Study Guide

Herman Melville Introduction

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Herman Melville Introduction

"Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."blank" rel="nofollow">Captain Ahab, Melville never got the validation he sought during his lifetime. But—like Ahab—he went down trying, and his legacy lives on.

Herman Melville Trivia

Herman Melville was suffering from serious writer's block with Moby-Dick until he read Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story collection Mosses From an Old Manse. He was inspired and eventually dedicated the finished novel to his friend.

Every year the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts stages a non-stop marathon reading of Moby-Dick. It takes about 25 hours for 150 readers to read the book aloud.

Melville could be a little, um, self-centered. On one Christmas, he gave his children books that he actually wanted to have an excuse to buy them, and he once woke his young daughter up at 2 a.m. so that she could proof-read his poem.

Poor George John Whyte-Melville. The English novelist's works were often mistakenly attributed to Herman Melville, who lived around the same time. For the record, the novels Katerfelto and Satanella belong to George.

The founders of Starbucks Coffee originally wanted to name their business after the whaling ship in Moby-Dick, until one of the partners rightfully pointed out that people might not be interested in drinking a cup of "Pee-quod." They settled on Starbucks, after Captain Ahab's first mate.

In 1848, Melville was asked to review a new book entitled The Romance of Yachting by Joseph C. Hart. Melville hated the book and could not hold himself back in the review. "You have been horribly imposed upon, My Dear Sir. The book is no book, but a compact bundle of wrapping paper. And as for Mr Hart, pen & ink, should instantly be taken away from that unfortunate man, upon the same principle that pistols are withdrawn from the wight bent on suicide," Melville wrote. "What great national sin have we committed to deserve this infliction? … Seriously again, & on my conscience, the book is an abortion, the mere trunk of a book, minus head arm or leg.—Take it back, I beseech, & get some one to cart it back to the author."

Herman Melville Resources


Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
Call me Ishmael! By the far the most famous of Herman Melville's novels, Moby-Dick (as it was originally titled) was actually a commercial flop when it was first published. How surprised Melville would be to find that it's his biggest hit 150 years later. It's a metaphysical mind-bender and a killer adventure story.

Herman Melville, Billy Budd (1924)
Discouraged by his poor literary reviews and waning popularity, Melville had long given up novel writing by the time he died in 1891. The unpublished manuscript of Billy Budd was found in his desk after his death. The story of a falsely accused sailor is now considered one of Melville's greatest works.

Herman Melville, Great Short Works of Herman Melville (2004)
Melville was a master of the short story form. Some of his greatest, most experimental work was done in this format, such as "Bartleby the Scrivener" and "Benito Cereno." (Please note: "The Town-Ho's Story" is NOT about what you think.)

Newton Arvin, Herman Melville (1950)
After more than half a century, this biography by literary critic Newton Arvin is considered one of the finest works about Herman Melville. Melville's life was a complicated one, full of great adventure and crushing disappointment. Arvin's account is a compelling look at a unique literary life.

Hershel Parker, Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume I, 1819-1851 and Volume II, 1851-1891 (2005)
Hershel Parker set out to write the definitive biography of Herman Melville, a goal he pursued, one reviewer said, "with a single-mindedness worthy of a Melville hero."_CITATION41_ The result is two volumes and thousands of pages of a biography that leaves no detail out, down to the dates of Melville's relatives' dental procedures.

Eric Jay Dolin, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (2008)
In addition to a great adventure story, Melville's Moby-Dick is also a detailed look at the business of whaling. This fascinating non-fiction book tells the complete story of the whaling industry in America. Whaling was a dangerous, difficult, messy business that Dolin's account brings to life.


Billy Budd Opera
The score for this operatic adaptation of Melville's novel was composed by Benjamin Britten. His friend - the novelist, lecturer, and literary critic E.M. Forster- wrote the libretto.

Bernard Herrmann, Moby-Dick Cantata
Composer Bernard Herrmann wrote this musical arrangement inspired by Moby-Dick. It was recorded in the 1960s.

Orson Welles
It's not music per se, but you can download Orson Welles' dramatic 1946 radio broadcast of Moby-Dick. Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast was so terrifying that people thought that aliens were actually attacking. We don't know if this broadcast inspired any grudges against giant whales.

