HERMAN MELVILLE (1819 – 1891) finished his schooling at 13 when his father died. He took to sea aged 20, first as a merchant seaman then as a whaler, but he jumped ship in the Polynesian Islands. This experience he turned to his financial advantage: his novels Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) were embroidered retellings of his time there. More seafaring tales followed to little acclaim, culminating with Moby-Dick (1851), perhaps the greatest novel ever written, but received poorly by critics when published. In the mid-1850s Melville wrote short stories for magazines; in many ways his writing then was even richer than before, as he experimented with narrative voice and subtext. Bartleby, The Scrivener (1853) and the other short stories included in this book all date from this period; The Piazza Tales was published in May 1856. Melville moved to New York and worked as a customs inspector; he focused on poetry. His last published prose was in 1857, though Melville did return to fiction at the end of his life — the novella Billy Budd remained unfinished at his death.
Melville’s career is a study in decline: early success in the 1840s was followed by a precipitous career drop, and he was all but forgotten when he died. After the First World War, the avalanche of Modernist hybrid aesthetic recognized his kaleidoscopic vision for what it was: sharp shards of genius.