Melville was born into a seemingly secure, prosperous world, a descendant of prominent Dutch and English families long established in New York State. That security vanished when first, the family business failed, and then, two years later, in young Melville's thirteenth year, his father died. Without enough money to gain the formal education that professions required, Melville was thrown on his own resources and in 1841 sailed off on a whaling ship bound for the South Seas. His experiences at sea during the next four years were to form in part the basis of his best fiction. Melville's first two books, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), were partly romance and partly autobiographical travel books set in the South Seas. Both were popular successes, particularly Typee, which included a stay among cannibals and a romance with a South Sea maiden. During the next several years, Melville published three more romances that drew upon his experiences at sea: Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850), both fairly realistic accounts of the sailor's life and depicting the loss of innocence of central characters; and Mardi (1849), which, like the other two books, began as a romance of adventure but turned into an allegorical critique of contemporary American civilization. Moby Dick (1851) also began as an adventure story, based on Melville's experiences aboard the whaling ship. However, in the writing of it inspired in part by conversations with his friend and neighbor Hawthorne and partly by his own irrepressible imagination and reading of Shakespeare and other Renaissance dramatists Melville turned the book into something so strange that, when it appeared in print, many of his readers and critics were dumbfounded, even outraged. Their misgivings were in no way resolved by the publication in 1852 of his next novel, Pierre; or, the Ambiguities Pierre; or, the Ambiguities, a deeply personal, desperately pessimistic work that tells of the moral ruination of an innocent young man. By the mid-1850s, Melville's literary reputation was all but destroyed, and he was obliged to live the rest of his life taking whatever jobs he could find and borrowing money from relatives, who fortunately were always in a position to help him. He continued to write, however, and published some marvelous short fiction pieces Benito Cereno" (1855) and "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853) are the best. He also published several volumes of poetry, the most important of which was Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), poems of occasionally great power that were written in response to the moral challenge of the Civil War. His posthumously published work, Billy Budd (1924), on which he worked up until the time of his death, is Melville's last significant literary work, a brilliant short novel that movingly describes a young sailor's imprisonment and death. Melville's reputation, however, rests most solidly on his great epic romance, Moby Dick. It is a difficult as well as a brilliant book, and many critics have offered interpretations of its complicated ambiguous symbolism. Darrel Abel briefly summed up Moby Dick as "the story of an attempt to search the unsearchable ways of God," although the book has historical, political, and moral implications as well.
James M. McPherson, McPherson was born in 1936 and received a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1963. He began teaching at Princeton University in the mid 1960's and is the author of several articles, reviews and essays on the Civil War, specifically focusing on the role of slaves in their own liberation and the activities of the abolitionists. His earliest work, "The Struggle for Equality," studied the activities of the Abolitionist movement following the Emancipation Proclamation. "Battle Cry of Freedom" won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1989. "Drawn With the Sword" (1996) is a collection of essays, with one entitled "The War that Never Goes Away," that is introduced by a passage from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address on March 4, 1865 from which its title came: "Fondly do we hope - and fervently do we pray - that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'" "From Limited to Total War: 1861-1865" shows the depth of the political and social transformation brought about during the Civil War. It told how the human cost of the Civil War exceeded that of any country during World War I and explains the background to Lincoln's announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1862. The book also recounts the exploits of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first black regiments organized in the Civil War, and their attack on Fort Wagner in July 1863. It pays tribute to Robert Gould Shaw, the white commanding officer of the regiment, who died in the attack and was buried in a mass grave with many of his men. Professor McPherson's writings are not just about the middle decades of the nineteenth century but are also about the last decades of the twentieth century. The political turmoil prior to the Civil War, the violence of the war, Lincoln's legacy and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson shed some light on contemporary events.