(born Aug. 1, 1819, New York, N.Y., U.S.—died Sept. 28, 1891, New York City) U.S. writer. Born to a wealthy New York family that suffered great financial losses, Melville had little formal schooling and began a period of wanderings at sea in 1839. In 1841 he sailed on a whaler bound for the South Seas; the next year he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands. His adventures in Polynesia were the basis of his successful first novels, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).
After his allegorical fantasy Mardi (1849) failed, he quickly wrote Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850), about the rough life of sailors. Moby-Dick (1851), his masterpiece, is both an intense whaling narrative and a symbolic examination of the problems and possibilities of American democracy; it brought him neither acclaim nor reward when published.
Increasingly reclusive and despairing, he wrote Pierre (1852), which, intended as a piece of domestic “ladies” fiction, became a parody of that popular genre, Israel Potter (1855), The Confidence-Man (1857), and magazine stories, including “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853) and “Benito Cereno” (1855). After 1857 he wrote verse. In 1866 a customs-inspector position finally brought him a secure income. He returned to prose for his last work, the novel Billy Budd, Foretopman, which remained unpublished until 1924. Neglected for much of his career, Melville came to be regarded by modern critics as one of the greatest American writers.