On a summer day in 1850, as a black thundercloud opened onto a huddled party of climbers, one of the men in the group was in a state of strange excitement. The rain that pelted Herman Melville was significantly colder than the downpour that had penetrated through the thick jungle foliage of Nuku Hiva as he and his friend Toby deserted the whaler Acushnet years earlier. Back then, he had wondered if the rain was ever going to stop. Now, atop the naked brow of Monument Mountain, he knew that, for all its violence, this was just a passing New England shower. He did not mind if the bracing rain continued until they were all soaked to the skin, for it prolonged his time in the company of perhaps the most fascinating man he had ever met: the great Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Was it his imagination or did the author read his thoughts? Did Hawthorne actually glance over at him and shrug his shoulders as if to say, in the words of his beloved Shakespeare, “Never did I hear so musical a discord, such sweet thunder”? Melville’s body tingled as if something had passed between them.
Monument Mountain, where the travelers took shelter, was named for a mound of stones at the bottom of a cliff. They marked the spot where a Mohican maiden had jumped in sorrow to her death, her incestuous love for a cousin forbidden. Had Nature been feeling vengeful that day, she could all at once have decimated the American literary scene. On that day, many of the greatest luminaries of the time were gathered at that spot: earnest and sober Evert Duyckinck, editor of the Literary World; Oliver Wendell Holmes, poet and doctor; the dandified James T. Fields, of the famous Boston publisher Ticknor & Fields; Cornelius Mathews, author; Hawthorne, who was living nearby in a red cottage in Lenox; the bearded Herman Melville; and all of their wives. The jovial Holmes fished out of his doctor’s bag a bottle of champagne and a silver cup and bade everyone to drink. Fields patted himself off as best he could with a large silk handkerchief. And Melville, feeling as vigorous and athletic as he ever had, climbed a peaked rock, which ran out like a bowsprit, and pulled and hauled imaginary ropes for the delectation of an admiring and somewhat apprehensive audience.
He suddenly stopped, jumping lightly from the rock. The attention had shifted to Hawthorne, who gazed toward the mountain range beyond. Ever observant, Holmes kidded Hawthorne that he must be looking for the great Carbuncle, a giant, glowing red gem of Indian legend that had featured in Hawthorne’s famous story. [For more information, see the entry on Hawthorne.]
Starting down the mountain, Melville chafed with impatience as Cornelius Mathews launched into a half-hour recitation of the tragic poem of the Mohican maiden’s leap. “Monument Mountain” had been composed by a famous poet of the region, William Cullen Bryant. But Melville was not in the mood for its unrelenting doggerel. He wanted to talk with Hawthorne.
The revelers dined at Fields’ cottage. Then they set out again, under the guidance of a Berkshire denizen, to take the treacherous path through the Icy Glen, a cleft in the rocks full of scattered, moss-covered boulders that looked like they had been tossed there by the hand of God. It was one of those spots in northern New England where ice might survive in a cleft, hollow, or talus cave all summer long. Their guide led them on a trail that would wreak the most powerful effect on excited senses. And as they plunged deeper into the forest, the slightly drunk Hawthorne started to call out that they were headed for certain doom.
It was during this adventure that Melville finally got the chance to converse with Hawthorne, and to make his impression. Not only was he won over by the great author’s melodious voice and elegant phrasing, he was struck by the depths of the man, and the way those amazing eyes seemed to see into the darkest shadows. If he could have, he might have impulsively thrown the mild-mannered author bodily into a carriage and taken him somewhere where they could live and write the rest of their days without these worries about money, about dependents, in exquisite and ambiguous companionship. What they talked about is, like so many other tantalizing aspects of the life of Herman Melville, a complete mystery. But it is known that the famously shy and retiring Hawthorne was moved by his meeting with Melville to make the unprecedented suggestion that they should spend a few days together before Melville went back to New York.
We are indebted to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife Sophia, one of the most trenchant and eloquent observers of her day, for this description of Herman Melville at the height of his powers: “He has very keen perceptive power but what astonishes me is that his eyes are not large & deep….They are not keen eyes, either, but quite undistinguished in any way….He is tall and erect with an air free, brave & manly. When conversing he is full of gesture & force….There is no grace or polish….once in a while his animation gives place to a singularly quiet expression out of these eyes, to which I have objected—an indrawn, dim look but which at the same time makes you feel—that he is at instant taking deepest note of what is before him—It is a strange, lazy glance, but with a power in it quite unique—It does not seem to penetrate through you but to take you into himself.
