Novelist Herman Melville (1819-1891) was born on this day in New York City, the third of eight children. At age 21, he joined a whaling ship and spent years exploring the South Seas, spending time in Lahaina, Honolulu, and Tahiti.
"Life's a voyage that's homeward bound," he once observed.
His seafaring adventures celebrated imagination and spirit. His first-hand encounters with the cannibals of the Marquesas were the basis of his first novel, Typee (1846). In his second novel Omoo (1847), Melville recounted a mutiny and Tahitian jail escape. Such exploits inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's travels to the Pacific.
In 1847, Melville married and bought a farm in Massachusetts. He shared ideas with Ralph Waldo Emerson's Transcendentalist group and became close friends with his neighbor and fellow writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Claiming to have "merely described what he has seen," Melville is best known for creating the classic epic Moby-Dick (1851). From the novel's famous opening line, "Call me Ishmael," Moby-Dick celebrated Captain Ahab's memorable quest to hunt and destroy the great White Whale. The story became a metaphor for the frailties of humanity, pride, revenge, and obsession.
"There is a woe that is wisdom," Melville wrote, "a woe that is madness."
Despite the brilliance of his work, literary fame was fleeting for Melville during his lifetime. His last novel, Billy Budd (1891), was published posthumously. "It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation," he said. In 1984, his image was issued on a twenty-cent commemorative postage stamp.
Keep method to your madness.