Melville was born in New York City, the third child of a prosperous merchant whose death in 1832 left the family in financial straits. He took to sea in 1839 as a common sailor on a merchant ship and then on the whaler ''Acushnet'', but he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands. ''Typee'', his first book, and its sequel, ''Omoo'' (1847), were travel-adventures based on his encounters with the peoples of the island. Their success gave him the financial security to marry Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of the Boston jurist Lemuel Shaw. ''Mardi'' (1849), a romance-adventure and his first book not based on his own experience, was not well received. ''Redburn'' (1849) and ''White-Jacket'' (1850), both tales based on his experience as a well-born young man at sea, were given respectable reviews, but did not sell well enough to support his expanding family.
From that point, Melville focused his creative powers on poetry. ''Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War'' (1866) was his poetic reflection on the moral questions of the American Civil War. In 1867, his eldest child Malcolm died at home from a self-inflicted gunshot. Melville's metaphysical epic ''Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land'' was published in 1876. In 1886, his other son Stanwix died of apparent tuberculosis, and Melville retired. During his last years, he privately published two volumes of poetry, and left one volume unpublished. The novella ''Billy Budd'' was left unfinished at his death, but was published posthumously in 1924. Melville died from cardiovascular disease in 1891.