Herman Melville is born to Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill (his mother adds the "e" to their name after his father's death). He is the third of the couple's eight children.
Father Goes Bankrupt
Allan Melvill's import business goes bankrupt. The family is forced to leave New York City and move to Albany in order to escape his many creditors.
Allan Melvill dies, leaving his wife alone with eight children. A young Herman drops out of school and takes a series of odd jobs in order to support his family.
Melville decides to go to sea. He makes his first sea voyage with the merchant marine ship the St. Lawrence.
Melville travels with his friend Eli Fly along the Mississippi River to Illinois, where his uncle has settled. When he discovers that there are no jobs for him in Illinois, Melville returns to New York City.
Life at Sea
Melville signs up for the whaling ship Acushnet, which sets sail from Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Melville signs on for what is supposed to be a three-year journey.
Life in Polynesia
Melville abandons the Acushnet and spends three weeks living among the Typee natives of the Marquesas Islands. He leaves the island on another ship bound for Hawaii, and spends most of the next two years at sea.
Back on Land
Melville returns to New York after his final sea voyage on the frigate United States. He begins writing a series of semi-autobiographical novels about his time at sea.
Melville's first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, is published. It is an account of his time among the Typee natives of the Marquesas. Readers love it.
Melville's second novel, Omoo, is published. It is also about life in Polynesia. In it, Melville criticizes the proselytizing actions of white missionaries. It is also a success.
Melville marries Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw.
One Year, Two Novels, One Child
Melville's novel White-Jacket is published. He is struggling with the draft of a new novel about a doomed whaling voyage. On a summer trip to the Berkshire Mountains, he meets writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who becomes a friend and inspiration. Melville purchases a home in the Berkshires named Arrowhead and moves his family there.
The Great White Whale
Melville's masterpiece, Moby-Dick, is published. Though the story of Captain Ahab is eventually considered an American classic, sales at the time are disappointing. The Melvilles' second son, Stanwix, is born. Melville names him for his grandfather, Peter Gansevoort, who was known as the Hero of Fort Stanwix for his efforts in the Revolutionary War.
Another Critical Flop
Short Story Attempts
The Melvilles' daughter Elizabeth is born. Disheartened by his reviews as a novelist, Melville tries his hand at short stories. His first piece, "Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street," appears in Putnam's Monthly Magazine. Melville publishes fifteen short pieces in popular magazines over the next three years. Readers are confused by the stories, which are often experimental and metaphysical.
The Melvilles' fourth and final child, daughter Frances, is born.
The Confidence Man; Loses Confidence
Melville publishes a novel entitled The Confidence Man. When it fails to garner attention from critics and readers, Melville quits writing as a profession. He takes to the lecture circuit and spends three years giving talks at lyceums.
Sets Sail Again
Melville agrees to sail around the Cape Horn with his brother Thomas, the captain of a clipper ship. He makes it to San Francisco before changing his mind about the voyage and returning home in November.
Deeply in debt and behind on his mortgage payments, Melville is forced to sell Arrowhead to his brother Allan. He moves with his family back to New York City.
Visits the Front
Melville visits the front lines of the Civil War, an experience that leaves a deep impression him.
Melville takes a job at the New York Custom House, where he works for the next twenty years. The job pays $4 a day. He publishes a collection of Civil War poetry entitled Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War.
Melville's oldest son Malcolm shoots himself. It is unclear whether the fatal shooting was intentional or accidental.
Melville's uncle funds the publication of this 16,000-line epic poem. Critics bash it and readers ignore it, and publishers are forced to burn the many unsold copies.
Second Son Dies, Retirement
Melville's son Stanwix dies of tuberculosis in San Francisco. Melville retires from the customs house after twenty years of employment.
Herman Melville dies at his home in New York City. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
Melville's final novel, Billy Budd, Sailor, is published, helping to rehabilitate Melville's legacy as a great writer. The finished but unpublished manuscript was found in Melville's desk after his death.