Herman Melville (1819-1891) was born into a wealthy and socially connected family in New York City and chose a life as exciting as his Moby-Dick Narrator Ishmael. He spent years at sea on whaling ships and traveled to distant places, but also struggled to make it as a writer while supporting a large extended family. To celebrate his birthday on August 1st, we dive into Melville’s adventure and fish for surprising facts.
1. Herman Melville’s mother changed the spelling of her last name.
Despite the wealth and lineage of his family – his mother Maria Gansevoort came from one of the first Dutch families in New York and his father Allan Melvill came from old Boston stocks ̵
2. Herman Melville struggled to find a job.
Thanks to a national financial crisis in 1837, Melville had difficulty finding a job, but it was not due to a lack of trial and error. He served as a bank clerk, teacher, surveyor and crew member on a parcel ship before registering with the whaler in 1841 Acushnet from New Bedford, Massachusetts, then the world’s whaling capital. He served on board several different whalers and rose to the role of harpooner. His adventures at sea were the cornerstone of Melville’s questioning of people, morals and nature in Moby-Dick. In this novel, Melville (in Ishmael’s voice) says: “My Yale College and Harvard were a whale ship.”
3. Herman Melville jumped in the middle of a three year trip.
Melville and the AcushnetThe captain didn’t get along. When the ship reached the Marquesas Islands, Melville and a friend, Richard Tobias Greene, hid in the woods until the ship left. They spent a month with the Pacific Islanders. Melville was impressed by her sophistication and calm; Most Europeans believed that Polynesians were cannibals. He also found reason to criticize European attempts to “civilize” the islanders by converting them to Christianity. In his first two novels, Melville drew on his experiences in the South Pacific that became bestsellers that got out of control: Type (1846) and Omoo (1847).
4. Herman Melville was inspired by a mountain.
Melville moved to Arrowhead, his charming mustard-colored house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1850 with his wife Elizabeth and son after he became famous as a popular adventure novelist. He set up his desk in the upstairs study so he could look out of the north-facing window that perfectly framed the summit of Mount Greylock, the highest mountain in Massachusetts. Melville looked at the summit on a sunny day and was impressed by how much the horizontal tip looked “like a sperm whale soaring in the distance”. He arranged his desk so that he could see the top if he happened to look up from his work. It was in this room that Melville completed his manuscript in early 1851 Moby-Dick.
5. Herman Melville has fictionalized an actual whaling disaster.
While on the AcushnetMelville had heard of a notorious shipwreck from the son of one of his survivors. In November 1820, a massive sperm whale attacked and sank the whale ship Essex from Nantucket in the middle of the Pacific. The crew, stranded in three small boats with little food or water, chose to drive more than 4,000 miles to South America instead of 1200 miles to the Marquesas Islands – where Melville had enjoyed his idyll – because they thought they would be natives eaten by the United States. Ironically, some of the Castaways ate their dead shipmates to survive.
Melville used the catastrophe to be the culmination of Moby-Dickin which the Pequod of Nantucket is destroyed by the white whale. Melville visited Nantucket for the first time after the novel was published. He interviewed that personally EssexCaptain George Pollard, who had survived the terrible ordeal and became the city’s night watchman. Melville later wrote: “For the islanders, he was a nobody – for me the most impressive man who was completely humble and even humble – whom I have ever met.”
6. Moby-Dick was a flop.
Readers who expected another adventure like his earlier novels Type or Redburn were deeply disappointed when Melville’s masterpiece was published in November 1851. The British edition of Moby-Dick or the whale received some positive reviews in London newspapers, but American reviewers were shocked by its obscure literary symbolism and complexity. “There is no method in his madness; and we have to pronounce the main feature of the tape [the character of Captain Ahab] a perfect failure and the work itself inartistic, ”wrote the New York Albion. The reviewer added that the style of the novel was: “Oil, mustard, vinegar, and pepper should be served as a dish rather than scientifically administered in sauce form.”
7. Herman Melville loved his chimney very much.
The arrowhead became the site of Melville’s family life and work. Finally, he and Lizzie, their two sons and two daughters, his mother Maria and his sisters Augusta, Helen and Fanny all lived in the cozy farmhouse. For a few years, Nathaniel Hawthorne was such a frequent guest that he had his own little bedroom next to Melville’s study. After this Moby-DickMelville wrote the novels Pierre and The shop steward, called his collection of works The Piazza Tales, Short stories like “Bartleby the Scrivener” and many other pieces there. Melville felt very attached to the house, especially the massive central chimney, which he immortalized in his short story “I and my chimney” in 1856. But his financial struggles afterwards Moby-Dick When Melville found no audience, he sold Arrowhead to his brother Allan in 1863. As a homage, Allan painted a few lines from “I and My Chimney” on the brickwork of the chimney, which are still visible today.
8. Herman Melville finally got a day job.
Melville’s chronic money problems led to a return to New York City in a brick townhouse on 104 East 26th Street in Manhattan, where the family benefited from being back in the hustle and bustle of civilization. Melville eventually found regular employment as a District Inspector with US Customs Service and maintained an office at 470 West Street. At the same time, he largely gave up writing short stories and novels in favor of poetry. Between the inspections, he wrote Clarel: A poem and a pilgrimage in the Holy LandBecause of its length in the Middle East in 1857. Because of its length – with more than 18,000 lines it is the longest poem in American literature – and its unconventional approach to its subject, Melville once called it “excellently suited for unpopularity”.
9. Herman Melville’s last major work was discovered by accident.
The centenary of Melville’s birth renewed interest in his novels and poems, most of which were long out of print. Raymond Weaver, a Columbia University literary professor who worked on Melville’s first major biography, worked with Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Melville’s granddaughter and literary executor, who gave him access to the author’s papers. While browsing through letters and notes in 1919, Weaver discovered the unfinished manuscript of Billy Budd in a tin bread box. Melville had begun writing the short story about a tragic sailor in 1888, but had not finished it until his death in 1891. Weaver edited and published the story in 1924, but initially viewed the story as “undistinguished”. Other scholars said so Billy Budd was Melville’s last masterpiece.
10. You can see Herman Melville’s personal collection of bells and whistles.
Just a short drive from Arrowhead, the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield is home to the world’s largest collection of Melvilliana in its Melville Memorial Room. In addition to first editions of Melville’s works and a full library of books about him, there are priceless items that belong to or are associated with the author. Fans can learn about the earliest known portrait of Melville, painted in 1848. carved wooden canoe paddles that he collected in Polynesia; his walking stick; his favorite inkwell, quills and other desktop tchotchkes; a collection of scrimshaw, cards and prints; and Elizabeth Melville’s desk. There is a section of the first successful transatlantic cable that Melville valued as a valuable souvenir, and even the bread box itself, in which Billy Budd had been hiding.