Allan died.) Herman was born into a prominent clan whose ancestors had participated in nearly every major event in American history, from the Boston Tea Party to the Revolutionary War. His mother was from a line of Dutch settlers who arrived in the U.S. in the 1600s and settled in New York (today there is a town named Gansevoort in New York state). His father's kin were wealthy Boston merchants. Herman's family settled in New York City, where Allan Melvill owned an importing business. As one historian put it, "Young Herman's world was one of servants and dancing schools."5 His father put very little stock into his second-oldest son. "He is very backward in speech & somewhat slow in comprehension, but you will find him as far as he understands men & things both solid & profound, & of a docile & amiable disposition,"6 Allan Melvill wrote of his son, who was then about seven years old. Nice.

In 1830, Allan Melvill's business went bust and the family's fortunes abruptly changed. The family moved from New York City to Albany to escape his many creditors. Then, in 1832, Allan Melvill died of a sudden illness. Herman, then twelve or thirteen years old, was pulled from school along with his older brother Gansevoort in order to support the family. For the rest of his life, Melville was self-conscious about his lack of a formal education, which he supplemented by reading everything he could get his hands on.

Between 1832 and 1839, Herman Melville worked a series of odd jobs including bank clerk, fur and cap salesman, and farm hand. In 1839, he signed up for a tour in the Merchant Marine. Upon returning to shore in 1840, Melville decided that he liked the seafaring life. On 3 January 1841, when the whaling ship Acushnet set sail from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, 22-year-old Herman Melville was aboard. It was supposed to be a three-year journey, but in 1842 Melville jumped ship in Polynesia, spending three weeks among the Typee natives of the Marquesas Islands. He caught a ship out of there, and spent most of the next two years at sea.

"Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all," Melville later wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. "From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself."7

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