Throughout American history, very few authors have earned the right to be called "great." Herman Melville is one of these few. His novels and poems have been enjoyed world wide for over a century, and he has earned his reputation as one of the finest American writers of all time. A man of towering talent, with intellectual and artistic brilliance, and a mind of deep insight into human motives and behavior, it is certainly a disgrace that his true greatness was not recognized until nearly a generation after his death.
Born in the city of New York on August 1, 1819, Melville was the third child and second son of Allan Melvill(it wasn't until Allan's death in 1832 that the "e" at the end of Melville was added, in order to make a more obvious connection with the Scottish Melville clan), a wholesale merchant and importer then living in comfortable economic circumstances, and of Maria Gansevoort Melvill, only daughter of "the richest man in Albany," the respected and wealthy General Peter Gansevoort, hero of the defense of Fort Stanwix during the American Revolution. In total, Allan and Maria had eight children. On his father' s side, his ancestry, though not so prosperous as on his mother's, was equally distinguished. Major Thomas Melvill, his grandfather, was one of the "Indians" in the Boston Tea Party during the events leading to the war and who had then served his country creditably throughout the hostilities. The Melvill family kept on their mantelpiece a bottle of tea drained out of Major Melvill's clothes after the Tea Party as a momento of this occasion.
Herman attended the New York Male High School from about the age of seven until 1830. By that time, Allan Melvill's business had begun to fail, due to his credit being overextended. After futile attempts to re-establish himself, he eventually found it necessary to accept the management of a New York fur company back in Albany. The family moved there in the autumn of 1830, and during that time Herman attended, along with his brothers Gansevoort and Allan, the Albany Academy. Just as luck seemed to again be favoring the Melvills, Allan's business affairs again suffered a setback. Excessive worry and overwork finally took their toll upon his health. By January, 1832, he was both physically and mentally very ill. On January 28, 1832, Allan Melvill died. The shock of his father's financial collapse and his tragic death only slightly more than a year later took its toll on Herman's emotions. He was to draw upon this memory two decades later in his writing of Pierre.
In order to support the family, Herman took a position as an assistant clerk at a local bank, and his brothers Gansevoort and Allan took over their late father's fur business. Possibly because of his mother's concern over his health, Herman left his position at the bank in the spring of 1834 and spent a season working for his Uncle Thomas's farm near Pittsfield.
During the winter months of early 1835, Herman left Pittsfield and joined his brothers in the fur business. Now fifteen and a half, he kept the books of the firm for the following two years. At some time during this period he enrolled as a student in the Albany Classical School. He also became am member in the Albany Young Men's Association, a club for debating and reading, of which his brother was already a member. Such clubs, in absence of public libraries, were popular in many cities and served a most useful educational purpose.
Within a year or two of education at the Albany Classical School, he had become qualified as a school teacher. He left his brothers at the now failing fur company and became a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse outside of Pittsfiesd. On his first day of the new job, the inexperienced teacher was confronted with thirty students of all ages and levels of skill. Some were his age, and a few utterly illiterate. In such extreme conditions Herman found it hard to maintain...