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Herman Melville Timeline

How It All Went Down

Aug 1, 1819

Melville Born

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.


Father Dies

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.


Merchant Marines

Melville decides to go to sea. He makes his first sea voyage with the merchant marine ship the St. Lawrence.


Travels West

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.

Jan 3, 1841

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.

Jul 1842

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.

Oct 3, 1844

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.


First Novel

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.

May 1, 1847

Second Novel

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.

Aug 4, 1847


Melville marries Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw.


One Year, Two Novels, One Child

Melville publishes two novels this year, Mardi and Redburn. The Melvilles' first child, son Malcolm, is born.



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.

Aug 6, 1852

Another Critical Flop

Melville follows Moby-Dick with the novel Pierre. The public reaction to the book is summarized by the critic who calls it "utterly unworthy of Mr. Melville's genius."40


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.


Final Child

The Melvilles' fourth and final child, daughter Frances, is born.

Apr 1, 1857

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.

May 1860

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.


Sells Home

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.


Custom House

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.


Son Dies

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.

Feb 23, 1886

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.

Sep 28, 1891


Herman Melville dies at his home in New York City. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.


Billy Budd

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.

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