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Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819. In 1832, his fathers bankruptcy and death left the Melville family virtually destitute; and at age fifteen Herman‚s formal schooling came to an end. However, he later developed into a prolific writer.
An eighteen-month voyage on the whaler Acushnet (1841-42) provided the factual basis for Melville‚s greatest novel Moby-Dick (1851). Similarly, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) were romantic narratives of life in the South Seas. However, in 1852, he published Pierre, a book that was to a large degree autobiographical and that was also a psychological study that anticipated much later literature.
After a tour of the Holy Land in 1856, he briefly visited Hawthorn, then U. S. consul in Liverpool. In 1866, Melville started work as an inspector in the Customs Service at New York, but continued to write.
His major work during this period was the long poem Clarel, inspired by his visit to the Holy Land.
Billy Budd was written in 1891, but was not published (1924) until after his death. Melville died in New York City on September 28, 1891.
Herman Melville was an American novelist, essayist and poet. He was popular during his early life, but his fame faded later. His materpiece, Moby Dick, was "rediscovered" in the 20th century. Early years Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819. Born into an established merchant family, he was the third child of eight to Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melville. One of his grandfathers had taken part in the Boston Tea Party. Allan Melville, an importer of French dry goods, went bankrupt and died when Herman was 12. Maria Melville was left to rear the children, with her wealthy family's occasional help. In 1826, Herman suffered permanently weakened eyesight from a bout of scarlet fever. In 1835, he enrolled in the Albany Classical School of New York, but dropped out and taught himself by devouring Shakespeare as well as historical, anthropological, and technical works. He began to work at the age of 12 he was a clerk, teacher, and farmhand, among other occupations.
In search of adventure, Herman shipped out as a cabin boy on the whaler Acushnet in 1839. He later joined the U.S. Navy, and experienced long voyages on ships sailing in the Atlantic and the South Seas. During that time, he lived briefly among the Typee cannibals in the Marquesas Islands. In his mid-twenties, Herman returned to his mother's house to write about his adventures. Publishing In 1846, Melville published Typee, the first work that told of his journeys and sojourn with the cannibals. The story told of a crew member of a whaling ship and his four months among a group of islanders in the Pacific Ocean, where he learned the distinction between savages and cannibals. Melville published its sequel, Omoo, in 1847. That story was based on his experiences in the Polynesian Islands, and was just as successful as its predecessor. On August 4, 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw. The couple lived in New York City until 1850, when they purchased a farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which they called Arrowhead. They lived there for 13 years. Neighboring author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, became a lifelong friend of Melville's. At Arrowhead, Melville wrote Moby Dick and Pierre. Those works did not win him the same success as his earlier books. Following poor reviews of Pierre, publishers became wary of his work. His main publisher, Harper’s, rejected his next manuscript, The Isle of the Cross, which has since been lost. Trying to make a living Bowing to financial need, Melville entered the lecture circuit. From 1857 to 1860, he spoke at lyceums, chiefly recounting his adventures in the South Seas. He also became a customs inspector for the City of New York, a post he held for 19 years. Later in his life, his works were no longer popular with a broad audience. He was not able to make money from writing, and depended on his wife's family, along with his own attempts at employment. Melville wrote a short novel, Billy Budd, which was kept in a tin can for 30 years. It was later published in 1924 and eventually was turned into an opera, play, and film. War poetry Melville was profoundly affected by the Civil War and it became the principal subject of his writing. Many of his family members participated in various aspects of the war, and through them, Melville became well connected to the events. He went to Washington, D.C. in 1861, and observed the Senate debating secession. He also made a trip to the front lines with his brother in 1864. Melville’s first book of published poems was Battle - Pieces and Aspects of the War, in 1866. The volume is regarded by numerous critics to be as ambitious and rich as any of his novels. Nevertheless, Melville remains relatively unrecognized as a poet. The falling pen Herman Melville died of a heart attack on September 28, 1891, at the age of 72. His remains were interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. At that time, he was nearly forgotten by all but a few admirers. During the week of Melville's death, The New York Times wrote: "There has died and been buried in this city . a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines." It was not until the 1920s that the literary public began to recognize Herman Melville as one of America's finest writers.
Herman Melville sails for the South Seas
On January 3 1841, writer Herman Melville ships out on the whaler Acushnet to the South Seas.
Melville was born in New York City in 1819. A childhood bout of scarlet fever permanently weakened his eyesight. He went to sea at age 19, as a cabin boy on a ship bound for Liverpool. Two years later, he sailed for the South Seas.
The Acushnet anchored in Polynesia, where Melville took part in a mutiny. He was thrown in jail in Tahiti, escaped, and wandered around the South Sea islands for two years. In 1846, he published his first novel, Typee, based on his Polynesian adventures. His second book, Omoo (1847), also dealt with the region. Moby-Dick—his third novel, and the one he&aposs most famous for—initially flopped and was not recognized as a classic for many years.
Meanwhile, Melville bought a farm near Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house in Massachusetts, and the two became close friends. Melville continued writing novels and highly acclaimed short stories. Putnam’s Monthly published rtleby the Scrivener” in 1853 and nito Cereno” in 1855.
In 1866, Melville won appointment as a customs inspector in New York, which brought him a stable income. He published several volumes of poetry. He continued to write until his death in 1891, and his last novel, Billy Budd, was not published until 1924.
Melville, Herman - History
Any one with an education at the high school level or higher may or may not have read Herman Melville's "Moby Dick", but he or she definitely will have heard of it. "Moby Dick" was Melville's sixth book, published in 1851. The book was also known as "The Whale" and, of course, had a maritime setting. It was not the only Melville book with a maritime setting. Melville spent a considerable amount of time on the seas as a sailor, and much of it in the South Seas' whaling industry. Hence Melville's favorite stories had that maritime orientation.
Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819. Although his paternal grandfather, Major Thomas Melville [1751-1832], a member of the Boston Tea Party, appears to have been of British background, nearly all of his biographers list Herman's background as Dutch, probably because his more famous maternal grandfather was Peter Gansevoort. Peter Gansevoort was and still is renowned as a hero of the Saratoga campaign and for leading the defense of Fort Stanwix against the British during the War of Independence. General Peter Gansevoort was Hudson Valley Dutch and proud of it. General Gansevoort's famous portrait, in his gold-laced uniform, was painted by the noted artist Gilbert Stuart.
Herman Melville's father was an importer of French goods including felts and furs, and with the rest of the Melville family was well off. As a result he was able to send Herman to the prestigious New York Male High School from 1825 to 1829, and to the Grammar School of Columbia College from 1829 to 1830. The family apparently lived in a historic Dutch community and the parents had all their children baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church. In the 1830's the Melville business collapsed and the family was forced to move to Albany where Herman attended Albany Academy from 1830 to 1831. In 1831 when Herman was only 12 years old his father died and his mother had to depend on family relations for financial support of her own family consisting of Herman and his siblings. As was usual the case, during that time period, if you are over 12 years old, you are usually put to work in an apprentice type of position. And Herman was put to work as a 12 year old.
During the 1830's Herman worked on a variety of jobs. Initially he clerked in a bank and later in the family's fur and cap business, then run by Herman's older brother Gansevoort Melville. He also did some school teaching in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and worked on his uncle's farm. He also studied at Landingsburgh Academy to learn surveying so he could participate in the building of the Erie Canal. He was, however, unsuccessful at obtaining a position there.
