10 Fascinating Facts About Herman Melville

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born in New York City to a wealthy and socially connected family, Herman Melville (1819-1891) chose a life as exciting as that of his Moby-Dick narrator Ishmael. He spent years at sea on whaling ships and traveled to far-flung places, but also struggled to make it as a novelist while supporting a large extended family. To celebrate his 199th birthday on August 1, we’re diving into Melville’s adventures and fishing for some surprising facts.

1. HIS MOTHER CHANGED THE SPELLING OF THEIR LAST NAME.

Despite his family’s wealth and pedigree—his mother Maria Gansevoort descended from one of the first Dutch families in New York, and his father Allan Melvill came from old Boston stock—young Herman had an unstable, unhappy childhood. Allan declared bankruptcy in 1830 and died two years later, leaving Maria with eight children under the age of 17 and a pile of debt from loans and Allan’s unsuccessful businesses. Soon afterward, Maria added an "e" to their surname—perhaps to hide from collection agencies, although scholars are not sure exactly why. "It always seemed to me an unlikely way to avoid creditors in the early 19th century," Will Garrison, executive director of the Berkshire Historical Society, tells Mental Floss.

2. HE STRUGGLED TO FIND EMPLOYMENT.

Thanks to a national financial crisis in 1837, Melville had difficulty finding a permanent job, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He served as a bank clerk, teacher, land surveyor, and crew member on a packet ship before signing on, in 1841, to the whaler Acushnet of New Bedford, Massachusetts, then the whaling capital of the world. He served aboard a few different whalers and rose to the role of harpooner. His adventures at sea planted the seeds for Melville’s interrogation of man, morality, and nature in Moby-Dick. In that novel, Melville (in the voice of Ishmael) says, "A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard."

3. HE JUMPED SHIP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE THREE-YEAR VOYAGE.

Melville and the Acushnet’s captain didn’t get along, so when the ship reached the Marquesas Islands, Melville and a friend, Richard Tobias Greene, hid in the forests until the ship departed. They spent a month living with the Pacific Islanders. Melville was impressed with their sophistication and peacefulness; most Europeans believed that Polynesians were cannibals. He also found reason to criticize European attempts to "civilize" the islanders by converting them to Christianity. Melville drew on his South Pacific experiences in his first two novels, which became runaway bestsellers: Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).

4. HE WAS INSPIRED BY A MOUNTAIN.

Herman Melville's Arrowhead, Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Herman Melville's home, Arrowhead, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Daderot/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Melville moved to Arrowhead, his charming mustard-colored home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with his wife Elizabeth and their son in 1850, after he achieved fame as a popular adventure novelist. In the upstairs study, he set up his writing desk so he could look out the north-facing window, which perfectly framed the summit of Mount Greylock, Massachusetts’s tallest mountain. Gazing at the peak on a sunny day, Melville was struck by how much the horizontal apex looked "like a sperm whale rising in the distance." He arranged his desk so he would see the summit when he happened to glance up from his work. In that room, in early 1851, Melville completed his manuscript of Moby-Dick.

5. HE FICTIONALIZED AN ACTUAL WHALING DISASTER.

While on the Acushnet, Melville had learned about an infamous shipwreck from the son of one of its survivors. In November 1820, a massive sperm whale had attacked and sunk the whaleship Essex of Nantucket in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Its crew, stranded in three small boats with little food or water, chose to drift more than 4000 miles to South America instead of 1200 miles to the Marquesas Islands—where Melville had enjoyed his idyll—because they thought they’d be eaten by the natives. Ironically, some of the castaways ended up eating their dead shipmates to survive.

Melville used the disaster to form the climax of Moby-Dick, in which the Pequod of Nantucket is destroyed by the white whale. Melville visited Nantucket for the first time only after the novel was published. He personally interviewed the Essex’s captain, George Pollard, who had survived the terrible ordeal and become the town’s night watchman. Later, Melville wrote, "To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered."

6. MOBY-DICK WAS A FLOP.

Readers who were expecting another rip-roarin’ adventure like his earlier novels Typee or Redburn were sorely disappointed when Melville’s masterpiece was published in November 1851. The British edition of Moby-Dick, or The Whale received some positive reviews in London newspapers, but American reviewers were shocked at its obscure literary symbolism and complexity. “There is no method in his madness; and we must needs pronounce the chief feature of the volume [the character of Captain Ahab] a perfect failure, and the work itself inartistic,” wrote the New York Albion. The reviewer added that the novel's style was like "having oil, mustard, vinegar, and pepper served up as a dish, in place of being scientifically administered sauce-wise."

