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.

A Ring Containing a Lock of Charlotte Brontë’s Hair Found Its Way to Antiques Roadshow

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A ring that “very likely” contains a lock of Charlotte Brontë’s hair appeared on a recent episode of the Antiques Roadshow that was filmed in northern Wales, according to The Guardian. The jewelry itself isn’t especially valuable; the TV show's appraiser, jewelry specialist Geoffrey Munn, said he would have priced it at £25, or about $32.

However, an inscription of the Jane Eyre author’s name as well as the year she died (1855) raises the value to an estimated £20,000 ($26,000). That isn’t too shabby, considering that the owner found the ring among her late father-in-law’s belongings in the attic.

A section of the ring comes unhinged to reveal a thin strand of hair inside—but did it really belong to one of the famous Brontë sisters? Munn seems to think so, explaining that it was not uncommon for hair to be incorporated into jewelry in the 19th century.

“There was a terror of not being able to remember the face and character of the person who had died,” he said. “Hair wreaths” and other pieces of "hair work" were popular ways of paying tribute to deceased loved ones in England and America from the 17th century to the early 20th century.

In this case, the hair inside the ring was finely braided. Munn went on to add, “It echoes a bracelet Charlotte wore of her two sisters’ hair … So it’s absolutely the focus of the mid- to late 19th century and also the focus of Charlotte Brontë.”

The Brontë Society & Brontë Parsonage Museum, which has locks of Brontë’s hair in its collection, said that it had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the ring.

[h/t The Guardian]

25 Books Every Book Lover Should Read

iStock.com/Vladimir Vladimirov
iStock.com/Vladimir Vladimirov

Books have the power to inspire our imagination, transport us to faraway worlds, and make us think and feel deeply. Luckily, bibliophiles of all ages have a wealth of excellent fiction and nonfiction books to choose from. Here, we've gathered up 25 books every book lover should read—from classic novels to contemporary bestsellers.

1. Siddhartha // Hermann Hesse

Published in 1922, Siddhartha is loosely based on the life of Buddha. Hermann Hesse tells the story of Siddhartha, a young man who leaves his comfortable home and prosperous family to seek meaning. Throughout the novel, Siddhartha joins a group of ascetics, works for a merchant, falls in love, has a son, and becomes a ferryman. As an old man, he becomes wise and finally attains enlightenment.

Buy it on Amazon.

2. The Aeneid // Virgil

In this epic Latin poem, Virgil relates the story of Aeneas, a Trojan man who became the legendary ancestor of the Romans. Written between 29 and 19 B.C.E., during the last years of the poet's life, the Aeneid follows Aeneas and his men on their journey from Troy to Carthage, Sicily, the Underworld, and Italy. Like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, it's full of thrilling adventures, frustrating obstacles, and heroic deeds.

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3. Man’s Search For Meaning // Viktor Frankl

Written by Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, this 1946 book has influenced millions of readers around the world. By discussing his experiences in Auschwitz, Frankl examines how anyone can cope with horrific suffering and, eventually, move forward. Frankl also explains his theory of logotherapy, the view that all humans are primarily driven not by the need for power or pleasure, but to determine and seek their own meaning of life.

Buy it on Amazon.

4. The Handmaid’s Tale // Margaret Atwood

This dystopian novel, first published in 1985 and still one of Atwood's most acclaimed works, explores the struggles of people living under a theocratic, totalitarian government called the Republic of Gilead, which has replaced the United States. Offred, one of the Handmaids, is kept primarily for reproductive purposes, and has no control over her own body or life—she's not even allowed to read. Atwood’s haunting depiction of this authoritarian society has been turned into a film (1990), opera (2000), and most recently, a TV show from Hulu.

Buy it on Amazon.

5. Walden // Henry David Thoreau

In the first chapter of Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau wrote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” More than 150 years later, people still quote this line, which is a testament to Walden's influence and enduring legacy. Thoreau describes his two-year stint living alone, off the grid, in a cabin near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. The book has a little something for everyone, whether you're a minimalist, individualist, botanist, or ecologist.

Buy it on Amazon.

6. The Unbearable Lightness Of Being // Milan Kundera

The cover of 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'
Amazon

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) starts in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Milan Kundera, who was born in Czechoslovakia but moved to France to escape communism, sets his novel during the Prague Spring, in which Czech citizens were temporarily given more freedoms. Tomas, a womanizing surgeon, is married to photographer Tereza. Tomas has an affair with Sabina, an artist who also loves Franz, a professor. Kundera weaves love triangles (or squares) in with philosophical ideas about the meaning of life, delivering it all in beautiful prose.

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7. Dracula // Bram Stoker

Long before Twilight, Dracula (1897) introduced many of the conventions we now associate with the blood-sucking world of vampires. The Gothic novel takes place in Transylvania and England in the 1890s, and follows the attempts of the Count to spread his curse. Although not a commercial success during Bram Stoker’s lifetime, Dracula has continued to impact culture more than a century after it was published.