In 1839 he became a member of the crew of a ship named, "St. Lawrence", a ship on its way to Liverpool, England. It was Melville's first sea voyage. In 1841 he signed up for a more adventurous voyage on the whaler Acushnet to the South Seas. During the voyage Herman and a companion rebelled against the harsh treatment by the captain and escaped from the ship while it was in the harbor of Nurkahiva, an island in the Marquesan Island chain. The island they found themselves on measured only 10 miles by 20 miles with a mountain in the center. It was occupied by two native tribes, one friendly, the Happars, and one unfriendly and cannibalistic, the Typees. After they escaped from their ship they, of course, decided to try to connect with the Happars, but ended up with the Typees. Melville and his partner were held prisoner by the Typees, who treated them reasonably well but kept them imprisoned. After a month as prisoners they were able to escape and were picked up by an Australian whaler.
The experience on the island as a prisoner of the Typees caused Melville to write his first novel based on that experience. It was entitled, "Typee, A Peep at Polynesian Life during Four Months' Residence in a Valley of the Marquesas", published in 1846. The book did well and went through several editions and established Melville as a literary author.
Melville's second book entitled, "Omoo, A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas", published in 1847 was based on another whaling journey Melville took part in. In 1849 he published, "Mardi, and a Voyage Thither". The story was based on another Polynesian adventure. Melville apparently tried some different literary styles in this book which were not appreciated by the critics and the market. In 1849 Melville returned to his older, but successful literary style with "Redburn, His Voyage", in 1849 and with "White Jacket", or its other title, "The World in a Man of War," in 1850. Both books were successful.
In 1850 Melville hooked up with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived nearby. This relationship awakened Melville's creative energies, and resulted in the production of his most-renowned novel, "Moby Dick", also entitled "The Whale". Interestingly, this book was not an instant success. But it certainly ensured Melville's reputation in literary history.
Melville produced the novel "Pierre", or "The Ambiguities," in 1852 and "Israel Potter, His 50 Years of Exile", in 1855. Neither book was considered a success. He followed this up with a number of short stories, two of which, "Bartley, The Scrivener", in 1853, and "Benito Cereno", in 1855 were considered significant works, and were successful. In 1856, he also published "Piazza Tales", an ontology of short stories.
In 1856 Melville journeyed to Europe, and followed up his travels with "The Confidence Man", in 1857. It was the last novel he would publish in his life time. He then was only 38 years old, and would still live for another 34 years.
So what did he do during those last 34 years of his life? There is not much information available. He did try his hand at poetry, and also did some other writing. But his literary productivity in comparison with the 1847-1857 period declined precipitously. The reason for the decline may have been the personal tragedies he encountered. In 1867 his oldest son shot himself. Another son, Stanwix, died after a long and debilitating illness in 1886.
Melville's published poetry appeared in 1866 as a volume of poems entitled, "Battle Pieces and Aspects of War". This was clearly a response or reaction to the horrors of the Civil War. A poem, "Clarel, A Pilgrimage in the Holy Land", in two volumes, was published in 1876.
During his final years Melville appears to have returned to writing prose. He completed the novel, "Billy Budd", in 1891, five months before his death. For a variety of reasons the book was not published during his life time. Even after his death it languished in his estate. Finally in 1924, 43 years after his death, it was finally published.
Melville's output as an author in terms of quantity and quality is amazing, especially considering that his productive career was during the twelve year period between 1846 and 1857. He essentially only had an elementary school education and had to quit school at age twelve. He was self-educated and self-taught. It was a truly amazing feat to become as renowned as he was and still is.
Herman Melville was married to Elizabeth Shaw on August 4, 1847. Their marriage produced four children, Malcolm [1849-1867], Stanwix [1851-1886], Elizabeth and Frances. Melville was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.
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Did You Know. Thomas Melvill, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne All Are Part of CBP History?
Thomas Melvill, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, all prominent men in American history, at some point in their lives served as officers of the U.S. Customs Service during the period from 1789 to 1885. They also shared interpersonal ties through family or friendship.
In addition, all three men shared a tendency to manipulate the spelling of their surnames. Thomas Melvill did not use the traditional "e" at the end of his surname. When asked why he did not use the "e" he would simply reply that his father did not.
His grandson, Herman Melville was born a Melvill, but sometime after his father's death in 1832 his family added the "e," which continues in use by the descendants of Allan Melvill. Hawthorne was born Nathaniel Hathorne, Jr. and shortly after graduating from Bowdoin College and the start of his writing career he decided to present himself as Hawthorne, with a "w" included.
Maj. Thomas Melvill
Thomas Melvill was born in Boston in 1751 to Allan and Jean (Cargill) Melvill. Scots-born Allan Melvill ran a successful Boston based import business with his brother John, where they maintained a warehouse on Dyer's Wharf near the swing-bridge.
At age 15, Thomas Melvill entered the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) which had been founded by the New Light Presbyterians in 1746 to train ministers. Graduating with a degree in theology at eighteen, Melvill went on to study in Scotland, where he received a second degree from St. Andrews College in Edinburgh.
Returning to Boston in 1773, 22-year-old Melvill had developed into an ardent American patriot and soon joined a Boston political group headed by Samuel Adams known as the Sons of Liberty. Samuel Adams was a cousin of John Adams, who would later be elected the second president.
In December of 1773, in protest against the British imposed tax on tea, Melvill dressed as an Indian and, along with 111 other protesters, participated in the Boston Tea Party.
With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Melvill quickly joined George Washington's forces. He fought in the battle of Bunker Hill, was promoted to the rank of captain in 1776 and rose to the rank of major in 1777. When the war ended in 1783, Melvill entered into what would be for him, a very successful political career.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts established a customhouse in Boston in 1786 and Melvill was appointed to the position of inspector. The U.S. customs collection district of Boston and Charleston was established on July 31, 1789, and on Aug. 3, 1789, Washington appointed Gen. Benjamin Lincoln to serve as the first collector for the new federal customs collection district of Boston and Charleston. That same day, the president appointed Melvill as the first surveyor for the collection district. Surveyors of customs, a traditional title handed from the British customs service, managed the ports outside forces such as inspectors, night inspectors, weighers and gaugers, measurers, etc.
Thomas Melvill would spend 25 years as surveyor for the customs collection district of Boston and Charleston. On Oct. 15, 1814, President James Madison appointed Melvill to the position of naval officer -- the number two position in the office of the collector. Melvill spent another sixteen years with the Customs Service, when a change in political power resulted in his removal from office on Dec. 31, 1829. He was just shy of his seventy-ninth birthday and had completed forty-one years of federal service. However, Melvill's days of service were not at an end, when at 80 years of age he was elected a member of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, where he served from 1830-31. Melvill died the following year, on Sept. 16, 1832.
Melvill was a well-known and charismatic figure in Boston. Just before his death, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. paid lasting tribute to him in his poem The Last Leaf. Holmes, clarifying his choice of the poem's title, wrote: "[Melvill's] aspect among the crowds of a later generation reminded me of a withered leaf which has held to its stem through the storms of autumn and winter, and finds itself still clinging to its bough while the new growths of spring are busting their buds and spreading their foliage all around it."
