Melville (1819-1891) was born in New York City. Though both his parents came from well-to-do families, a family business failure and, soon after, the death of his father made it necessary for him to leave school at the age of 15. He worked as a clerk, a farmer and a teacher, before becoming a cabin boy on a ship.
His shipboard experience served as the basis for a semiautobiographical novel, Redburn, concerning the sufferings of a genteel youth among brutal sailors. This theme of a youth confronted by realities and evils for which he is unprepared is a prominent one in Melville's works. Though based on Melville's experiences, the hero of the novel was more callow and unhappy than Melville himself was, for the sailing experience also gave him a love of the sea, and aroused his desire for adventure.
In 1841 Melville went to the South Seas on a whaling ship, were he gained the information about whaling that he later used in Moby-Dick. After jumping ship in the Marquesa Islands, he and a friend were captured by some of the islanders. They lived with these people for a month, then escaped on an Australian ship, deserting the latter in Tahiti, where they worked for a time as field laborers. Melville finally returned to the United States as a seaman on an American ship. These experiences provided material for his first and most popular books, which are primarily adventure stories.
In 1850 Melville moved to a farm in Massachusetts where Nathaniel Hawthorne was his neighbor. The latter soon became a confidant with whom Melville often discussed his work. As he changed from writing adventure stories to philosophical and symbolic works, Melville's popularity began to wane. From the writing of complex novels such as Moby-Dick, Pierre, and The Confidence Man, Melville turned to writing poetry. But unable to support himself by his writing, he secured a political appointment as a customs inspector in New York. When he retired from that job, after 20 years, he wrote the novelette Billy Budd, completing it just before his death. It was not until the 1920s that his work again came to the attention of literary scholars and the public. His reputation now rests not only on his rich, poetic prose, but also on his philosophy and his effective use of symbolism.
Melville composed the first American prose epic, Moby-Dick. Although Moby-Dick is presented in the form of a novel, at times it seems like a prose poem. It is difficult to read for two reasons. Much of the talk in the novel is sailor talk, and much of the language is purposely old-fashioned, for effect. This technique of Melville's style was inspired by the great authors of Elizabethan England.
The plot of Moby-Dick deals with the ceaseless conflicts between good and evil, of nature's indifference to man "visibly personified and made practically assailable." Melville makes this conflict live for us not by putting it into simple statements but by using symbols¡Xthat is, objects or persons who represent something else. The white whale, Moby-Dick, symbolizes nature for Melville, for it is complex, unknowable and dangerous. For the character Ahab, however, the whale represents only evil. The prime symbol of good is the first mate of the ship Pequod, a man named Starbuck. And the prime symbol of the good that is destroyed by evil¡Xand in this case is destroyed by a consuming desire to root out evil¡Xis the captain of the Pequod, Ahab. A man with an overwhelming obsession to kill the whale which had crippled him, he is Melville's greatest creation. He burns with a baleful fire, becoming evil himself in his thirst to destroy evil.