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Herman Melville: Sailor & Writer

Upon returning to New York, the 25-year-old realized that people were very interested in his stories about life at sea. He decided to write them down, and the result was his first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. The autobiographical novel appeared in 1846, after Melville had been rejected by one publisher. This publisher thought that the stories he described in the book (most of which were based on his own life) were too exciting to have actually happened. The book was a big success. In 1847, Melville followed it with Omoo, which was also a novel about life at sea and among the Polynesians.

"We therefore recommend this 'narrative of adventures in the south seas,' as thorough entertainment—not so light as to be tossed aside for its flippancy, nor so profound as to be tiresome,"8 reviewer Walt Whitman wrote in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Melville's books enraptured audiences, who craved tales with the excitement of fiction (which was then considered a frivolous pastime) and the legitimacy of non-fiction. Some found his bluntly honest portrayals of life too realistic for their liking. "Omoo . . . proves the author a born genius, with few superiors either as a narrator, a describer, or a humorist," the social reformer Horace Greeley wrote in a review. "Yet [Typee and Omoo] are unmistakably defective if not positively diseased in moral tone, and will very fairly be condemned as dangerous reading for those of immature intellects and unsettled principles."9

On 4 August 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of prominent jurist Lemuel Shaw. Their first child, son Malcolm, was born in 1849. With a growing family to support, the pressure was on Melville to continue his streak of commercial success. In barely two years, Melville cranked out three novels, all about life on the sea—a proven commercial success. Yet his heart wasn't in them. "These are two jobs which I have done for money—being forced to it as other men are to sawing wood,"10 he wrote to his father-in-law about his novels Redburn and White-Jacket. He was laboring on a new novel, also set on a whaling ship. This one, though, was more than just an adventure story. It was a big novel, in size and in concept, and Melville was struggling with it.

In 1850, he took his family on a summer vacation to the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts. He met another writer named Nathaniel Hawthorne who was then living with his family in nearby Lenox. Melville saw in Hawthorne the writer that he aspired to be. He read Hawthorne's short story collection Mosses From an Old Manse and felt inspired. He purchased a house in the Berkshires called Arrowhead, moved his family there, and commenced work on his masterpiece.

Melville's irreverent ways, liberal politics, and blunt honesty alienated some of his neighbors. "It is a pity that Mr. Melville so often in conversation uses irreverent language -- he will not be popular in society here on that very account, but this will not trouble him,"11 one Sarah Morewood wrote of her new neighbor after Melville moved in. Her social judgment was correct. Ten years later, a visitor to Arrowhead wrote, "With his liberal views, [Melville] is apparently considered by the good people of Pittsfield as little better than a cannibal or a 'beach-comber.'"12

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