Melvill married Priscilla Scollay in 1774 -- the Scollay family name is perpetuated today in Boston's Scollay Square. Thomas and Priscilla had a long and happy marriage of fifty-eight years and eleven children were born to them. Their fourth child, Allan Melvill, was named for Thomas' father he went into business in New York City as an importer of luxury goods, but he was a poor manager, went bankrupt and died at fifty - just nine months before his father. Allan married Maria Gansevoort, the daughter of a prosperous Albany, N.Y., family of Dutch origin. Allan and Maria Melvill's third child was Herman Melvill - who would change his name to Melville, go on to write Moby Dick, and as an older man serve for nineteen years as a customs inspector at the port of New York.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born as Nathaniel Hathorne, Jr. in Salem, Mass., in 1804, the only son of Nathaniel Sr. and Elizabeth Manning Hathorne. The younger Nathaniel suffered the death of his father when only four years old. Hathorne graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825, where he made life long friends with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Franklin Pierce, who would go on to be elected the 14th president. It was sometime after he left Bowdoin that Nathaniel Hathorne decided to present himself as Nathaniel Hawthorne, possibly to disassociate himself from an ancestor who had presided over the Salem Witch Trials.
After graduating from college, Hawthorne returned to live in Salem where he spent a solitary life and concentrated on launching his writing career. In 1837 he was introduced to his future wife, Sophia Peabody. He was not making sufficient money from his writing to support a wife and realized he was going to have to find a steady occupation in order to marry and provide for a family.
His aged kinsman, Ebenezer Hathorne, had served as Debenture Accountant and Book-Keeper at the customhouse in Boston for many years. His future sister-in-law, Elizabeth Peabody, was instrumental in arranging Hawthorne's meeting with the historian George Bancroft, who at the time was serving as the collector of customs for the District of Boston and Charleston. Although Bancroft was not convinced about Hawthorne's political commitment, he eventually wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury recommending Hawthorne "biographer of Clilley, as a measurer." Secretary Levi Woodbury responded approving the "nomination of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Esq. to be Measurer, in place of Paul E. George, dismissed." Hawthorne's actual job title was measurer of coal and salt, for which he was paid an annual salary of $1,500.
It is difficult to imagine Hawthorne battling the elements, boarding ships to measure their loads of coal and salt, and surviving the rough life on Boston's Long Wharf. Evidently Hawthorne found working "on the outside" far preferable to being incarcerated in the basement of the customhouse, or as Hawthorne referred to it, "my darksome dungeon," where he prepared paperwork and spent many boring, depressing days when no ships entered the port. Working in dismal conditions, and experiencing the exhaustion from the manual labor required robbed Hawthorne of any desire or commitment to write during his tenure in the customhouse. He did keep a diary, which would serve him well in future writings, and he wrote voluminous letters to his future bride.
Hawthorne's tenure in the old customhouse was not to be long lived. After a year on the job, only his salary kept him from despairing and quitting. Sensing the Democrats would not win the upcoming election in 1841, Hawthorne saw the writing on the wall and tendered his resignation to Bancroft. Bancroft was not pleased, because he felt Hawthorne's jumping ship reflected poorly on his management of the customhouse. Hawthorne's effective date of departure from the grips of the Boston Custom House was New Year's Day 1841 -- he had spent just 20 days shy of two years as a customs measurer of coal and salt.
Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody married in 1842 and they nestled into the "Old Manse" in Concord - this was probably the most idyllically happy period in Hawthorne's life. However, money problems quickly arose, and the Hawthorne's were evicted from their "love cottage" because they could not pay the rent.
Overwhelmed by debt and disappointment that his writings were not providing sufficient income, Hawthorne was again forced to seek a government position. Friends and political associates sought positions for him. There was the possibility of postmaster in Salem, or exotic places such as U.S. consulate offices in Marseilles and China. Returning to the Boston Custom House, he approached the incumbent naval officer to inquire if a position was available -- but to no avail. Finally, the position of surveyor for the customs collection district of Salem and Beverly was proffered.
Hawthorne entered on duty at the Salem Custom House on April 9 1846. The surveyor's office was located on the main floor of the customhouse with huge windows overlooking the harbor and Derby Wharf - a vast improvement over Hawthorne's dismal quarters in the old Boston Custom House. By 1846 there wasn't much business in the tiny port of Salem, and Hawthorne soon felt captive in the customhouse with little to do except gaze out his windows in anticipation of a ship appearing on the horizon, bringing with it a brief period of bustling activity. Regardless of the boredom, Hawthorne applied himself diligently to all tasks and was considered to be an effective customs officer and manager.
Hawthorne's old nemesis, the Whig Party, swept into power with the election of Zachary Taylor as president in 1849, and again his position in the customhouse was threatened. His politically well connected friends, including Bancroft, the former collector in Boston, wrote to the Treasury Secretary pleading for Hawthorne to be allowed to remain as Surveyor. They spoke of his excellent performance and devotion to duty, and they emphasized Hawthorne's desperate need of a job in order to support his family. They asked that political pressures be put aside and allow Hawthorne to continue as Surveyor. Their pleas fell on deaf ears, and Hawthorne was removed from office on June 7, 1849 after just thirty-eight months in the customhouse.
As in Boston, Hawthorne's tenure in the Salem Custom House diminished his initiative to write. Once released from federal service and facing ever increasing financial pressures, he feverishly began to write again quickly producing in 1850 the critical monograph titled The Custom House, that became the introduction to his acclaimed novel set in Salem, The Scarlet Letter.
After the loss of his customhouse job, Hawthorne felt the need to remove himself from Salem. In 1850 he moved his family to Lennox. The Berkshire Mountains drew many literary figures to settle nearby, with George Bancroft, Fanny Kemble, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and Herman Melville having homes in Pittsfield, which was only six miles from Lennox.
At a now-famous picnic in Stockbridge in August of 1850, Hawthorne was introduced to Herman Melville, which resulted in a brief literary friendship. Hawthorne had written a favorable review of Melville's Typee in 1846, and Melville had just written an enthusiastic piece on Hawthorne's Mosses From an Old Manse. Melville believed he had found a friend, confidant and intellectual equal and he dedicated his newly published Moby Dick to Hawthorne.
After Franklin Pierce was elected president in November 1852, Melville hoped Hawthorne's friendship with the new president would aide him in securing a consular position overseas, but two unsuccessful petitions to secure a position for his needy friend left Hawthorne feeling "embarrassed and chagrined." Hawthorne himself was more fortunate in his quest for another federal position when Franklin Pierce appointed him to the prestigious and lucrative position of U.S. consul to Liverpool. The Hawthorne family moved to England in 1853, where they spent four happy years. Although the two authors had not seen each other in four years, Melville did visit briefly with the Hawthornes on his way to and from the Mediterranean in November of 1856 this would be the last time they would meet.
As in Boston, Hawthorne realized the political winds would be against him because his friend Franklin Pierce had not been renominated to run in the 1856 presidential elections. Thus, he tendered his resignation in 1857, before he would have to face removal by the incoming Buchanan administration. Hawthorne and his family then traveled through France and Italy, where they lived briefly in Rome and Florence, and then returned to live in Yorkshire, England, where Hawthorne's Transformation was published. The Hawthornes returned to "Wayside," their home in Concord in 1860, after seven years living abroad.
By 1864, Hawthorne's health and state of mind were fragile. In May of 1864, in an effort to bolster his spirits, former president Franklin Pierce proposed a tour through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Nathaniel Hawthorne died in his sleep at their accommodations in Plymouth, N.H. on May 19, 1864.
