William Vollmann in Smithsonian:
This is the tale of a man who fled from desperate confinement, whirled into Polynesian dreamlands on a plank, sailed back to “civilization,” and then, his genius predictably unremunerated, had to tour the universe in a little room. His biographer calls him “an unfortunate fellow who had come to maturity penniless and poorly educated.” Unfortunate was likewise how he ended. Who could have predicted the greatness that lay before Herman Melville? In 1841, the earnest young man sneaked out on his unpaid landlady and signed on with the New Bedford whaler Acushnet, bound for the South Seas. He was 21, eager and shockingly open-minded, yearning not just to see but to live. In Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) and the other seafaring novels inspired by his exploits over the next three years, written in the half-decade before he commenced Moby-Dick, his word-voyage aboard the Pequod, Melville wrote with bighearted curiosity about fearsome “savages” and cultural otherness. To honor this prophet of empathy, this spring I set out for French Polynesia, to see some of the watery part of the world, and to view what I could of the place and its inhabitants, which formed in our novelist his moral conscience and gave unending sail to his language and his metaphors. Back in America, he had to learn to savor these gifts, for after tasting briefly of success he would not have much else to sustain him.
Herman Melville was born 200 years age, on August 1, 1819. Both of his grandfathers were celebrities of the Revolutionary War. His mother’s father, Peter Gansevoort, had defended Fort Schuyler against the Redcoats. His father’s father, Thomas Melvill (no “e”), one of Samuel Adams’ co-conspirators, took part in that infamous hooliganism called the Boston Tea Party. After victory they both came into money. Unfortunately for Herman Melville, his father, Allan, borrowed heavily from many quarters, including his wife’s not yet allotted inheritance, concealing debts, skipping out on creditors.
Allan died in 1832. Now Herman, age 12, had to leave school to toil at the New York State Bank, of which his unforgiving benefactor Uncle Peter was one of the directors. From this torture the boy was pulled out to labor at his elder brother Gansevoort’s furrier establishment, which presently failed. We glimpse him back in school, then out again: a would-be canal surveyor, and probably a hired laborer. “Sad disappointments in several plans which I had sketched for my future life,” runs the opening page of his fourth novel, Redburn (1849), a crowd-pleaser about a naif on his first voyage among rough sailors, ringing highly autobiographical. “The necessity of doing something for myself, united to a naturally roving disposition, had now conspired within me, to send me to sea as a sailor.”