His epic poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876) is believed to be the longest poem in American literature. Only 350 copies were published, and in 1925 the critic Lewis Mumford found a copy in the New York Public Library with its pages uncut - that is, in nearly fifty years it had not been read once.
His books Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847) are based mostly on his experiences among the natives of the Marquesas Islands in 1842, when he was twenty-three.
In 1843, he spent four months working as a clerk in Honolulu.
Melville's knowledge of whaling came mostly from an eighteen-month cruise on board the Massachusetts whaler Acushnet. He sailed with her from Fairhaven, Mass., south to Buenos Aires and then around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean, eventually leaving the ship when she called in at the Marquesas Islands in August, 1842.
When Melville died in New York City at the age of seventy-two, he was so little known that the New York Times gave his name in its obituary column as 'Henry Melville.'
For nineteen years he was a Customs Inspector for the City of New York.
His most famous book, Moby Dick, was not a great success in Melville's life-time. Harper's printed 3,000 copies for the first edition in 1851, but forty years later they had still not sold out. Melville's total earnings from the American edition of Moby Dick were $556.
From 1850 to 1863, Melville owned a farm at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he became a friend of the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, another local resident.
When he was sixteen, Melville sailed as a cabin boy on a New York ship making a round trip to Liverpool.
Herman Melville's grandfather Major Thomas Melvill took part in the Boston Tea Party.
He had a brother called Gansevoort Melvill - most other members of his family spelt the name without an '-e' at the end. Gansevoort was named after their grandfather, General Peter Gansevoort, who was a Colonel in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.
He grew up in New York City and Albany, New York, and was educated at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in Manhattan, the Albany Academy, and Albany Classical School.
Herman Melville: All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever present perils of life.
Herman Melville: We may have civilized bodies and yet barbarous souls.
Herman Melville: They talk of the dignity of work. The dignity is in leisure.
Herman Melville: It is not down in any map; true places never are.
Herman Melville: Man came into this world, not to sit down and muse, not to befog himself with vain subtleties, but to gird up his loins and to work. Mystery is in the morning, and mystery in the night, and the beauty of mystery is everywhere; but still the plain truth remains, that mouth and purse must be filled.
Herman Melville: Silence is at once the most harmless and the most awful thing in all nature. It speaks of the Reserved Forces of Fate. Silence is the only Voice of our God.
Herman Melville: You must have plenty of sea-room to tell the truth in.
Herman Melville: He who goes the oftenest round Cape Horn goes the most circumspectly.
Herman Melville: Oh, give me again the rover's life - the joy, the thrill, the whirl! Let me feel thee again, old sea! let me leap into thy saddle once more. I am sick of these terra firma toils and cares, sick of the dust and reek of towns. Let me hear the clatter of hailstones on icebergs, and not the dull tramp of these plodders, plodding their dull way from their cradles to their graves. Let me snuff thee up, sea-breeze! and whinny in thy spray.
Herman Melville: Forbid it, sea-gods! intercede for me with Neptune, O sweet Amphitrite, that no dull clod may fall on my coffin! Be mine the tomb that swallowed up Pharaoh and all his hosts; let me lie down with Drake, where he sleeps in the sea.
Herman Melville: Many sensible things banished from high life find an asylum among the mob.
Herman Melville: Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.
Herman Melville: Life's a voyage that's homeward bound.
Herman Melville: A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.
Herman Melville: Friendship at first sight, like love at first sight, is said to be the only truth.
Herman Melville: To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.
Herman Melville: There is something wrong about the man who wants help. There is somewhere a deep defect, a want, in brief, a need, a crying need, somewhere about that man.
Herman Melville: The beauty myth moves for men as a mirage; its power lies in its ever-receding nature. When the gap is closed, the lover embraces only his own disillusion.
Herman Melville: In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely and without passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.
Herman Melville: He who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great.