Herman Melville was born at 9 Pearl Street in New York City in 1819, close by the bustling port of New York and just a block away from where the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House stands today. The third of eight children, Herman's father was Maj. Thomas Melvill's son Allan and his mother was Maria Gansevoort, a member of a prominent New York family of Dutch origin. Gansevoort Street in Lower Manhattan was named for Maria's family and coincidently Herman Melville would spend many years working as a customs inspector on the Gansevoort Street Wharf.
Allan Melvill left his birthplace in Boston to make his way in the import business in New York City. He would comment negatively of his son Herman that he was "backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension . of a docile and amiable disposition." Allan Melvill was not the best of business managers and by 1830 he was forced to file for bankruptcy, leaving his once prosperous family in dire financial circumstances and lead to his premature death at fifty years of age. Herman Melvill was just thirteen when his father died in 1832. It was after Allan Melvill's death that his wife decided her descendants would henceforth be surnamed Melville (with an "e.")
Following Allan Sr.'s death, his eldest son, Gansevoort, attempted to resurrect the family import business, but he was as inept a manager as his father. In order to help ends meet, adolescent Herman Melvill worked as a bank clerk for two years, then on an uncle's farm. He then joined his brother in trying to salvage the family import business, but by 1837 Gansevoort also was forced to declare bankruptcy.
After the collapse of the family import business, Gansevoort arranged for twenty year old Herman to ship out to sea as a cabin boy on a merchant ship sailing for Liverpool in June, 1839. The next five years found Melville experiencing an adventurous life sailing to exotic places such as the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti and Hawaii. Returning home in October, 1844, Melville found his family's financial state much improved, and he was encouraged to record tales of his adventures. Typee (1846) and Oomoo (1847) were published with mixed reviews.
At 28, Melville took on further responsibilities in 1847 when he married Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of the Chief Justice of Massachusetts. Mardi and Redburn were published in 1849, followed by White Jacket in 1850.
In 1850, Melville and his family moved from Manhattan to the Berkshires, where they purchased a farm in Pittsfield, Mass., named "Arrowhead." At a now-famous picnic in nearby Stockbridge in August of 1850, Melville was introduced to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had recently moved to nearby Lennox. Hawthorne had written a favorable review of Melville's Typee in 1846, and Melville had just written an enthusiastic piece on Hawthorne's Mosses From an Old Manse. Melville believed he had found a friend, confidant, mentor and intellectual equal in the reclusive Hawthorne, which revived his spirits and energized him to enthusiastically apply himself to complete what is probably his greatest work, Moby Dick. Published in 1851, Melville dedicated Moby Dick to his friend: "In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne."
However, the intensity of Melville's admiration of the reclusive Hawthorne was not fully returned. After only a year in Lennox, the Hawthornes returned to live in Concord in 1851. The two writers would meet again only twice in 1856, when during Hawthorne's tenure as U.S. consul, Melville visited Liverpool on his way to and from the Mediterranean.
Melville enjoyed a degree of financial security from the sales of his early books, but by 1851 this income began to dwindle and by 1853 he was forced to resort to writing for newspapers and magazines, and conducting lecture tours. By late 1860, this income had dried up and Melville and his family were living almost entirely off the generosity of his father-in-law -- he was in dire need of a job that would provide him a steady income.
Melville's brother Allan suggested he try for a consular position in Florence, Italy. Melville utilized his political connections such as his father-in-law, a former Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and his Pittsfield neighbor Julius Rockwell, a former U.S. congressman and senator, to petition Sen. Charles Sumner to proffer his name to Abraham Lincoln in an effort to receive the appointment of U.S. consul to Florence. Unfortunately for Melville, Rockwell and the nine other prominent Massachusetts backing his appointment were unable to sway the president's choice, and Lincoln appointed T. Bigelow Lawrence of Boston to the position.
Finally, in 1866, Melville wrote to Henry A. Smythe, whom he had met in Switzerland and had been appointed collector of customs for the collection district of New York in May 1866. Melville was at last successful in attaining a federal position, and was sworn-in as a customs inspector at the port of New York on Dec. 5, 1866.
Unfortunately, Smythe allegedly managed a corrupt customhouse, and in March of 1867 there were three resolutions introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives calling for President Andrew Johnson to remove him from office. The president chose to ignore the resolution presented to him -- and Smythe continued as collector for the remainder of the Johnson administration.
On the other hand, Melville was known to be a withdrawn and often melancholy, honest and hardworking customs inspector, who devoted his days to a job that was demanding, intimidating, anxiety-producing, irritating and humiliating -- but nonetheless essential to his material well-being and that of his family. He managed to survive the political upheavals that occurred every four years when incumbents of the customhouse and appraisers' stores were cleared out in order to make way for the new lot of political appointees. When asked how he managed to survive being removed from office, Melville replied that he avoided going down to the customhouse - thus he remained out of sight and out of mind.
Melville's salary as an inspector was four dollars per day, with a six-day work week. He never received a promotion or a pay raise during his 19-year career with the Customs Service.
On their meager salaries, Melville and his partner(s) had to rent their own "work space" on or near the wharves, where they stored tools, prepared required paperwork, and huddled during inclement weather and the slow periods when there was no activity on the wharves requiring their services. As Hawthorne had experienced during his tenures in the Boston and Salem customhouses, Melville found work as a customs inspector exhausting and all-consuming of his energy, which left him without incentive to write.
By his sixty-sixth year, Melville was physically worn and his wife worried about his sanity. He tendered his resignation, effective Dec. 31, 1885. By the time of his retirement there were only eight inspectors senior to him remaining out of the force of 230 who had been on the payroll when he was sworn-in as a customs inspector. Melville spent the remaining six years of his life at his home at 126 East Street writing the novella Billy Budd, which was incomplete at the time of his death on Sept. 28, 1891. It would not be published until 1924.
1951 edition of The Melville Log.
In two volumes of nearly a thousand pages in total, The Melville Log may be the longest biography never written. Seventy years after its first publication, it’s still one of the most innovative takes on biography and a woefully under-recognized attempt to revitalize a form remarkably resistant to experimentation.
In the last ten years or so, there have been a number of celebrated alternative takes on biography. Alexander Master took us through a life in reverse in his Stuart: A Life Backwards, showing us how to see the dysfunctional adult Stuart Shorter through the lens of his childhood traumas. Craig Brown created a biography as kaleidoscope in Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret. Janet Malcolm revealed the inherent unreliability of all biographies in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes — which hasn’t stopped at least a half dozen more Plath biographies appearing since its first publication. And in Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer wrote about D. H. Lawrence by writing about not writing about D. H. Lawrence.
Jay Leyda, 1951.
The Melville Log, however, remains — to my knowledge — the sole example of the DIY approach to biography. “In the making of this book,” Jay Leyda wrote in his introduction, “I have tried to hold to one main aim: to give each reader the opportunity to be his own biographer of Herman Melville, by providing him with the largest possible quantity of materials to build his own approach to this complex figure.” The only way he could do this, he continued,
… was to put together everything that could be known about this life, to bring the reader close to Melville’s progress through as many of his days as could be restored, so that the reader may watch him as he works, sees, reacts, worries — to make those seventy-two years, from 1819 to 1891, and a portion of the America they were lived in, in Henry James’s word, visitable. This approach forbade an emphasis on any part of his life to the exclusion of any other part, and forbade the neglect of material that seemed, in itself, of small importance. I trust the reader will find enjoyment in traveling alongside Melville — through good days and bad days, through great aims and trivial duties — as his body and mind grow and change — in a constant present, accumulating past experiences, but without knowing a future.