7. HE WAS VERY FOND OF HIS CHIMNEY.

Arrowhead became the locus of Melville’s family life and work. Eventually, he and Lizzie, their two sons and two daughters, his mother Maria, and his sisters Augusta, Helen, and Fanny all lived in the cozy farmhouse. For a couple of years, Nathaniel Hawthorne was such a frequent guest that he had his own small bedroom off Melville’s study. After Moby-Dick, Melville wrote the novels Pierre and The Confidence-Man, his collection of works called The Piazza Tales, short stories including “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and many other pieces there. Melville grew very attached to the house, especially to the massive central chimney, which he immortalized in his 1856 short story “I and My Chimney.” Yet his financial struggles after Moby-Dick failed to find an audience led Melville to sell Arrowhead to his brother Allan in 1863. As an homage, Allan painted a few lines from “I and My Chimney” on the chimney's stonework, which are still visible today.

8. HE FINALLY GOT A DAY JOB.

Melville’s chronic money woes prompted a return to New York City, into a brick townhouse at 104 East 26th Street in Manhattan, where the family benefited from being back in the bustle of civilization. Melville finally found regular employment as a district inspector for the U.S. Customs Service and maintained an office at 470 West Street. At the same time, he mostly abandoned writing short stories and novels in favor of poetry. In between inspections he wrote Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, based on his visit to the Middle East in 1857. Because of its length—at more than 18,000 lines, it's the longest poem in American literature—and unconventional approach to its subject, Melville once called it "eminently adapted for unpopularity."

9. HIS LAST MAJOR WORK WAS DISCOVERED BY ACCIDENT.

The centennial of Melville’s birth renewed interest in his novels and poems, most of which were long out of print by then. Raymond Weaver, a literature professor at Columbia University working on the first major biography of Melville, collaborated with Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Melville’s granddaughter and literary executor, who gave him access to the author’s papers. In 1919, while poking through letters and notes, Weaver discovered the unfinished manuscript of Billy Budd in a tin breadbox. Melville had started to write the short story about a tragic sailor in 1888 but, by his death in 1891, had not completed it. Weaver edited and published the story in 1924, but initially considered the tale "not distinguished." Other scholars asserted that Billy Budd was Melville’s final masterpiece.

10. YOU CAN SEE HIS PERSONAL COLLECTION OF KNICK-KNACKS.

Just a short drive from Arrowhead, the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield holds the world’s largest collection of Melvilliana in its Melville Memorial Room. Along with first editions of Melville’s work and a full library of books about him, there are priceless objects owned by or associated with the author. Fans can geek out over the earliest known portrait of Melville, painted in 1848; carved wooden canoe paddles that he collected in Polynesia; his walking stick; his favorite inkstand, quills, and other desktop tchotchkes; a collection of scrimshaw, maps, and prints; and Elizabeth Melville’s writing desk. There's a section of the first successful transatlantic cable, which Melville valued as a prized souvenir, and even the actual breadbox in which Billy Budd had been hiding.

8 Proper Facts About Jane Austen

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than 200 years after her death, English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) continues to be celebrated for her sharp, biting prose on love's various entanglements. The strong female characters in books like Pride and Prejudice and Emma are as resonant today as when Austen first pressed her pen to paper. Though her bibliography totals just six novels (alongside some unfinished novels and other works) in all, Austen's books and her insightful quotes have been subject to hundreds of years of analysis and—for the Austen die-hards—numerous re-readings. For more on the writer's life, influences, and curious editing habits, take a look at our compendium of all things Austen below.

1. Austen's dad did everything he could to help her succeed.

Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, England on December 16, 1775 to George Austen, a rector, and Cassandra Austen. The second-youngest in a brood of eight kids, Austen developed a love for the written word partially as a result of George's vast home library. When she wasn't reading, Austen was supplied with writing tools by George to nurture her interests along. Later, George would send his daughters to a boarding school to further their education. When Austen penned First Impressions, the book that would become Pride and Prejudice, in 1797, a proud George took it to a London publisher named Thomas Cadell for review. Cadell rejected it unread. It's not clear if Jane was even aware that George approached Cadell on her behalf.

Much later, in 1810, her brother Henry would act as her literary agent, selling Sense and Sensibility to London publisher Thomas Egerton.