Melville may have aroused a tinge of jealousy in Sophia Hawthorne. He was one of the few men who drew Nathaniel Hawthorne out. He was also capable of staying at his host’s table until the wee hours. She is to be excused for dwelling on Melville’s eyes, which provided such a contrast to her husband’s beautiful and luminous set. Melville’s eyes had already seen much in life, not all of it good. Perhaps something in their small, half-lidded depths was capable of disturbing someone as astute as Sophia Hawthorne.
The Formation of Herman Melville
Herman Melville came from good Colonial stock. His father’s father had dressed up as a Mohawk and taken part in the Boston Tea Party. His mother was a Gansevoort, a name that had a stolidly martial ring to it in upstate New York, where her father, General Gansevoort, had famously held Fort Stanwix against the massed forces of the British and Indians. But in 1830, Melville’s father, a prosperous New York merchant, saw an investment of his collapse. In a frighteningly short time, he went from being a genteel member of the American mercantile class to being the target of lawsuits, a disgraced pauper with nine mouths to feed. For the next two years he made desperate attempts to restore the family’s fortunes. But any glimmer of hope went dark in 1832, as he sequestered himself in the bedroom of the house they could not pay for, lost his grip on sanity, and died in a maniacal state. Young Herman Melville was certainly old enough to have been touched by the hushed tones around the house, the air of malady. Perhaps he even witnessed the ravings.
In a manner typical of families of the early 19th century whose fortunes had suddenly gone bust, the Melvilles became dependent on the kindness of relatives. Herman probably spent the summer of his 15th year with his uncle Thomas Melville, who lived alternately in an imposing mansion south of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and in the local jail for failure to pay debts. Before he retired to the country to become an impoverished gentleman farmer, Melville had traveled to Tahiti and breathed the fragrant air of the exotic. Certainly his stories fed “a vague prophetic thought” of Herman’s, “that I was fated, one day or another, to be a great voyager.”
The great voyager set out humbly, in 1839, on the St. Lawrence, bound for Liverpool, as the lowest rank of sailor. He described what his life must have been like in Moby Dick. They “make me jump from spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadow….It touches one’s sense of honor, particularly if you come of an old, established family in the land….”
Melville returned from the sea to the news that his mother’s furniture was in imminent danger of repossession. He headed west to seek his fortune along the Erie Canal. He also tried teaching. Late 1840 found him, with his brother Gansevoort, in the famous whaling city of New Bedford, Massachusetts. They attended a sermon in the somber confines of the Whaleman’s Chapel, which faith or superstition drove many seamen to visit before taking to the seas. The Chapel was well known for its cenotaphs of sailors who had been lost at sea. No doubt Melville studied the marble tablet put there in remembrance of Captain Pollard of the Essex, which had been rammed by a whale and sunk in 1820, turning the survivors into cannibals. He found a job aboard the whaler Acushnet. On January 3, 1841, they sailed out, just as the Pequod did in Moby Dick, “almost broad upon the wintry ocean, whose freezing spray cased us in ice, as in polished armor.”
“A Whale Ship Was My Yale and My Harvard.”
— Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851
It was quite an education, so far from the Melville parlor, in the midst of crusty seamen, foreign harpooneers and rats. And with a pleasant derangement of the senses he found himself beyond the reach of the cold Northern climes, heading south below the Equator on the lookout for whales from the top mast.
Lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernable form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it.
Melville had the ability, or even propensity, to stitch the real to the fantastic—a great gift for an allegorist but dangerous, as he suggested above, if taken too far. In his monumental, two-volume biography of Herman Melville, Hershel Parker calls this tendency “morphing.” He also points out a passage in Omoo where Melville, having arrived at the bay of Papeete in Tahiti, notices a derelict whaling ship lying bilged upon the beach. “Before leaving Tahiti,” Melville narrates, “I had the curiosity to go over this strange ship, thus stranded on a strange shore. What were my emotions, when I saw upon her stern the name of a small town on the river Hudson! She was from the noble stream on whose banks I was born; in whose waters I had a hundred times bathed. In an instant, palm-trees and elms—canoes and skiffs—church spires and bamboos—all mingled in one vision of the present and the past.”
