August 1 – Herman Melville

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”

― Herman Melville

Herman Melville was born August 1, 1819 in New York City. When his father died in 1832 Melville took on a number of jobs to support his family, eventually taking to sea. When he returned from his brief voyages, he began writing about his adventures, and his first books Typee and Omoo (1847) gave him enough financial security to get married. 

In the Spring of 1850 he read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and was inspired by the work. He borrowed $3,000 and bought a farm near Hawthorne he christened “Arrowhead.” He became neighbors and friends with the writer, although Melville proved to be a little intense for the more withdrawn Hawthorne. The debt Melville took on to buy the farm put a lot of pressure on him financially. 

In 1851 he published what today is considered his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, but it did not sell well at the time and was reviewed harshly.  His 1852 book Pierre was deeply personal, but was considered a failure, and a fire in 1853 at his publishers that destroyed many of his book plunged him deeper into financial trouble. 

In 1856 he set off on a tour of Europe and the Levant, and in 1857 he published the last of his novels The Confidence-Man.

During the Civil War Melville received an inheritance from his father-in-law and sold “Arrowhead,” which provided a little financial reprieve, but in 1863 he took a government job as a customs inspector.

In his later years Melville turned his attention to poetry, writing nights and weekends and on holidays, not necessarily for financial compensation. In 1876 published his epic Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, which at 18,000 (comprising 2 published volumes) is one of the longest poems in American Literature. 

Melville died September 28th, 1891 and was all but forgotten, the newspaper even misspelling the title of his book as Mobie Dick. The centennial of his birth in 1919 started a Melville revival, and today Moby-Dick is considered to be one of the great American novels. 

Lesson from Melville:

Melville was poetic and complex, both in life and in writing. Considered crazy by some family and newspapers, he kept doing his thing, and what people did’t get back then resonates with millions today. 

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