2. Her works were published anonymously.

From Sense and Sensibility through Emma, Austen's published works never bore her name. Sense and Sensibility carried the byline of "A Lady," while later works like Pride and Prejudice featured credits like, "By the Author of Sense and Sensibility." It's likely Austen chose anonymity because female novelists were frowned upon for having selected what was viewed at the time as a potentially lewd, male-dominated pursuit. If she was interrupted while writing, she would quickly conceal her papers to avoid being asked about her work. Austen was first identified in print following her death in 1817; her brother Henry wrote a eulogy to accompany the posthumous publications of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.

3. She backed out of a marriage of convenience.

Many of Austen's characters carry great agency in their lives, and Austen scholars enjoy pointing to the fact that Austen herself bucked convention when it came to affairs of the heart. The year after her family's move to the city of Bath in 1801, Austen received a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, a financially prosperous childhood friend. Austen accepted but quickly had second thoughts. Though his money would have provided for her and her family (and, at the time, she was 27 and unpublished, meaning she had no outside income and was fast approaching Georgian-era spinster status), Austen decided that a union motivated on her part by economics wasn't worthwhile. She turned the proposal down the following day and later cautioned her niece about marrying for any reason other than love. "Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection," she wrote.

4. She took a decade off.

Because so little of Austen's writing outside of her novels survives—her sister, Cassandra, purportedly destroyed much of her correspondence in an effort to keep some of Austen's scathing opinions away from polite society—it can be hard to assign motivations or emotions to some of her major milestones in life. But one thing appears clear: When her family moved to Bath and subsequently kept relocating following her father's death in 1805, Austen's writing habits were severely disrupted. Once prolific—she completed three of her novels by 1801—a lack of a routine kept her from producing work for roughly 10 years. It wasn't until she felt her home life was stable after moving into property owned by her brother, Edward, that Austen resumed her career.

5. She used straight pins to edit her manuscripts.

Austen had none of the advancements that would go on to make a writer's life easier, like typewriters, computers, or Starbucks. In at least one case, her manuscript edits were accomplished using the time-consuming and prickly method of straight pins. For an unfinished novel titled The Watsons, Austen took the pins and used them to fasten revisions to the pages of areas that were in need of correction or rewrites. The practice dates back to the 17th century.

6. She was an accomplished home brewer.

In Austen's time, beer was the drink of choice, and like the rest of her family, Austen could brew her own beer. Her specialty was spruce beer, which was made with molasses for a slightly sweeter taste.

Austen was also a fan of making mead—she once lamented to her sister, "there is no honey this year. Bad news for us. We must husband our present stock of mead, and I am sorry to perceive that our twenty gallons is very nearly out. I cannot comprehend how the fourteen gallons could last so long."

7. Some believe Austen's death was a result of being poisoned.

Austen lived to see only four of her six novels published. She died on July 18, 1817 at the age of 41 following complaints of symptoms that medical historians have long felt pointed to Addison's disease or Hodgkin's lymphoma. In 2017, the British Library floated a different theory—that Austen was poisoned by arsenic in her drinking water due to a polluted supply or possibly accidental ingestion due to mismanaged medication. The Library put forth the idea based on Austen's notoriously poor eyesight (which they say may have been the result of cataracts) as well as her written complaint of skin discoloration. Both can be indicative of arsenic exposure. Critics of the theory say the evidence is scant and that there is equal reason to believe a disease was the cause of her death.

8. She's been cited in at least 27 written court decisions.

As Matthew Birkhold of Electric Lit points out, judges seem to have a bit of a preoccupation with the works of Austen. Birkhold found 27 instances of a judge's written ruling invoking the name or words of the author, joining a rather exclusive club of female writers who tend to pop up in judicial decisions. (Harper Lee and Mary Shelley round out the top three.) According to Birkhold, jurists often use Austen as a kind of shorthand to explain matters involving relationships or class distinctions. Half of the decisions used the opening line from Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." The sentence is often rewritten to reflect the specifics of a case: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a recently widowed woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of an estate planner," as one 2008 tax court case put it.

Others invoke characters like Fitzwilliam Darcy to compare or contrast the litigant's romantic situation. In most cases, the intent is clear, with authors realizing that their readers consider Austen's name synonymous with literary—and hopefully judicial—wisdom.

