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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 231

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This is the grave of Herman Melville.

Born in 1819 in Manhattan, Herman Melvill (the “e” was added later) was born into the middle class, as his father was a merchant specializing in goods from France. But when his father died in 1832, the family plunged into near-poverty, which had actually already started because of his father’s massive debts. He managed to both work and go to school. He briefly worked as a teacher after he finished school. But of course, Melville then went to sea, a choice that would define his writing. He planned to get a job on a whaler and went to New Bedford to make that happen. His ship left port in early 1841. Conditions were typically terrible. The next year, Melville jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands. This happened a couple more times while he was in the Pacific. He even took part in a mutiny. Finally, he got a shipmate job with the U.S. Navy and eventually returned to his home nation in 1844. He would draw on all these experiences, including his close contact with Polynesians, during his long writing career.

Melville’s first novel, Typee, was pretty successful. But his other novels really weren’t. He was a genius writer that no one much cared for at the time. For that matter, I have to admit that I have never truly engaged with Melville. I read Moby Dick 20 years ago and found it extremely difficult. I’ve read Benito Cereno as well and the slavery aspects of that are quite memorable. One of my sabbatical goals has been to dive into Melville and I have the Library of America volume that includes Typee, Omoo, and Mardi on me in my sabbatical rural Pennsylvania retreat/exile, but–surprise!–there are always other books that seem easier. This is a moral failing on my fault, but what are you going to do.

I’m not really going to recount Melville’s whole literary career. I have no doubt that commenters have more useful things to say. It is worth noting though just how hated Melville was. This, from an 1852 issue of the New York Day Book, is telling:

A critical friend, who read Melville’s last book, Ambiguities, between two steamboat accidents, told us that it appeared to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman. We were somewhat startled at the remark, but still more at learning, a few days after, that Melville was really supposed to be deranged, and that his friends were taking measures to place him under treatment. We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink.

Basically every literary thing after Typee that Melville did was seen as a disaster at the time, from his novels to his poetry to his lectures. Finally, in 1866, his wife Elizabeth, who came from a prominent Boston family and who married Melville when his reputation was high, managed to use her connections to get her husband the position of customs inspector of New York. He was good at this. Finally, the family had financially stability and Melville held the job for the next 19 years. The reason for this, in an era of patronage, was that there was one person who really liked his books–Chester Arthur, who ran the city’s custom house before he stumbled into the presidency. In his later years, with his wife both good at managing money and receiving some family inheritances, Melville was allowed to retire and devote himself to writing, which he had never given up, despite his lack of success.

Melville died of a heart problem in 1891. He was 72 years old. His critical reputation did not recover until around the time of his centennial, in 1919. At that point, he rapidly became seen as America’s greatest writer, or one of them anyway. Since he pretty much believed this of himself during his life, he no doubt would have been more than pleased. There is a great deal to say about Melville, and I hope this post inspires a good conversation about his books and legacy.

Herman Melville is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

If you would like this series to cover more 19th century writers, you can donate here to cover the necessary expenses. I am sure that a post on William Dean Howells or Bret Harte would be enjoyable. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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