In July 1841, in another coincidence at sea, a chance meeting set the chick within him that would become Moby Dick to pecking at its shell. In a maneuver called gamming in the whaling industry, the Lima of Nantucket and the Acushnet pulled up next to each other and the captain and crew exchanged greetings. This gamming took place very near to the coordinates where the unfortunate Essex had been rammed by the homicidal whale. And who did Herman meet on board but the son of Owen Chase, who had witnessed the disaster and written the famous account. Before the ships parted, the son handed him a complete copy of his father’s Narrative. “The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea,” Melville later wrote, “and close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect upon me.”
But the Acushnet could not hold Melville. A year later, when the ship reached Nuku Hiva, he suggested to his friend Toby that they should desert. Toby assented. “We then ratified our engagement with an affectionate wedding of palms, and to elude suspicion repaired each to his hammock, to spend the last night on board.”
In a heavy rain, the two made their escape, Melville slipping and injuring his leg. The boys headed for the center of the island. They encountered a friendly tribe of Taipis who welcomed them into their village. And so they stayed among these people, befriended by some of the males and loved by the gorgeous “Fayaway,” a maiden of the tribe. He’d traded the Melville family’s sinking fortunes, the tragedy of his father’s death, and the abuse of a whaling ship for the indolence of a tropical isle. Everything was idyllic except for two things. Melville’s leg did not improve. And, perhaps even more ominously, they saw that it agitated their hosts enormously if, for any reason, they tried to leave the confines of the tribe. There were two possible reasons for that. This Taipi tribe was one of three warring tribes in the valley and perhaps their hosts were interested in protecting them. Another, more disturbing possibility had to do with the three fresh human heads, one of them Caucasian, that these gentle cannibals had tried to hide from Toby and Herman, who later also discovered of other body parts. This led to the question of whether they were being fattened up for a feast.
Toby somehow got away from the tribe on a mission to find medicine for Melville’s leg. He vowed to return immediately but he was scooped up by another ship and taken away, leaving Melville in the Taipis’ tender trap for three more weeks. With the help of a sympathetic member of the tribe, though, Melville eventually got aboard an Australian whaler, leaving the real-life Fayaway broken-hearted and quite possibly pregnant with his child. He had the misfortune, though, of being rescued by a vessel under the leadership of a captain who was incompetent at best, and sick at the time as well.
threw Melville and several other men who refused to “do their duty” into the “Calabooza Beretanee,” the British jail, under the care of the enormous and jovial Tahitian, “Captain Bob.” One thing seems certain: there was no confinement in these isles that was not simple to escape from. A bearded, unkempt Herman Melville and his companion, a Yankee doctor nicknamed “Long Ghost,” spent their days at the Calaboose in relative freedom and eventually slipped away quite easily by canoe.
Melville eventually boarded another ship and made it to Hawaii. In Honolulu he joined the U.S. Navy and sailed with the United States back to Boston, an experience that became White Jacket. Why did he decide that the charms of being an omoo (a wanderer, or beachcomber, in the local language) in the South Pacific were not enough for him? Biographer Newton Arvin suggested that Melville realized the impossibility of “going back” to a primitive state of being, and that perhaps he was bored as well. The islanders in Tahiti and Hawaii had been subdued by the missionaries and much of their most interesting aspects had become tabu, a fact that Melville lamented. (For this, he made several enemies among the God-fearing spreaders of morals and civilization of the time.)
Herman Melville’s career as a writer began simply enough: a suggestion from a family friend that he write down the stories of his adventures. They were already well rehearsed, having been honed on sailors during his return to the United States. And he’d already practiced abridging them for the general public, as he used some of the tamer stories to woo Lizzie Shaw, the daughter of Lemuel Shaw, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court and a friend of the family. They worked on the strong-willed Lizzie, of the rather heavy mannish face and fleshy lips, hair parted severely in the middle—she consented to marry the swashbuckling young sailor—and they became a success in the marketplace as well. For four years, Herman Melville wrote furiously. Typee was published in 1846 and Omoo in 1847. Mardi followed in 1849, along with Redburn and White Jacket. Over the course of these novels, Melville set loose a surge of words that documented his three-year adventure. They were straightforward books, of the memoir genre of their time: titillating, educational, and with less psychological delving than is popular today.
