‘Melville in love’

Fri, 06/08/2018 - 10:15am

Sometimes a great book will find us when we least expect it.

A book can appear to us in bookstores, flea markets, lost and found bins, yard sales, and libraries. Or, a friend may flip us a book that they may think we might like when we least expect it.

A friend of ours named Cindy — another Cindy — is a sailor from Newport and Edgartown, and she and her husband Tom are big readers. On March 25, Cindy was out in Flagstaff, Arizona in a store called Bookbinders. She randomly picked up a book off the shelf titled “Melville in Love,” and opened it to a chapter called “Reveries.” Seeing that it was my birthday, and my sailboat is called Reverie, Cindy said “I may as well get this for Houlihan.” She gave me the book, and bingo! This one was a winner!

This non-fiction study of Herman Melville was published in 2016 and I don’t know how I missed this one — I like all things Melville. Thanks to my friend’s happenstance in Bookbinders, I got my hands on this great read and could not put it down; I finished it in three fast readings. Author Michael Shelden has written a compelling take on the extraordinary life of an iconic American writer who was flawed to perfection. (From the outset we find out that Melville liked the ladies.) He was an outlier aboard a whaleship from New Bedford called the Acushnet and had witnessed the islands and cultures of the South Pacific. He had experienced pleasures and hardships and wrote about them; his books sold well. Years later, he moved his family to Pittsfield in the Berkshires, and it is here that things got very complicated for Herman Melville. Here in the gossipy and landlocked hills of western Massachusetts, he met a woman named Sarah Morewood and they became partners in crime and raged against the status quo. They were non-conformists with a cause — they were in love. We can see where this is going as soon as this fact is established.

Melville was married to Elizabeth “Lizzie” Shaw, whose father was the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court; this family was deeply ensconced in the Beacon Hill scene in Boston. This neighborhood, according to author Henry James, “was the solid seat of everything.” If you lived there, you were politically connected. In 1851, it was not proper for a married man or woman to engage in friendships outside of the marriage. Sarah Morewood was well-bred, and very attractive in a bold and coltish manner. Furthermore, she had strong literary sensibilities — which Melville found very attractive. These combined qualities had a strong romantic hold on Melville, as well as on other men in Pittsfield. Her husband was a businessman who spent the bulk of his time in New York City, and was a pillar of his church’s community. Conversely, Morewood loved to go on rambles around the natural beauty of the rolling terrain of the Berkshires. She was yin to Melville’s yang, and this meant trouble in Puritanical New England. Add to this, he borrowed money from Lizzie’s father to keep his homestead, Arrowhead, in functional condition. Given this scenario, we can see that these two lovers are heading down the road to Perdition. They both knew this and didn’t flinch from their mutual adoration.

During this period of repressed sexuality and suffocating norms of polite behavior, Herman and Sarah conducted their relationship hidden in plain sight. The, ahem, tension must’ve been brutal for these star-crossed lovers. An example of the repressed feelings between men and women, is when Oliver Wendell Holmes writes a poem describing helping Sarah onto her saddled horse and spies a sliver of her ankle as he’s lifting her onto her mount. It drove poor Holmes to poetic distraction. This woman was a big distraction and was the talk of the town. Again, she didn’t care, nor did Melville.

At age 32, the handsome and broad-shouldered sailor and adventurer had acquired literary success and was dug in at Arrowhead writing what he felt would be his master work. Upon publication, the book got hammered in reviews by the pontificates of the literary scene in the northeast. (Nota bene: the Duyckinck brothers.) Subsequently, sales were miniscule. Melville, who had friended Nathaniel Hawthorne while living in the Berkshires, at least could find solace in that “Moby-Dick” passed muster with Hawthorne — and Sarah. However, as he’d said to Hawthorne, “Dollars damn me, I wrote the gospels for this country but I shall die in the gutter.” To add insult to this injury, the good pious folks of Pittsfield shunned Melville for his worldliness and romantic nature. “With his liberal views he is apparently considered by the good people of Pittsfield as little better than a cannibal or a ‘beach comber.’”

Melville’s work as an author was replaced by a job as a Custom House clerk in New York City, which he held for many years. However, after his death the manuscript for “Billy Budd” was found among his papers by his wife Lizzie — who had trouble making sense of the narrative and tucked it away in the attic. Thirty years after Melville’s death “Billy Budd” was published. Herman Melville, the renegade adventurer who possessed a romantic heartbeat, posthumously was finally recognized for his genius.

In this book, Michael Shelden does not allow us to look away from the simple fact that Melville was a passionate and flawed writer, who followed his heart and mind regardless of what the consequences would be — he lived deliberately.