Without knowing a future. Leyda recognized the crucial flaw that limits the realism of any work of biography or history: unlike the subjects, the author suffers from knowing how things turned out. For us, Melville lived in the past. But as David McCullough has put it,
One might also say that history is not about the past. If you think about it, no one ever lived in the past. Washington, Jefferson, John Adams, and their contemporaries didn’t walk about saying, “Isn’t this fascinating living in the past! Aren’t we picturesque in our funny clothes!” They lived in the present. The difference is it was their present, not ours. They were caught up in the living moment exactly as we are, and with no more certainty of how things would turn out than we have.
Though Herman Melville was born on 1 August 1819, Leyda opens his log two weeks later. Though Melville was certainly present at his birth, he wasn’t present in a conscious sense. But his infant subconscious likely sensed that he was coming into a family teetering on the edge of disaster. Thus, Leyda opens with an ominous letter to Melville’s father from one of his business partners: “I am under the painfull necessity of informing you that on the 9th instant I was obliged to Stop payment….” In the next, Herman’s grandmother Catherine Gansevoort is replenishing the family’s larder with an order including four gallons each of rum and Holland gin. When Herman is just five weeks old, his mother takes the children to her parents’ house in Albany to avoid the “epidemic fever” hitting New York City. Herman’s father writes his own father hopefully, “the alarm of Fever has suspended the little Business doing, but I hope with the blessing of GOD, confidence will soon return & Business revive again….”
Day by day, fragment by fragment, Leyda builds Melville’s world, spreading wider to take in political, economic, and social events, digging deeper into Melville’s own thoughts as shown in his journals and letters, and as reflected in those of his family and friends. Of course, his choice of fragments is not without a certain design or direction. As this excerpt shows, even as Moby Dick was being typeset and registered for copyright, a report was reaching New York of an incident proving that the fate of the Pequod was no wild invention.
Extract from The Melville Log from October 1851.
Leyda quotes, notes, extracts, reproduces, and interpolates. He invites us to look over his shoulder as he sits in the archive, reading Allen Melville’s calculation of his brother’s profits up to the publication of Moby Dick — and his dim prospects of significant profits from his newest title.
Allan Melville’s reckoning of his brother’s profits, from early September 1851.
This acccumulation of detail does not, however, guarantee that Leyda’s account is substantially more realistic than any conventional biography:
I found that while some aspects of Melville’s life grew more clear in the process, other aspects — usually the most important and creative ones — grew more complex and less clear. Even now that the casually undertaken project has grown into a book, and an enormous amount of material has been examined, I could not say that I know Melville any more than I can say I know why certain artists with whom I’ve had long friendships are artists.
Considering the lengths to which Leyda had pursued information about Melville, this is an unexpectedly frank admission. But one reason he chose to present a log of Melville’s life rather than a narrative in the usual biographical form is that he recognizes the difficult of the task facing every biographer:
[T]his job has, at least, given me an understanding and sympathy for all biographers eternally forced to simplify the tangle of real life and time into comprehensible patterns. Finding great areas of his art unused by biographer and critic, and excited by the discovery that Melville’s life was as dramatic as his art, I decided to take this documentary voyage outside the conventional realm of biography, and see where it would lead. I called what I was doing a Log of Melville’s life, for my purpose was to record the essentials of that life’s latitude and longitude, of its weather, course, whales captured or whales merely seen.
Leyda knew that even The Melville Log was itself only a fragment. Letters to and from Melville and other pertinent documents would, and did, emerge after its publication. In the mid 1960s, he took on the task of updating the Log to incorporate material revealed in the subsequent nearly twenty years, aided by Herschel Parker, and a new edition was published in 1969 by the Gordian Press with a supplemental chapter.
Already suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, however, Leyda had barely scratched the surface with his supplement and decided to begin again. He hired an assistant and began by cutting the earlier edition of the Log into pieces and trying to insert new material in a crude cut-and-paste manner. As Parker discovered when he and his assistant Mark Niemeyer visited Leyda’s home in 1987 in hopes of helping to get a new edition finished, the consequences of Leyda’s chosen method were disastrous:
You can imagine what happened: whenever you cut up a thousand pages into several thousand pieces so you can splice in hundreds of new pieces of papers, new items are going to get put in the wrong places, and new and old slivers of paper are going to get lost, half a page here, a page there. Every horror you can imagine did happen, and worse. One small oversight had disastrous consequences. No one had anticipated what would happen when, say, a Pittsfield item was spliced into a New York sequence, but hundreds of locations were thrown off, and given the technology being used these places were all but uncorrectable, since to splice in a new location would often mean recutting the rest of the heading and moving the last few words down a line (and in a heading running several lines would mean that all the lines would have to be recut).
Parker and Niemeyer gave up hope of making quick work of a new edition. Instead, as he told a meeting of the Modern Language Association in 1990, it was a task that could only be undertaken through a massive collaborative initiative, one he confessed himself too old and tired to lead. Though the effort was daunting, Parker still thought it worthwhile, “even in this age when literary history vaunts itself as being the product of stylistic verve, not archival research.” Though long retired from teaching, Parker still reflects on Melville and other subjects on his blog Fragments from a Writing Desk.
The Melville Log is not, perhaps, a book to be read through in the same manner one would a traditional biography. If you can afford the cost — and the shelf space — to keep a copy in your collection, it may be better appreciated by dipping at random into Leyda’s selections from the 26,356 days of Melville’s life. These dips will provide a constant reminder of the immediacy and inherent uncertainty present at every moment in any human life.
The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819-1891, by Jay Leda New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1951 New York: The Gordian Press, 1969
Herman Melville and Nantucket
Herman Melville wrote his classic novel Moby-Dick (1851) without having visited the island of Nantucket. The island and its whaling history form the backbone of his novel, and indeed are central symbols in the epic journey of the Pequod in its hunt for Moby-Dick, the white whale. Melville based the essentials of his plot, and the final climactic ramming of the Pequod, upon all that he had read about Nantucket’s whaling industry, and in particular, the gruesome tale of the Nantucket whaleship Essex. After the publication of Moby-Dick, Melville finally visited the island, and met face-to-face with Captain George Pollard Jr., the captain who survived one of the most harrowing ordeals at sea in human history.
In one brief chapter of Moby-Dick (1851), Chapter Fourteen, “Nantucket,” Melville wrote the definitive passage about the island without ever having visited its sandy soil: “Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it—a mere hillock, and elbow of sand all beach, without a background.” Nantucket in a nutshell: a pile of sand, a glacial afterthought, but also a “corner of the world,” connected and connecting the small with the vast, an insignificant nothing that is part of the main.
/> Ocean House Hotel (now the Jared Coffin House)
Melville went on to marvel at the whalemen who made Nantucket great: “What wonder, then, that these Nantucketers, born on a beach, should take to the sea for a livelihood! They first caught crabs and quohogs in the sand grown bolder, they waded out with nets for mackerel more experienced, they pushed off in boats and captured cod and at last, launching a navy of great ships on the sea, explored this watery world put an incessant belt of circumnavigations round it.. . . And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders.”
