The Herman Melville Novels
and His Personal Life

Herman Melville

The Herman Melville novels and history have us wondering about the life story of this historical figure. We're prompted to uncover his struggles, which ultimately paved the way for his awesome creativity. We find that it is due to the influence of the sea, which culminated in his masterpieces. 

D.E.S. tells us more about this complicated man when stating, “Herman Melville (born August 1, 1819, New York City—died September 28, 1891, New York City) was an American novelist, short-story writer, and poet, best known for his novels of the sea, including his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851).”

Melville had several siblings and lived in a time when he witnessed financial hardship growing up. After his father died, Melville and his oldest brother had numerous occupations to help support the family. Still, they struggled.

Finally, Melville’s labyrinthian occupational path led him to the sea where he experienced adventures aboard whaling ships and merchant vessels from America to the South Pacific. This backdrop was etched so deeply in his being that it colored his worldview and ignited his creative side. 

Each of Herman Melville’s novels contained complex symbolism and dark introspection. It captured an aspect of his adventurous life and inquisitive spirit. This led him to secure a solid place among classic American novels.

Find more about Melville’s life in Herman Melville's biography. 

A Close-Up of the Herman Melville Novels 

A group taking a look at Herman Melville's novels

Melville’s literary portfolio contains his novels, short stories, and poems. Not only are his works influenced by his seafaring days, but also his thoughts regarding human nature and the society in which he lived. 

Here is a Look at the Herman Melville Novels and His Memoir:

Typee (1846). This is the story of two sailors who decide to jump ship when it docked in the Marquesas Islands. The captain is cruel and violent to them. They escape the ship but worry that they will run into the Typee, a tribe known to be savage and cannibalistic. The two discover that they have indeed wandered into the presence of the Typee.

Omoo (1847). This is a nonfiction, autobiographical, memoir. It comes from Melville’s experiences on the Polynesian islands where he roams. The name Omoo means roaming. Typee and Omoo recount Melville’s experiences as a sailor on various ships in the South Pacific. 

Redburn (1849). This is the story of a teenage boy whose father died and left the family impoverished. The boy becomes a deckhand to help provide for the family. However, it is different from what he thought it would be. The other deckhands make fun of him because of his inexperience and ineptitude. 

White-Jacket (1850). This story is about a sailor who wants to wear a jacket when the ship sails around the colder climate of Cape Horn. But there is none available. So he makes one for himself from canvas. However, there is no paint to make it darker or waterproof. As he wears his white jacket, other sailors dislike him and state that he looks like a ghost when he goes about doing his duties. He is given the name White-Jacket.

Moby-Dick (1851) is Melville’s magnum opus. This tale is about Captain Ahab, captain of a whaling ship. The story is narrated by the sailor Ishmael. On a previous whaling voyage, Moby Dick bit off Captain Ahab’s leg. Now Ahab is out for revenge, obsessed with vengeance against the whale.

Moby Dick

At first, Moby-Dick, while rich in symbolism and prompting questions about fate and humanity’s place in the scheme of things, met with mixed reviews. However, it has since been heralded as one of the great works of American literature, taking its rightful place as a global literary masterpiece.

Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852) tells the story of Melville’s private life presented as a story about an artist marginalized from society. He takes responsibility for himself, his half-sister, and his fiancée, too. But his efforts are in vain. He destroys all their lives.

Israel Potter (1855) is fiction, based on the life of a real soldier and is Melville’s only historical novel. The book tells of Potter who claims to have fought at Bunker Hill and who fell from grace as a Revolutionary War hero to a London street peddler. It depicts Potter’s struggle to survive.

The Confidence-Man (1857) is a satirical allegory. It shows Melville’s pessimistic view of America. A confidence man engages passengers on a Mississippi River steamboat and charms them, gaining their trust. In the end, of course, he tricks the naive Americans. 

The Herman Melville novels, due to them encapsulating the human struggle against natural elements, at first grappled to win the hearts of the masses and were later embraced as fine literature. This literature has survived for centuries, offering epic tales of the sea, depicting gritty glimpses into the lives of common sailors and the bleak realities of naval life.

Regardless of the mixed reviews Melville’s work received during his time, and the frustration he must have felt, he has earned a rightful place in the annals of classic American literature.

Images created with Tai

Maxwell, D.E.S. Herman Melville, American Author, Britannica, 26 Mar. 2024,