Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. When his father died, he was forced to leave school and find work. After passing through some minor clerical jobs, the eighteen-year-old young man shipped out to sea, first on a short cargo trip, then, at twenty-one, on a three-year South Sea whaling venture. From the experiences accumulated on this voyage would come the material for his early books, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), as well as for such masterpieces as Moby-Dick (1851), Pierre (1852), The Piazza Tales (1856) and Billy Budd, Sailor, and Other Stories (posthumous, 1924).
Though the first two novels--popular romantic adventures--sold well, Melville's more serious writing failed to attract a large audience, perhaps because it attacked the current philosophy of transcendentalism and its espoused "self-reliance." (As he made clear in the savagely comic The Confidence Man (1857), Melville thought very little of Emersonian philosophy. He spent his later years working as a customs inspector on the New York docks, writing only poems comprising Battle-Pieces (1866). He died in 1891, leaving Billy Budd, Sailor, and Other Stories unpublished.
"We are, perhaps, after a century of literary wastelands, able to read not only a personal predicament but a general truth in Melville's blasted islands, bedevilled slave ships, misshapen houses, falling towers, ticking tables, ghastly factories, sickly cottages, and blank brick city walls. The appetite for truth is what gives Melville's narratives their persistent interest and, even under the spell of discouragement, their untoward verbal energy ... Like Billy Budd, Melville when a sailor on a man-of-war was a top-man, at home on the highest yards, enjoying the widest view ... Melville instinctively aspired to the grandest scale, and even in his shorter works offers vast inklings and the resonance of cosmic concerns.