Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819, in New York City, the son of a merchant. Only twelve when his father died bankrupt, young Herman tried work as a bank clerk, a cabin-boy, and an elementary schoolteacher, before shipping in January 1841 on the whaler Acushnet, bound for the Pacific. He deserted ship the following year in the Marquesas, and he made his way to Tahiti and Honolulu in search of adventure. He returned as ordinary seaman on the frigate United States to Boston and was discharged there in October, 1844. Books based on the travels of these years won him immediate success. By 1850 he was married, had acquired a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts (where he was the impetuous friend and neighbor of Nathaniel Hawthorne), and was hard at work on his masterpiece Moby-Dick.
Literary success soon faded, though, as his complexity of style increasingly alienated readers. After a visit to the Holy Land in January 1857, he turned from writing prose fiction to poetry. In 1863, during the Civil War, he moved back to New York City. There, in the years 1866-1885, he was a deputy inspector in the Custom House, and in 1891, he died. A draft of a final prose work, Billy Budd, Sailor, was left unfinished and uncollected, packed tidily away by his widow, where it remained until its rediscovery and publication in 1924