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Historical Context

When Herman Melville published Moby-Dick in 1851, he had already established himself as a writer of popular sea adventure novels that he based on his own experiences as a sailor. Melville was born in 1819, the son of an established New York family (his ancestors included Revolutionary War officers and participants in the Boston Tea Party). After his father died 1832, leaving a widow and eight children, Melville's family fell on hard times. Herman dropped out of school at the age of 12, and tried his hand at a number of odd jobs in and around New York. Finally, at the age of 17, he decided to seek fortune and adventure at sea, and signed up as a cabin boy on a ship bound for Liverpool, England. Upon his return several months later, Melville tried again to find work on land, but by 1841 he was ready to set sail again. Like his character Ishmael, Melville set sail out of New Bedford in late December on a whaling ship bound for the South Seas. Melville certainly found adventure on this voyage; not only did he participate in the kind of whale hunting later described in Moby-Dick, but he also abandoned ship in the Marquesas Islands, and lived as a prisoner of the native people there for several months. Melville escaped to Tahiti, where he spent time as a laborer among the natives, and finally enlisted on another ship that returned to Boston in 1844.

Barely a year after his return, Melville finished the manuscript of a semi-fictional novel based on his first adventure in the Marquesas. After the American publishers Harper and Brothers rejected the manuscript on the grounds that "it was impossible that it could be true," Melville asked his brother, Gansevoort, to bring the manuscript to England to seek a publisher there. John Murray, a firm that published non-fiction adventure books, accepted it, and Typee appeared in print in 1846. The book achieved such popularity in England and America that Melville published another book, based on his Tahitian experiences, the following year (Omoo). For the next few years, Melville wrote continuously, producing three more shipboard novels: Mardi, Redburn, and White-Jacket appeared in 1849-50. After a trip to Paris, the purchase of a house, the birth of a child and the development of friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville published Moby-Dick in 1851 (the book was dedicated to Hawthorne). This work, which Melville considered his masterpiece, blended together the adventure plot and practical discussions of sailing and whaling that had marked his first novels with the philosophical and religious themes that had begun to surface in the later ones (particularly Mardi). Unfortunately, perhaps because of the peculiar blend of fiction, fact and philosophy, the book was a huge commercial failure. Critics panned it, and the public largely ignored it. Although Melville wrote several more novels, story collections, lectures and poems, his critical reputation would not recover within his lifetime. Melville died in 1891, after working for the last decades of his life as a customs inspector in New York - he did not live to see the remarkable resurrection of his popularity begin around 1920, when Moby-Dick began to achieve something of its current acclaim.

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Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Chapters 1 - 5
Chapters 6 - 10
Chapters 11 - 15
Chapters 16 - 20
Chapters 21 - 25
Chapters 26 - 30
Chapters 31 - 35
Chapters 36 - 40
Chapters 41 - 45
Chapters 46 - 50
Chapters 51 - 55
Chapters 56 - 60
Chapters 61 - 65
Chapters 66 - 70
Chapters 71 - 75
Chapters 76 - 80
Chapters 81 - 85
Chapters 86 - 90
Chapters 91 - 95
Chapters 96 - 100
Chapters 101 - 105
Chapters 106 - 110
Chapters 111 - 115
Chapters 116 - 120
Chapters 121 - 125
Chapters 126 - 130
Chapters 131 - 135


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