Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891) was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. He is best known for his novel Moby-Dick and the posthumous novella Billy Budd. His first three books gained much contemporary attention (the first, Typee, becoming a bestseller), but after a fast-blooming literary success in the late 1840s, his popularity declined precipitously in the mid-1850s and never recovered during his lifetime. When he died in 1891, he was almost completely forgotten. It was not until the "Melville Revival" in the early 20th century that his work won recognition, especially Moby-Dick, which was hailed as one of the literary masterpieces of both American and world literature. He was the first writer to have his works collected and published by the Library of America.
Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819, the third of eight children of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill. After her husband Allan died, Maria added an "e" to the family surname. Part of a well-established and colorful Boston family, Melville's father spent a good deal of time abroad as a commission merchant and an importer of French dry goods. The author's paternal grandfather, Major Thomas Melvill, an honored participant of the Boston Tea Party who refused to change the style of his clothing or manners to fit the times, was depicted in Oliver Wendell Holmes's poem "The Last Leaf". Herman visited him in Boston, and his father turned to him in his frequent times of financial need. The maternal side of Melville's family was Hudson Valley Dutch. His maternal grandfather was General Peter Gansevoort, a hero of the Battle of Saratoga; in his gold-laced uniform, the general sat for a portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart, which is described in Melville's 1852 novel, Pierre, for Melville wrote out of his familial as well as his nautical background. Like the titular character in Pierre, Melville found satisfaction in his "double revolutionary descent."
Allan Melvill sent his sons to the New York Male School (Columbia Preparatory School). Overextended financially and emotionally unstable, Allan tried to recover from his setbacks by moving his family to Albany in 1830 and going into the fur business. The new venture, however, was unsuccessful; the War of 1812 had ruined businesses that tried to sell overseas and he was forced to declare bankruptcy. He died soon afterward, leaving his family penniless, when Herman was 12. Although Maria had well-off kin, they were concerned with protecting their own inheritances and taking advantage of investment opportunities rather than settling their mother's estate so Maria's family would be more secure with Herman's younger brother, Thomas Melville, who eventually became a governor of Sailors Snug Harbor.