‘A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard’: the life of Herman Melville
William S. Reese’s collection of Melville artefacts invites us to contemplate the writer’s influences and the life of adventure that inspired his writing
Herman Melville is widely recognised as inextricable from the canon of 19th-century literature. It’s easy to forget that the American author best known for Moby Dick remained largely unrecognised during his lifetime, especially since his characters — like Starbuck, the inspiration for the café chain, or the ‘white whale,’ now shorthand for any far-fetched aspiration — have settled themselves so firmly into common usage.
The Herman Melville Collection of William S. Reese, from 1-14 September at Christie’s Online, is a rare sale of Melville’s letters, books and family ephemera. Featuring some of the few surviving artefacts from his private life, it is a unique opportunity to dive deeper into the fascinating inner workings of one of America’s — and indeed the world’s — greatest writers.
Born 1 August, 1819 in New York City, Herman Melville was the third of eight siblings born to Allan and Maria Melvill (nee Gansevoort). When Herman was ten years old, his father — a formerly well-to-do merchant — declared bankruptcy. Two years of hard times followed, during which the family moved upstate to Albany. The difficulties were compounded in 1831, when the patriarch died, leaving behind little money for his wife and children.
To distance themselves from the disgrace of bankruptcy — and perhaps logistically to dodge debt collectors — Melville’s mother added an ‘e’ to the family name. She worked odd jobs and eventually pursued a law degree, while Melville worked throughout the city and New England, eventually taking a job on a package ship, and then a whaling ship in 1841.
On 3 January, 1841, Melville set sail onboard the vessel Acushnet from New Bedford, Connecticut. As a member of its crew, he travelled down and around Cape Horn, through the Galapagos islands eventually anchoring at Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands near Tahiti. He did not, however, get back onboard.
Instead, he lived alongside his friend and fellow deserter Richard Tobias ‘Toby’ Green with the inhabitants of the island for nearly a month. This would be the basis for his novel Typee in 1846.
This tale of marooning, cannibalism and mutiny was so fantastic that his reviewers refused to believe that it was based on a true story. Indeed, it wasn't until Toby resurfaced that Melville's account was corroborated, and shown to be a realistic account of what the pair went through.
While working on the Acushnet, Melville was given a book about the Essex, a ship that was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820. It became one of the most important things he learned about in his life, giving him fodder to begin one of the greatest maritime novels ever written.
As he learned, the Essex departed from Nantucket in August 1819 with a 21-man crew headed for the bountiful whaling grounds off the west coast of South America. Arriving there after nearly a year of travel, they found the whale supply depleted but received a tip that they should voyage farther west — thousands of miles from land and deep in the South Pacific islands.
When they arrived in the promised whaling area in early November 1820, they did not encounter any whales for at least a week. But on 20 November, they were struck twice by a sperm whale approximately 85 feet long, opening a seam in the boat that began to fill with water. Rather than sail their smaller whale boats 1000 miles toward the Polynesian islands — which they thought were inhabited by cannibals — they decided to travel towards the western coast of South America, more than four times that distance.
In a gruesome irony, the 90-day journey saw the dwindling crew resort to cannibalism in the face of starvation and disease. Only five crew members made it back to land. When writing Moby Dick, Melville interviewed the ship’s captain, George Pollard, who after surviving the ordeal became Nantucket’s night watchman.
Before working on a whaling ship, Melville worked as a bank clerk, a teacher, a land surveyor and a crew member on a packet ship. Eventually rising to the role of harpooner, he wrote (in the voice of Ishmael) that ‘a whale-ship was my Yale college and my Harvard.’
But this would not prove enough to carry his literary endeavours forward. Just under 3,000 copies of Moby Dick sold in his lifetime, and the first edition of the novel was remaindered. When his novel Mardi also sold poorly, Melville was forced to take on a job as a customs inspector at the end of his life.