It was not until the evening of July 6, 1852, that the author first set foot on Nantucket, visiting the place that had long haunted his imagination, and, in the tale of the ill-fated Nantucket whaleship Essex, had been a major source for Moby-Dick. In the company of his father-in-law, Massachusetts Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, Melville bunked down at the Ocean House at the corner of Broad and Centre streets, looking across onto Captain George Pollard’s house on Centre. The following day, Melville and the judge “dined with a friend,” commonly held to be Thomas Macy of 99 Main Street, where the men are believed to have shared a meal. Thomas was son of “the worthy Obed,” whose History of Nantucket Melville had also devoured in preparation for Moby-Dick.
The next day, Melville and the judge enjoyed an island tour by carriage “to Siasconset, & various parts of the island.” Melville described majestic Sankaty Head Light on the bluff in a letter to Hawthorne: “The air is suppressedly charged with the sound of long lines of surf. There is no land over against this cliff short of Europe and the West Indies. . . .The sea has encroached also upon that part where their dwelling-house stands near the light-house . . . in a strange and beautiful contrast, we have the innocence of the land eyeing the malignity of the sea.”
Pacific Bank on Main Street, Nantucket
Later, the visitors “passed the evening with Mr. Mitchell the astronomer, & his celebrated daughter, the discoverer of comets.” This gathering occurred at the Mitchells’ quarters above the Pacific Bank on Main Street. Meeting the brilliant Maria Mitchell, Melville was inspired by her feminine intellectuality to pen one of his finer poems, After the Pleasure Party, in which he struggles with the question of sexuality and passion:
Now first I feel, what all may ween,
That soon or late, if faded e’en,
One’s sex asserts itself. ll. 33-35
Capt. George Pollard’s house, 46 Centre Street
On their last day on island, July 8, making “various calls & visits,” Melville met with Captain Pollard himself. Much later he recalled the encounter: “I—sometime about 1850-3—saw Capt. Pollard on the island of Nantucket, and exchanged some words with him. To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.” The “nobody” Pollard, after surviving the ordeal in which he ate the flesh of his own cousin, Owen Coffin, had become the town’s night watchman. This encounter with Pollard left a deep impression on Melville. The image of the survivor sea captain’s face was one he would take with him from his Nantucket visit—his only trip to the island that had enriched and troubled his imagination for much of his life. He would recall the captain in his poem Clarel (1876):
Never he smiled
Call him, and he would come not sour
In spirit, but meek and reconciled:
Patient he was, he none withstood
Oft on some secret thing would brood. ll. 96-100
- Herman Melville: Nantucket’s First Tourist, by Susan Beegel
- Moby-Dick and Nantucket’s Moby-Dick: The Attack on the Essex, by Thomas Farel Heffernan
- “A Fine, Boisterous Something”: Nantucket in Moby-Dick, by Mary K. Bercaw
The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.
Herman Melville: Nantucket’s First Tourist?
Sometime near sunset on Tuesday, 6 July 1852, the sidewheel steamer Massachusetts churned into Nantucket harbor. Standing on her deck was a young man who had never seen the island before. True, he had served as a harpooneer on board the Nantucket whaleship Charles and Henry, and had read such classics of Nantucket literature as Owen Chase’s Narrative of the Loss of the Whale Ship Essex of Nantucket, William Lay and Cyrus Hussey’s Narrative of the Globe Mutiny, and Obed Macy’s History of Nantucket. He had even written a rather long book about Nantucket whaling himself- MobyDick. But thissummereveningin 1852 marked Herman Melville’s first glimpse of Nantucket, the “ant-hill int he sea” that had long captured his imagination.
When Captain Edward Barker had seen the Massachusetts made fast to the wharf and her gangplank lowered, Melville disembarked with his two companions:
Lemuel Shaw, his father-in-law and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, and John Henry Clifford, a prominent New Bedford lawyer and Attorney General for Massachusetts. Shaw and Clifford were traveling to Nantucket on business. Just as today’s Superior Court justices periodically hold court on the island, so too Judge Shaw was required lo hear Nantucket cases at regular intervals. Attorney Clifford had come to represent various clients in court, and perhaps to do a little campaigning, for Clifford was running for governor on the Whig ticket.
It’s ironic that this former whaleman, the author of Moby-Dick, was arguably Nantucket’s first tourist- the first to visit the island for rest and relaxation, and to enjoy her historic sites. As the three men made their way to their night’s lodgings (probably Ocean House, a hotel then belonging to the steamship line, and today privately owned and known as the Jared Coffin House), they may have noticed that the island’s streets seemed unusually quiet. That week the editor of the Nantucket Mirror complained bitterly about “the mass exodus of citizens to the mainland” to “enjoy independence day abroad and make a pleasant excursion.” School had been let out to “enable teachers and scholars to avail themselves of the benefit of a trip to Hyannis,”and Fi re Companies #6 and #8 had gone to march in a parade in New Bedford. In an era when people left Nantucket for “social enjoyment and the benefit to the health from a change of scenery,” Melville may have been the first to travel to the island for those advantages. Still, the grumbling Mirror editor foresaw a lime when things might be different:
“It Might be well for the town on some future year to provide a celebration of the fourth of July at home that we might not only enjoy the occasion ourselves, but attract visitors to the island, to spend some of their funds here … A little more enterprise in such matters would do no injury to the interest or reputation of our ancient town.”
On the following morning.July 7th, Judge Shaw repaired lo his courtroom. He was to heart he complaint of one Nancy B. Wheldon, a woman deserted by her husband Thomas, who had “committed the crime of Adultery with divers lewd women to your petitioner unknown.” Nancy wanted a divorce and a suitable maintenance, but she and Thomas may have kissed and made up before the trial, as no notice was given, and Shaw ordered the case discontinued. The other fourteen cases on the docket that day involved dull disputes over deeds, insurance, inheritances, and bankruptcies. Judge Shaw made his decisions with great rapidity.and after just two hours in court was ready to rejoin his son-in-law.
We don’t know what Herman Melville did on thatJuly morning while the Chief Justice was in court. Perhaps he merely slept late, or perhaps he went with his father-in-law to hear the day’s caseload. Maybe he lingered over breakfast and read the Nantucket papers. lf he did, he would have seen Judge Shaw criticized i.n the Mirror, a newspaper opposed to capital punishment, for sentencing a murderer to death by hanging. He might have read about a startling new invention, an electric harpoon powered by a handcranked battery and capable of electrocuting sharks and pilot whales. He could have perused the emotional editorials about slavery and glanced at articles about the nation’s eagerness to exploit its western territories. In July 1852, the United States had troops in the Isthmus of Panama to protect this overland shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and planned to spend thirty million dollars on the construction of a transcontinental railroad. Settlers greedy for California gold were decimating Indian populations. “Humanity may mourn but the march of the pioneer of a system will still be onward … ” proclaimed the Mirror.
If Melville went for a walk, he may have stopped to browse at a bookstore on the corner of Main and Orange streets where Mitchell’s Book Corner stands today. The
proprietor would have known him, having advertised in the past-“New novel by Herman Melville. Redburn, his first Voyage being the Sailor Boy Confessions and Reminiscences of the son of a Gentleman, in the Merchant service,just rec’d … ” Or perhaps he shopped for a souvenir for his wife Elizabeth. Nantucket’s stores were well supplied with fur caps, cashmere and Bay State shawls, boas and muffets, French kid slippers, plain and rich chintz, printed muslins,silks,chemizetts, and lace-trimmed sleeves to match. Nostalgia for his days at sea may have drawn Melville to the docks, where he would have found wholesale dealers in copper, cordage, duck, and chains purveyors of London and Liverpool chronometers and other fine nautical instruments and manufacturers of sperm, lard, and whale oil.