Pittsfield and Arrowhead
In the early 1850’s, with five books behind him and a white whale on the brain, Herman Melville compared himself to “one of those seeds taken out of the Egyptian Pyramids” which had been planted 3,000 years later in English soil and grew. “From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself. But I feel that I am now come to the inmost leaf of the bulb, and that shortly the flower must fall to the mould.” Rather than English soil, though, he planted himself in Pittsfield, a town he had loved ever since his stay with his uncle Thomas.
After the excursion up Monument Mountain, Melville convinced himself that the whole family must move to the country so that he could write in peace. In a very short time, Melville impetuously bought a large farmhouse with one gigantic central chimney, situated on a swell of land that rolled high enough to allow a commanding view of Mount Greylock, miles away. He named it “Arrowhead,” because of the Indian relics he found there, and described his purchase to his friend Duyckinck in his usual ardent fashion: “It has been a most glowing & Byzantine day – the heavens reflecting the tints of the October apples in the orchard – nay, the heavens themselves looking so ripe & ruddy, that it must be harvest-home with the angels… you should see the maples – you should see the young perennial pines – the red blazings of the one contrasting with the painted green of the other, and the wide flushings of the autumn air harmonizing both.”
And so he became the latest literary figure that the Berkshires cradled within their mountainous confines. Like Hawthorne, Melville was reclusive and eccentric. When he was seen in town (rarely for any churchgoing purpose) he drove his carriage in a hell-bent-for-leather fashion. Once, dressed like a Turk, he appeared in town and abducted a young bride, pulling her into his buggy and making the husband and Duyckinck give chase. Who was this luxuriantly bearded man who drove so hard and wrote so hard and wanted so much? Was he was trying to escape from something or to reach something?
By 1851 his goals were simple. He wanted to finish the book that Hawthorne had enhanced by his presence. The Melville family (including his difficult mother) was settled in the farmhouse with high hopes of the future, Hawthorne was close by, and the farm itself was almost inactive in the winter, thus sparing him time to write. “I have been building some shanties of houses (connected with the old one) and likewise some shanties of chapters & essays,” he wrote in a letter to Hawthorne. And indeed, Arrowhead resembles Moby Dick in that way. The farm features a collection of separate buildings of different heights connected together. Similarly, Moby Dick is not one long sequence of events but contains many infill chapters devoted to various aspects of whaling. Melville also built a “piazza” in full view of Mount Greylock which he paced like the deck of a ship.
“One Grand Hooded Phantom, Like a Snow Hill in the Air”
— Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851
In March of 1851, Hawthorne paid a visit to Arrowhead. The two men repaired first to Melville’s study, where they discussed the “gigantic conception” (Hawthorne’s deft choice of words) of the book that was then called the “White Whale,” with the view of a snow-covered Mount Greylock “looming” out the study window. It is not known whether they discussed Greylock and Moby Dick specifically, but the mountains of New England in winter definitely exerted a strong influence over Melville’s descriptions. In one passage he compared the whiteness of the whale to that “gigantic ghostliness over the soul” cast by the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In another, he compared the whale’s hump to Mount Monadnock (a favorite mountain among the Transcendentalists). In still another, he compared the fear the whale’s whiteness induced to “the bleak rustlings of the festooned frosts of mountains.”
The pursuit of the whale was all-consuming. On the whaler Pequod it was directed by Captain Ahab, who had lost one leg to Moby Dick and replaced it with one of ivory. Ahab was “gnawed within and scorched without, with the infixed unrelenting fangs of some incurable idea” ; namely, to kill Moby Dick. He did not speak like a ship’s captain but like a smoldering refugee from a work of Shakespeare. “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”
This was the book Melville had been longing to write, a work not prettied up for general consumption. A book in which he could let loose, let the blood flow and get to the truth. In it, he celebrated America by adding the Indian legends to the other great legends of the world, putting New England whalers in their proper context as great adventurers of the “watery pastures” of the globe, added the Great Lakes and Erie Canal to the natural wonders of the world, and raised language in an American literary effort to a height it had never seen. This book could confirm for Sophia Hawthorne the contents of what lay behind his lazy glance—both the genius and the insatiable hunger.
