On Melville in Love by Michael Shelden

Mark Dunbar

New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2016. 288 pages. $25.99.

It would be difficult to find someone who doesn’t know that Herman Melville was a great writer and that his greatest masterpiece is Moby-Dick. The more well-read in literary history will know that he gave up his career as a writer at the remarkably young age of thirty-two, after having written seven glutinous books in his first seven years as a professional. Poor and debt-ridden, he was hurried off to obscurity by critics who believed that was where he was destined anyway. A contemporary reviewer of Moby-Dick improvidently remarked that, with this latest moody and chaotic tale, Melville had “destroyed all his chances of immortality, or even of a good name with his own generation.”

The latter claim turned out to be quite true. Earning his literary reputation in the 1840s crafting quasi-autobiographical nautical adventures from his farmland in western Massachusetts, Melville eventually returned to his home state of New York and worked inconspicuously for nineteen years as a customs officer. In 1886, a local journalist was stunned (though still uninterested) to find he was even still alive, “The author is generally supposed to be dead. He has, indeed, been buried in a government office.” As for the former claim, we can see now it was mistaken. Students are assigned his works every semester, and a new biography of the author is released almost as often as a new Super Bowl champion is crowned. The most recent of these biographies is Michael Shelden’s Melville in Love. Already contextualized, historicized, psychoanalyzed, and moralized, one might justly wonder what else could be brought to bear on the study of a life. Shelden’s answer is simple enough: an important, undiscovered truth. Melville was having a clandestine affair with one of his Berkshire neighbors at the same time he was struggling to complete the story of Ahab.

The woman with whom he was having this alleged affair was Sarah Anne Morewood. She was married to a businessman who didn’t much care for art or adventure, literature or indulgence, a hard evening’s drinking or a late morning’s slothfulness, but who could afford to support her overindulgences in all these things. She would host expensive costume parties and spend most evenings ranting against conventional wisdom. Her interest in men besides her husband was noticeable to everyone except sometimes her pious targets. She was, as Shelden describes her, “a woman both bookish and beautiful, intelligent and inquisitive, creative and compassionate.” When Melville arrived in the rural, sequestered community in the summer of 1850, he immediately gained Sarah’s affections. Combining her innate female warmth with a slightly affected appreciation for his novels (Omoo and Typee were at this point already critical successes, if not financial ones), she was irresistible to a man with a history of insecurities and anxieties.

Melville was of course married as well. His wife was Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of then-Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The Shaws and Melvilles were close family friends. The Melvilles—cursed by poverty and misery, first by the father’s failures in the fabric and fur trades, and then by his early death when Herman was only twelve—were seen by Judge Shaw as the deserving poor, for Melville’s mother was a champion of both proper social etiquette and inherited morality. Conjoining the two families, then, seemed like a decent way to justify one of them supporting the other.

Little actual romance appears to have been involved in the marriage between Melville and Elizabeth. Nor was there evidently much forethought. As Elizabeth wrote to a relative shortly after the nuptials, “My marriage was very unexpected, and scarcely thought of until about two months before it actually took place.” Judging from Shelden’s analysis of her, it’s little surprise the two were not immediately swept into an impassioned frenzy over one another:

Refined and dutiful, with a plain face and a prominent nose too much like her father’s, she didn’t have a reputation for turning heads . . . uncomplicated, practical, and straightforward, with few interests beyond friends and family. She wasn’t artistic or literary, didn’t seem to care much for travel, and rarely stood out in a crowd.

Conversely, Melville is depicted as a spontaneous man of action with fine artistic instincts. Like Sarah’s husband, however, Elizabeth did come with financial incentives. In this case, not her own funds, but those of her father’s. As Elizabeth Hardwick highlighted in her own short biography of Melville, an honest register of his family’s accounts would have been filled with lines ending with “on loan from Judge Shaw” or “paid for by Judge Shaw.” For instance, the judge fronted Melville the necessary funds to make the initial purchase of the Arrowhead farm in 1850, then eleven years later paid off what was left of the loan.

Between sharing the farm home with his new wife, intrusive mother, and needy sisters—along with regularly writing twelve hours a day—it’s remarkable that Melville was even able to show signs of having an affair. It’s here Shelden’s well-known forensic and holistic abilities shine brightly. Sarah always advised the benefactors of her flirtations to burn the letters they received from her (“make a fire bright with my letters”) so there is almost no epistolary record between her and Melville. Nor is a direct confession of infidelity ever made by Melville—although he did tactlessly once write to a friend, “I miss Sarah, and I miss her so much that I’m even going to share my secret tonight with you . . . if you pause long enough to think about it.” There are, however, a few scattered pieces of compelling evidence. One is a marked-up copy of John Dryden’s erotic poem “Sigismonda and Guiscardo” that Melville sent to Sarah as a gift. (The poem itself is technically a translation taken from a story in Boccaccio’s Decameron, although the meaning and moral of the original is so altered that his translation almost merits being called a reimagining.) Melville left copious check-marks and vertical lines in the books he read. For his gift, the passages he emphasized were the particularly romantic ones (“’Twas restless rage, and tempest all the night,” “Love rioted secure,” “And the first step he made was in her arms”). Shelden doubts a man in the 1850s would have pointed these passages out to a married woman “unless he knew she would welcome it, and understand its significance.”

Another piece of compelling evidence Shelden presents is the mountain trip Melville and Sarah took together with a farrago of guests Sarah assembled to make the trip seem less lascivious. After a long day’s hike up Greylock Mountain—along the way Melville showed off his manly bravado to Sarah by climbing trees to call for other members of their group—the party settled down for a night under the stars, drinking champagne and wine, with only the light of a candle (made from the oil of a sperm whale, incidentally) to illuminate them. Sarah and Melville stayed up all night, “too merry to sleep” as she would later explain. While we can’t be sure the specifics of their evening—Shelden is convinced though that the two “did what would have come naturally to two people in love”—each left literary artefacts behind with “that excursion to Greylock” as their main motif. Sarah published an anonymous essay about the trip in which she was “unapologetic, presenting it as an exercise in romantic freedom.” Although Shelden does not discuss it in the book, Melville wrote a short story where a man walks up a mountain toward an imagined paradise. He also dedicated Pierre to “Greylock’s Most Excellent Majesty,” which Shelden does mention. Critics, unaware of the trip, thought Melville had lost his mind dedicating a novel to a mountain.

Melville in Love is another masterwork by Shelden in the field of biography. Coupling diligent forensic scholarship with melodious narrative prose, he has discovered something new about an American author for whom the study of his life has turned into a minor industry of its own. Remarking on the lack of attention Sarah has received from his competitors—she is not mentioned at all in either Hardwick’s biography, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick?, or Cambridge University Press’s Companion to Herman Melville, and can be found in only four inconsequential passages of Andrew Delbanco’s Melville: His World and Work—Shelden does not gloat over the matter; he simply expresses satisfaction that an important truth has been given a definitive shake. Whether he is right that this relationship was Melville’s “most passionate” and that it is also “the powerful key to unlocking his secrets” may be reasonably disputed. That Melville died a dissatisfied man, both professionally and romantically, cannot be disputed. Throughout his old age above his desk was printed Friedrich von Schiller’s injunction to “keep true to the dreams of thy youth.” Imagine the sorrow of a customs inspector passing it every day, knowing he wasn’t.

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