However Melville spent the morning, he rejoined his father-in-law at noon to “dine with a friend,” commonly held to be Thomas Macy. A former postmasterof Nantucket and a prosperous importer and manufacturer of sperm oil, Macy was intensely active in island politics. The son of Nantucket historian Obed Macy, Thomas had a gift for public speaking, and was much in demand as the presiding officer at town meetings and other public assemblies. Macy and Shaw had met on many previous occasions and Melville owned a copy of Obed Macy’s History of Nantucket personally inscribed to him by Thomas. Melville had cited the book in Moby-Dick, where he refers to “the worthy Obed.” Thomas Macy must have appreciated the young author’s enthusiasm for his father’s work. Without unduly stretchingavailable evidence, we may assume that the three men dined companionably in Macy’s elegant home at 99 Main Street.
After dinner, they rode “to Siasconset, & various parts of the island.” Sankaty Bluff, with its attractive lighthouse newly constructed in 1849, made a particular impression on Melville, and his literary imagination began to work on a story about a lighthouse keeper’s daughter named Agatha. She would rescue and tenderly nurse a shipwrecked sailor, and they would be married and have a daughter. Then, the husband would go to sea, and Agatha would await his return for seventeen years, only to find that in the interval he had married another woman and had children by her as well. The story would be based on an actual case recounted to Melville by lawyer John Clifford on their Nantucket visit, and would be filled with Melville’s admiration for “the great patience, & endurance, & resignedness of the women of the island in submitting so uncomplainingly to the long, long absences of their sailor husbands.” Agatha was not to be a merely passive heroine, however. She would be “learned” in maritime matters and “active during the wreck,” her lover’s “saviour” when his ship is driven onto Nantucket shoals in a great storm. Sankaty Bluff would form a dramatic setting for such a story, and in an August 1852 letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville describes it in detail:
“The afternoon is mild & warm. The sea with an air of solemn deliberation, with an elaborate deliberation, ceremoniously rolls upon the beach. The air is suppressedly charged with the sound of long lines of surf. There is no land over against this cliff short of Europe & the West Indies. Young Agatha … comes wandering along the cliff. She marks how the continual assaults of the sea have undermined it so that the fences fall over, and have need of many shiftings inland. The sea has encroached also upon that part where their dwelling-house stands near the light-house. Filled with meditations, she reclines along the edge of the cliff and gazes out seaward … , Suddenly she catches the long shadow of the cliff cast upon the beach 100 feet beneath her. It is cast by a sheep from the pasture. It has advanced to the very edge of the cliff, and is sending a mild, innocent glance far out upon the water. Here, in strange and beautiful contrast, we have the innocence of the land placidly eyeing the malignity of the sea.”
Nantucket readers would like nothing better than a Herman Melville story about the Sankaty lighthouse-keeper’s daughter, but the fate of the Agatha tale remains a mystery. We know that Melville planned the story carefully, for he wrote three long letters to Hawthorne about it in 1852 and obtained john Clifford’s notes on the case. And we know that he intended to write the story, for after an autumn 1852 visit to Hawthorne in Concord, Melville told his friend that he intended to begin it “immediately upon reaching home,” and asked Hawthorne to “breathe a fair wind” upon the endeavor. Family letters tell us that Melville wrote steadily throughout the winter and spring of 1853, and, by late May, had completed a manuscript he called The Isle of the Cross, a work believed to be the Nantucket story, almost certainly a novel. Later that spling he apparently submitted his work to Harper Brothers for publication, but, for reasons unknown, “was prevented from printing” it. The reasons must have been compelling, for Melville never again attempted to publish The Isle of the Cross. Today, the whereabouts of his Nantucket novel are unknown. The manusclipt may have been lost or destroyed after Melville’s death or even duling his lifetime, but it’s prettier to think that the yellowing, hand-written pages survive in an old trunk in some dusty attic, waiting to be discovered.
After their excursicH around the island, Melville and judge Shaw “passed the evening with Mr. Mitchell the astronomer, and his celebrated daughter, the discoverer of comets.” Mr. Mitchell, of course, was William Mitchell, cashier (a position equivalent to president) of the Pacific National Bank, former president of the Nantucket Atheneum, and Fellow of Harvard College. His celebrated daughter, Maria Mitchell, was a talented astronomer and mathematician in her own right, and had in 184 7 astonished the world by discovering a telescopic comet, winning a gold medal from the King of Denmark and becoming the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
As far as William and Maria Mitchell were concerned, Chief justice Shaw was their most notable guest that evening. They might have asked him about his role in a sensational Boston trial of 1850, when chemistry professor john Webster was found guilty of murdering a prominent citizen named Parkman, hanging his body from grapples in a locked vault, and gradually disposing of the bits and pieces in a laboratory furnace. Or they might have asked about his 1851 walk through a furious, stone-flinging mob to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act in the Sims trial, for despite his personal abhorrence of slavery, Shaw believed (prophetically) that without the rule of law dissent over slavery could plunge the country into civil war. Or the Mitchells might have chosen to discuss science with Shaw. Like Maria, he was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he had published papers in the Academy’s proceedings on subjects suchascamphene, a burning fluid expected to replace sperm oil.
In fact, Shaw’s fame overshadowed Melville’s for many years. Because the judge’s long career coincided with the Industrial Revolution in Massachusetts, his decisions deeply influenced commercial law in the United States, and in a 1918 biography of Shaw, his now renowned son-in-law is mentioned in just two sentences and a footnote carefully explaining that “Herman Melville was an author of considerable ability.” Yet, although Melville was unknown to many of his contemporaries, the Mitchells would have been familiar with his talents, and perhaps able to draw him into discussion. The Nantucket Atheneum owned a copy of his Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, and William Mitchell, who was interested in the South Seas, might have asked Melville about his sojourn with a cannibal tribe in the Marquesas. The Nantucket newspapers had reviewed Omoo and Redburn, and Maria Mitchell may have purchased a copy of Moby-Dick for the Atheneum during her tenure as librarian.
We can only speculate about what might have been discussed that evening in the Mitchell’s living quarters at the Pacific NaÂtional Bank, but one thing is certain. Unless it was raining or foggy, father and daughter took Melville and Shaw to their makeshift observatory on the roofof the bank for a view of the stars, a treat they characteristically extended to distinguished guests. After a similar visit, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in his diary, “In William Mitchell’s observatory I saw a nebula in Cassiopeia, the double stars at the pole, the double stars of Zeta Ursi.”
Although they met only this once, Melville would remember Maria Mitchell, a dark-eyed, handsome woman almost exactly his own age, for the rest of his life. Sometime between 1886 and 1891, the year of his deal h, he wrote a very strange poem titled “After the Pleasure Party” and told in the voice of a woman astronomer. Melville had been recently reminded of Mitchell by Julian Hawthorne’s biography of his parents, Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife, a book which mentions the astronomer’s long sojourn with the Hawthorne family in Italy, and her celibate career as a professor of astronomy at Vassar College. While “After the Pleasure Party” has little to do with the actual life of Maria Mitchell, Melville clearly identified with her sacrifice of sexual fulfillment for science, and her voice becomes a vehicle for his own despair over a life he believed wasted in the pursuit of a maddeningly elusive literary fame:
“And kept I long heaven’s watch fort his, Contemning love, for this, even this? O terrace chill in Northern air, o reaching, ranging tube I placed Against yon skies, and fable chased Till, fool, I hailed for sister there Starred Cassiopeia in Golden Chair. In dream I throned me, nor I saw In cell the idiot crowned with straw.”