Though his life often tells the tale of loss and a struggle for money, Melville’s extended family was well off and his ancestors were among the first settlers in colonial America. Towards the end of his life, he enjoyed relative prosperity (though he still worked a day job) due to inheritances from various relatives, which allowed him to publish a few books of poetry.
Both of Melville’s grandfathers were prominent fighters in the Revolutionary War. On his father’s side, Major Thomas Melvill took part in the Boston Tea Party, later becoming a legislator and a long-time member of the Boston Fire Department.
His maternal grandfather, General Peter Gansevoort, commanded Fort Stanwix in Rome, New York, during the war. Fort Gansevoort, built on Ninth Avenue in New York City in 1812, was named in his honour and demolished 40 years later to build the terminus for the Hudson River Railroad — the tracks that now make up the High Line in Chelsea.
Melville’s job as a customs inspector was located almost exactly on the ground where For Gansevoort once stood.
When it was demolished, the city named the street Gansevoort Street, where the Whitney Museum stands today.
The writer’s obituary in the 29 September, 1891 issue of the New York Times spanned just a few lines, and referred to his now-famous novel as ‘Mobie Dick’. It illustrated how he was seen by the public at the time of his death but a few days later a Times writer — presumably a fan of his writing — revisited the piece to properly memorialise his life:
‘There has died and been buried in this city, a man about whom so little is known … that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but three or four lines.’
Four months before his death in 1891, Melville privately published Timolean, a book of poems in an edition of just 25 copies. It was his last work released during his lifetime.
The Melville family moved from New York to Arrowhead, their farm in the Berkshires, in the late 1840s. Herman met Hawthorne at a literary picnic hosted by a mutual friend in the area, and the two struck up a passionate and cerebral friendship. As Hawthorne lived just six miles away in nearby Lenox, they frequently got together, ‘discussing the Universe with a bottle of brandy & cigars,’ as Melville wrote in a letter between them.
It was in this period that Moby Dick was written, with Melville looking out his window upon the Berkshire mountains as he wrote. The first edition copy of Redburn, which Melville gifted to Hawthorne, is a remarkable token of friendship between two of the most prominent figures in American literature.
Melville was born in New York but went on to live elsewhere in America, the United Kingdom and Polynesia throughout his life. His first seafaring journey to Liverpool is documented in his novel Redburn. In his later years, Melville was a family man in New York, commuting to his job as a customs inspector from his house on 26th Street.
As Herbert Mitgang wrote in 1982 for the New York Times: ‘He probably took the Third Avenue El to work,’ referring to the early, elevated subway in the city. ‘It's strange to think of this man, who once sailed in square-rigged ships, riding the El.’
Melville’s travels often inspired his writing. Clarel, his 18,000-line poem from 1876, was written over a period of 20 years following his trip to Palestine in 1857. The hero of his poem travels much the same route that he did. Longer than Milton’s Paradise Lost as well as the Iliad and Odyssey, the poem marks Melville’s contribution to the canon of epic poetry.
The 20 years he took to complete the poem were a period of heavy burden for the writer. He dealt with the deaths of his mother, brother and cousin, as well as the suicide of his son.
This copy is one of the 126 first editions that escaped destruction by Melville’s publisher. Disappointed by reviews as well as its sales, Melville ordered G.P. Putnam & Co. to pulp the remaining 224 in 1859.
Melville remained a voracious reader throughout his life. Much of his property was burned — by him, or by his heirs — so it’s not always easy to confirm the direct influence of certain novels or events to his practice.
His heavily annotated copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy is an exception to this. It allows one to see exactly what he thought about specific instances in the poem and also bears timestamps allowing one to see exactly where he was on his journeys while reading it — such as a margin note that reads ‘Pacific Ocean Sunday Afternoon Sep. 22, 1860.’ The book’s annotations are reminders of the writer’s humanity, allowing enthusiasts of his work a greater understanding of how he experienced reading and where he was when he did so.