CAIRO – 28 September 2017: September 28 marks the death of Herman Melville, the American novelist best known for giving the world "Moby Dick." Melville’s legacy was one that was only recognized after his death, but he has since become known as one of America’s most influential authors.
Born in New York City in 1819, Melville came from a large family of siblings with four boys and four girls. His father thought him slow and docile, and scarlet fever left the young Melville with permanently weakened vision. The rich life his family enjoyed would come crashing down after the abrupt death of his father in 1832. Melville went to work as a bank clerk and later a teacher at Massachusetts in 1837, though the job made him unhappy and he eventually returned to New York.
The business his older brother had been running to support the family fell apart, leaving them once again in poverty. On his brother’s suggestion, Melville joined the crew of a ship. By 1841, he was on his first journey on the sea, on-board the Acushnet whaling ship. The experiences he had there, including being shipwrecked on an island and captured by natives, helped plant the seeds for one of Melville’s future literary career.
By the time Melville returned to his family, he found their financial situations had vastly improved, and they had begun encouraging him to write more after reading his works.
In 1846, he published a book on these experiences titled "Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life," which was a mixture of truth and fantasy, describing the islands as if they were a paradise of sorts.
His next book, 1847’s "Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas," humorously described a real mutiny he had taken part in, and was also a harsh critique of the colonial treatments of the island’s native peoples. Reception to his works was mixed, but it was enough for Melville to start his career.
His works, which tended to have a philosophical and fantastical nature, were considered confusing and hard to follow for readers. Melville pressed on however, and by 1851 had published what would become his most famous work, "Moby Dick."
The famous tale of a man’s desperate quest of revenge against ‘The White Whale’ was inspired by a real life incident of a sperm whale that had attacked the Essex whaling ship, for which Melville had been inspired to write. Melville never lived to see the praise the book would receive. "Moby Dick" was pretty much ignored during his lifetime, and Melville had accepted it as a flop.
By the time Melville published "The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade" in 1857, he had given up on novels, seeking poetry instead. Melville unfortunately did not find much luck there either, and his writing career was proving inadequate to support his wife and children. He went to work as a customs inspector, a career which lasted 20 years.
By 1891, Melville had decided to write one more novel, but died of a heart attack before it could be finished. The newspaper publishing his obituary called him a “long-forgotten author;” he’d died a failure.
Yet his legacy proved greater in death than in life. As the 20th century rolled in, Melville’s works had been rediscovered and brought to a new light, and "Moby Dick" eventually rose to place as one of the most famous American novels of all time, helped by a film adaptation in 1956, which was written by Ray Bradbury.
Though ignored in life, Melville eventually became recognized long after death, and his contributions to literature will forever endure.
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