At last, the book was written. It had not yet been published when reality took its turn imitating art. On October 16th, 1851, a report that a whaling ship named the Ann Alexander had been sunk by a whale prompted Melville to ask: “I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster.” He was dead serious. It wasn’t the first time he referred to the book, or himself, as something wicked. Despite all that, he seems to have been sure it was a masterpiece. And with that in mind, he dedicated it to the figure that had done so much to influence its course: Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Hawthorne praised the book in a letter that has not survived. But whatever he said touched Melville deeply. Certainly, if the great Hawthorne thought so highly of it, he must have thought, the literary world would too. “Lord, when shall we be done growing?” he exulted to Hawthorne in November 1851. “As long as we have anything more to do, we have done nothing. So now let us add Moby Dick to our blessing and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish; — I have heard of krakens.”
Bold, proud, aspiring words. Words that were buried under a mounting pile of criticism and indifference. It is hard to imagine how reviewers of that day were able to get through its 800-plus pages in time for a copy deadline. Apparently they had been expecting something lighter, more spritely, from their favorite author of sea tales. Even his friend Duykcinck had little to say in favor of the book. Much was riding on its success, including another loan. And its commercial failure must have been almost as devastating as the reviewers’ barbs.
Still, Melville continued to write at his usual feverish pace, bringing out his “kraken,” named Pierre, in 1852. He dedicated it to “Greylock’s most excellent majesty” for her “most bounteous and unstinted fertilizations.” By then, Hawthorne had left the neighborhood, moving back to Boston. Also that year, reality continued to morph with art. News came that the whale that sunk the Ann Alexander had been hunted down by the former captain of that ship. He identified it by the splinters of hull in the killed whale’s badly-damaged front, and by the protruding shafts of the Ann Alexander’s harpoons.
The book Pierre was autobiographical at the core, a glimpse into a family like the Melvilles. But the plot took a turn that Melville’s life had never taken. The main character, an author, falls in love with his sister. It was a theme distasteful to many. It was, as W.H. Auden later put it, a critical “shipwreck.” Reviews were harsh. The exuberance that had been Melville’s when he completed Moby Dick was sucked down like the Pequod towards the “button-like black bubble” at the axis of a whirlpool.
“Bitter It Is To Be Poor and Bitter To Be Reviled ”
— Herman Melville, from the journal of Herman Melville, 1939
So wrote Herman Melville a few years after the Pierre debacle. He suffered a bad accident when the horse that was sedately pulling his carriage spooked, and lived with pain after that. He could not, or would not, write fiction on demand, and turned to poetry instead. His friendship with Hawthorne had already cooled and no one had replaced his stimulus. Herman Melville seemed, except for his family, suddenly bereft.
Later, while Hawthorne was consul of Liverpool, Melville visited him on his return from the Holy Land. Melville had been sent on the trip to restore his spirits, for he seemed to be losing his grip. It hadn’t entirely worked. He told Hawthorne that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated.” With his typical candor, Hawthorne wrote of the desultory visit that “it is strange how he persists…in wandering to- and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting.”
Herman Melville departed from the Berkshires. He sold Arrowhead to his brother. The house, once no more than a simple farmhouse, was by then famous as the Herman Melville residence—though the price he got from his brother did not seem to reflect that added value. He and Lizzie moved to New York City.
In 1939, W.H. Auden published a poem called “Herman Melville,” which sums up the author’s life in 41 adamantine lines. To Auden, Moby Dick was “intricate” yet “false,” with the “unexplained survivor” of the Pequod appearing from nowhere and escaping the whirlpool to bring the tale to an end. To him, Melville was like a ship in search of evil, sails filled with a dreadful unsettling that had originated with his father’s collapse and insanity.
He and Lizzie remained in New York City for many years, where Melville held a job as customs inspector. He was a changed man, fame left far behind in his wake, quietly entering his third career. But maybe he was at peace at last.
Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary mildness,
And anchored in his home and reached his wife
And rode within the harbour of her hand,
And went across each morning to an office
As though his occupation were another island.
(W.H. Auden, “Herman Melville”)