Sea Chanteys
Melville spent much of his young adult years out at sea, where he would doubtlessly have heard sailors entertaining themselves with songs and chanteys. What's your favorite? "Dredgin' Is My Drudgery?" "Tommy's Gone to Hilo?" "The Girls Around Cape Horn?"

The DJ and musician, whose real name is Richard Melville Hall, is a distant relative of Herman Melville. He has yet to make a whale-themed record, but we are still holding out hope.

The Herman Melville Experience
This Baltimore-based band pays homage to Melville in their name and logo. According to their MySpace page, their lyrics are inspired by literature.


Herman Melville

Melville, again.
Seated portrait.

Herman and Elizabeth Melville
A portrait of Melville and his wife.

The 1851 first edition.

Melville's home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Melville's headstone in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.

The white whale!
A pretty awesome illustration of the star of Moby-Dick.

Movies & TV

Moby-Dick (1956)
This adaptation of Herman Melville's greatest novel is a classic. The movie's all-star credits include John Huston as director, Ray Bradbury as screenwriter, and Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. Beware the white whale!

Bartleby (2001)
This film brings to life one of Melville's most mystifying stories. Who is Bartleby, the enigmatic clerk who would "prefer not" to do what he's asked? The film stars the excellent David Paymer and Crispin Glover.

Billy Budd (1962)
An exciting, high-seas action movie about the falsely accused sailor Billy Budd. How do you say "no" to a tagline like "The Men!.. The Mutiny!...The Might!... The Magnitude Of Herman Melville's Classic Adventure of the High Seas!"?

Herman Melville: Damned in Paradise (1985)
Using a combination of documentary and dramatic techniques, this film looks at the personal stories behind Melville's best known works. F. Murray Abraham voices Melville, and John Huston narrates.

Herman Melville: November in My Soul (1978)
This documentary looks at Melville's early years. The title comes from a passage in the first chapter of Moby-Dick, when Ishmael says, "whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul… I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."_CITATION42_ This is a hard-to-find movie.

Doug's First Movie
Herman Melville plays a starring role in this kid's movie—not Melville the writer, but Melville the monster. The gentle inhabitant of Lucky Duck Lake gets the Melville nickname when he creeps into the house and tries to eat a copy of Moby-Dick.


The Life and Works of Herman Melville
The grand-daddy of all Herman Melville sites. It is a trove of primary documents, texts, fun facts, and other information related to the writer. We particularly like that the site offers subscriptions to "Ishmail," the newsletter of all things Melville.

Herman Melville's Arrowhead
Melville purchased Arrowhead, his home in the Berkshire Mountains, after a run of successful book sales. He wanted to retreat to the quiet of the mountains in order to write. He eventually sold it when his debts outstripped his writing income. The home is now a museum and a useful source of Melville history.

Brandeis University
Brandies professor Andreas Teuber created this page for his literature course. The site contains a long biography of Melville, as well as a bibliography of his works. It links to other Melville sites as well, such as the New Bedford Whaling Museum and

American Academy of Poets
Though better known for his fiction, Herman Melville was also a poet. He published the poetry collection Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War in 1866 after being emotionally moved by the Civil War. This site contains Melville's biography, plus texts of his poems and links to other works about him. It also lays out a neat walking tour of Melville's New York City.

Literary History
A bibliography of Melville-related critical works that are available online—and, more importantly, that meet scholarly standards. This is a good place to look for secondary materials if you're writing a long paper.

Moby-Dick Online
This site from Princeton University allows you to search by chapter and line. That's a helpful tool for a book with this many lines.

Video & Audio

Ahab Rap
Thanks, MC Lars—we LOVE this.

Orson Welles Reads Moby-Dick

Ahab vs. Moby
A scene from the 1956 film with Gregory Peck.

The Death of Ahab
Go ahead and watch if you want to spoil the ending. Actually, I guess we just did.

Billy Budd trailer
Ad for the 1962 film.

Benito Cereno
Melville's short story, in Legos.

Flo & Ahab
Moby-Dick helps sell auto insurance.

Primary Sources

E-text of the novel.

Billy Budd
E-text of Melville's posthumously published novel.

Bartleby, the Scrivener
E-text of the short story.

Benito Cereno
E-text of the short story.

Letter from Herman Melville, age 9, to his Aunt Lucy.

Melville's Letters to Hawthorne
Correspondence between the two writers and friends.

Mocha Dick
The article that inspired Moby-Dick.

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