The next day, Melville’s last on Nantucket, was also full, spent in “various calls&: visits.” Judge Shaw recorded the most important visit-“Amongst others met with Captain Pollard, who was master of the whale ship Essex, whale for the climactic final chapter of Moby-Dick.
“Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled. Some fell fiat upon their faces. Like dislodged trucks, the heads ofharpooneers aloft shook on their bull-like necks. Through the breach, they heard the waters pour, as mountain torrents down a flume.
What happened when Herman Melville met Captain Pollard, whose unhappy history he had recounted in Chapter 45 of Moby-Dick? According to the author, they simply “exchanged some words.” Melville could hardly have invoked this elderly man’s nightmarish memories by asking him about the loss of the Essex, about his three-month ordeal in an open boat, about the drawing of lots, about consuming his murdered nephew’s flesh to save his own life. Nor could Melville have asked Pollard about the loss of his second command, the ship Two Brothers, smashed on French Frigate Shoals somewhere west of the Sandwich Islands. But Melville did call on Pollard, perhaps in the parlor of his little house at 46 Cent re Street, now the Seven Seas Gift Shop. The ill-fated captain had long ago given up the sea to become a night watchman on Nantucket wharves, but while “to the islanders he was a nobody,” to Melville he seemed “the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble that I ever encountered.” Later Melville would write about Pollard in a poem called “Clarel.”
At ten o’clock on Friday morning, 9 July 1852, the steamer Massachusetts cast free from her moorings, carrying Herman Melville away from his first and last visit to Nantucket. Together with Judge Shaw, he was bound for another three days of rest and relaxation on Martha’s Vineyard, and a crossing by sailboat to Naushon. The trip to Nantucket had been a success. According to Shaw, “Melville expressed himself extremely well pleased with the excursion, he saw many things &: met with many people, whom he was extremely glad to see.” Or, as Melville himself described his vacation in the islands, scribbling in a guest register at Naushon-“Blue sky-blue sea-&: almost everything blue but our spirits.”
This article is from the Fall 1991 issue of Historic Nantucket.
The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.
Herman Melville Biography
Melville was born in New York City in 1819 to a family with deep roots in America. His mother, Maria Gansevoort Melville, was the daughter of General Peter Gansevoort of Albany, dubbed the “Hero of Fort Stanwix” due to his role in the defense of that fort in Rome, New York, during the American Revolution. The Gansevoorts had come to the new world in the 1600s and established themselves as one of the first families of Dutch Albany.
Melville’s father, Allan Melvill, was from a prominent family in Boston. Allan’s father, Thomas Melvill, also had a revolutionary pedigree, participating in the Boston Tea Party and serving a major in General Washington’s army. Washington later appointed Thomas Melvill Commissioner of Boston and Charlestown Harbor, an appointment reaffirmed by Presidents Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. It was Thomas Melvill who first bought property in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1816, for his son Thomas.
After Allan Melvill and Maria Gansevoort married in 1814, Herman’s parents settled in New York City and begun their ascent in New York society. Allan sold fine imported goods. Young Herman’s world was one of servants and dancing schools. When Herman was only 11, however, Allan went bankrupt, forcing the family, which now included eight children, to flee the creditors and move to Albany. Just two years later, Allan Melvill died, leaving his widow with eight children under the age of 17. Herman and his older brother Gansevoort were pulled out of school in order to help support the family.
In 1832, Herman Melville (after Allan’s death, Maria added an “e” to the family name) made his first visit to Pittsfield to visit his Uncle Thomas who lived in the house owned by Major Thomas Melvill. Herman fell in love with the Melvill farm and spent many happy hours there working and hiking the land. His visits there would continue until 1850, when Melville decided to move his family to Pittsfield permanently.
In the years after Allan Melvill’s death, Herman received only sporadic educational instruction and he struggled to find a vocation. He worked as a bank clerk, a clerk in a cap and fur store, and a schoolteacher in Pittsfield and in New York State. He took a surveyor’s course and went west hoping to find a job. He also did a stint in the merchant marine in 1839, sailing to Liverpool, England on the regular trader St. Lawrence as a “boy.”
In 1841, Melville signed on the whaler Acushnet and set sail from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, on a three-year whaling voyage. He jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands, motivated to leave by an unpleasant captain, and spent four weeks among the natives before boarding other ships to Tahiti then Hawaii. Eventually Melville joined the United States Navy, sailing home on the frigate United States. On this trip Melville honed his story-telling skills, and when he arrived home in 1844, he was ready to take up a pen for a career in writing.
After settling back with his family in Lansingburgh, New York, outside Albany, Herman began to write down his stories . The result was five books all drawing on his experiences at sea. Typee (1846) was based on Melville’s adventures after jumping ship in the Marquesas Islands its sequel was Omoo (1847), set in Tahiti. Mardi (1849) was a South Seas fantasy. Redburn (1849) was a semi-autobiographical account of Melville’s days in the merchant marine, and White-Jacket (1849) told the tale of life on a U.S. Navy man-of-war.
Melville enjoyed moderate success with these novels and was now an established member of the American literary scene. He had also won the heart and hand of Miss Elizabeth Knapp Shaw of Boston, the daughter of an old family friend, Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The young couple married in 1847 and settled in New York City.
In 1850, Herman, Lizzie, and their baby son Malcolm spent the summer in Pittsfield at the Melvill farm. Herman was inspired by the beauty of the region, particularly the view of Mount Greylock, highest point in Massachusetts, from the farm house window. He was working on a story about the whale fisheries as well as writing some literary reviews for a friend’s magazine when he was invited to go on a picnic to Monument Mountain, just south of Pittsfield. Also invited on the excursion were two other literary notables: Oliver Wendell Holmes and Nathaniel Hawthorne, both Berkshire residents. Melville and Hawthorne met for the first time and struck up an instantaneous close friendship.
On January 3, 1841, the 359-ton square-rigged whaleship Acushnet left New Bedford harbor for the Pacific Ocean. This scene had played out many times before in the seaport, but this particular vessel had among its crew the 21-year-old Herman Melville.
Desiring adventure and still reeling from his father’s death, Melville sought to pacify his “reckless and rebellious side” he signed onto the whaling crew on December 30, 1840. In the following 18 months, Melville not only learned about the whaling trade, but found inspiration for the American novel Moby Dick.
It was not surprising that Melville chose New Bedford as his point of embarkation. In 1841, the port was the whaling capital of the world. Its waterfront teemed with sailors and tradespeople, drawn by the industry’s promise of prosperity and adventure.
By 1823, New Bedford had surpassed Nantucket in the number of whaling ships leaving its harbor each year. By 1840, with the arrival of the railroad and easier access to New York and Boston markets, New Bedford became the dominant port.
A decade after his whaling adventure, Melville wrote Moby Dick at his home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Structures like the Seamen’s Bethel, Custom House, and the Benjamin Rodman house may have inspired Melville to write so vividly about the New Bedford landscape in Chapters 2 and 13 of the novel. Though some buildings are long-gone, the city of New Bedford retains some of the landmarks and a good deal of the character that sparked Melville’s imagination.