5 Facts About Shirley Jackson

Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Midcentury American writer Shirley Jackson has long been known for her spooky short story "The Lottery," which caused widespread controversy when it came out in The New Yorker in 1948 and continues to appear in short story anthologies today. Her equally haunted novels are less widely read. But now that her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House has been turned into a hit Netflix series, her work is on its way to a critical and popular revival more than 50 years after her death. (A well-reviewed 2017 biography as well as new releases of some of her short stories and previously unpublished writings in the last few years have no doubt helped.) If you’re just catching on to Shirley Jackson mania, here are five things to know about the master of gothic horror.

1. Many modern writers cite her as an inspiration.

Shirley Jackson has a number of fans among modern writers. Stephen King has called The Haunting of Hill House one of the two "great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” and he has said he wrote The Shining with Jackson’s The Sundial in mind. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates sing her praises, and Donna Tartt has called her stories “among the most terrifying ever written.” Sylvia Plath was a fan, too, and hoped to interview her during summer internship at Mademoiselle in 1953. It didn’t work out, but Plath would go on to write works with plenty of parallels to Jackson’s.

2. Shirley Jackson was her family's chief breadwinner.

Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a writer, too. A literary critic who taught literature at Bennington College, it was his job that brought the couple to the small Vermont city, where Jackson often chafed at being placed in the role of faculty wife. Yet it was Jackson’s work that supported the family. (Like many wives of her day, she also did all the cooking, cleaning, taking care of their four kids, and driving the family around town—as one of Hyman’s former students wrote of him, “Stanley never did anything practical if he could help it.”) In addition to the fees she earned selling short stories and novels, Jackson had a lucrative career writing lighthearted essays on motherhood and family life for women’s magazines, which she eventually parlayed two successful memoirs.

3. She claimed to be a witch.

In keeping with the haunted themes in her writing, Jackson studied the history of witchcraft and the occult, and often told people she was a witch—though that may have been in part a publicity tactic. As Ruth Franklin writes in her 2017 Jackson biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:
"During her lifetime, she fascinated critics and readers by playing up her interest in magic: The biographical information on her first novel identifies her as ‘perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a tarot deck.’ To interviewers, she expounded on her alleged abilities, even claiming that she used magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, with whom her husband was involved in a dispute. Reviewers found those stories irresistible, extrapolating freely from her interest in witchcraft to her writing, which often takes a turn into the uncanny. ‘Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but a broomstick’ was an oft-quoted line."
It’s not clear whether she actually performed any magic rituals, but she referenced them often, usually in a tongue-in-cheek way. She often joked with her editors about bringing about victories for her favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, through her magical abilities. Her interest was definitely real, though. She started studying witchcraft while writing a paper as a student at the University of Rochester, and later took up tarot reading. Her personal library was filled with hundreds of books about witchcraft, and in 1956, she wrote a children’s book, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, about the history of the Salem witch trials.

4. She considered becoming a professional cartoonist.

Jackson wasn’t just good with words. She loved to draw, and even considered becoming a professional cartoonist at one point, according to Franklin. While her favorite subjects were cats, she regularly made minimalist, humorous sketches of herself and the people around her (particularly her husband), keeping a kind of cartoon diary of her life. “They’re Thurber-esque in style, but they’re kind of edgy, too,” her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, told The Guardian of the drawings in 2016. “There’s one in which she is trudging up a hill carrying bags of groceries, and my father is sitting in his chair, reading. ‘Dear,’ he says, without bothering to get up. ‘You know you’re not supposed to carry heavy things when you’re pregnant!’” Some of these drawings are held with Jackson’s papers in the Library of Congress, including sketches she made of how she imagined the layout of Hill House. Her unpublished illustrated ABC book for kids, The Child's Garden of New Hampshire, is also held there.

5. She died before finishing her last novel.

Jackson died unexpectedly from heart failure in 1965 at the age of 48. (At the time, newspapers listed her as 45, as she often lied about her age, perhaps to minimize the age difference between her and her husband, who was two years younger than she.) A significant chunk of her work has been published since her death, though. When she died, she was in the midst of writing a novel, Come Along With Me, which was published in its incomplete format by her husband in 1968. In 1996, Laurence Jackson Hyman found a crate of unpublished stories by his mother, and, with his sister, Sarah Hyman Dewitt, turned them into a collection called Just an Ordinary Day. In 2015, they edited and released Let Me Tell You, a collection of stories, essays and lectures from her archive that were mostly unfinished or unpublished at the time of her death.

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