Buy it on Amazon.

8. Saving Fish From Drowning // Amy Tan

Written by the author of The Joy Luck Club, this 2005 novel is about Bibi Chen, a San Franciscan art dealer who plans to lead a dozen friends on a cultural tour of China and Myanmar. Although Chen dies mysteriously before the trip starts, her friends take the trip anyway—accidentally desecrating China’s Stone Bell Temple and later (unknowingly) getting kidnapped by a tribe in Myanmar. Chen’s spirit accompanies her friends on their misadventures, which include plenty of slapstick moments and humorous misunderstandings.

Buy it on Amazon.

9. The Phantom Tollbooth // Norton Juster

The cover of 'The Phantom Tollbooth'
Amazon

This delightful children’s book about the power of imagination combines adventure, fantasy, and tons of clever puns. Since 1961, kids have loved reading about Milo’s journey to the Kingdom of Wisdom. He literally jumps to Conclusions (an island), meets a watchdog named Tock, and helps restore Rhyme and Reason (two princesses) to power. After his adventures, Milo realizes that regular life can be exciting, not boring.

Buy it on Amazon.

10. The Tao Te Ching // Lao-Tzu

In the Tao Te Ching, ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu presents the fundamental ideas behind the philosophy and religion of Taoism. Divided into 81 short sections, the book tells readers how to live virtuously and in accordance with Tao, or the way that everything flows and happens. While supposedly written in the 6th century B.C.E., some scholars argue that multiple authors contributed to the text over hundreds of years.

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11. Blonde // Joyce Carol Oates

In Blonde (2000), Joyce Carol Oates offers a fictional account of Marilyn Monroe’s thoughts and feelings throughout her life. The chronological account begins with Monroe’s childhood as Norma Jeane Baker, details her life as a young woman, and explores her experiences as “Marilyn” in the 1950s. Although Oates obscures the names of some characters, readers can easily determine when she’s referring to famous figures such as Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, and former President John F. Kennedy.

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12. Treasure Island // Robert Louis Stevenson

The cover of 'Treasure Island'
Amazon

This 1882 adventure novel, about treasure hunters and a pirate mutiny, is hard to put down. Robert Louis Stevenson pits the teenaged protagonist, Jim Hawkins, against the greedy, one-legged pirate named Long John Silver. Though geared for kids, Treasure Island has inspired countless films, TV shows, plays, songs, and games—as well as our popular idea of pirates in general.

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13. The Elements of Style // William Strunk, Jr. And E.B. White

Reading and writing are intimately connected, and The Elements of Style is the preeminent modern guide for writing well. In 1918, Cornell English professor William Strunk Jr. wrote a list of rules for grammar and composition, which was published in 1920. Around four decades later, his former student E.B. White—author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web—revised and expanded upon his professor’s book. The guidebook, which instructs writers to omit needless words and use the active rather than passive voice, is a joy to read.

Buy it on Amazon.

14. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory // Roald Dahl

The cover of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'
Amazon

Rivers of chocolate, magical gum, and Oompa-Loompas—it’s all in this beloved Roald Dahl classic from 1964. After poor Charlie Bucket gets one of five golden tickets, he wins the chance to tour chocolatier Willy Wonka’s magical factory. After the other four children on the tour disrespect Wonka’s rules, Wonka reveals that Charlie has won the entire factory.

Buy it on Amazon.

15. Love in the Time of Cholera // Gabriel García Márquez

Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) follows Florentino and Fermina, a pair of young lovers who live in an unnamed Caribbean port city. Because Fermina’s father disapproves of their relationship, he moves with his daughter to another city. Although the lovers write letters to each other, Fermina decides to marry another man, Dr. Juvenal Urbino. More than 50 years later, Urbino dies and Florentino proclaims that his love for Fermina had never ended.

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16. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings // Maya Angelou

The cover of 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings'
Amazon

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, has become a classic since it was first published in 1969. Angelou brings readers from her childhood in Arkansas and Missouri to her adulthood in California, sharing her traumatic experiences of abandonment, rape, and racism. She also shares her discovery and love of William Shakespeare’s works, revealing the transformative and healing power of books.

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17. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance // Robert Pirsig

Beloved by millions of readers since its publication in 1974, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is part road trip story and part philosophical text. As a man narrates his motorcycle trip with his 11-year-old son from Minnesota to California, he also discusses philosophical ideas about how we live and how we can balance romanticism and rationalism.

Buy it on Amazon.

18. Frankenstein // Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was only 20 years old in 1818 when Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first published (anonymously). The Gothic novel describes how scientist Victor Frankenstein brings a monster to life, and the aftermath of his decision to interfere with nature. The book has become a classic thanks to its innovative fusion of horror, science fiction, and Romanticism. Some consider it the first science fiction story ever written.

Buy it on Amazon.

19. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe // C.S. Lewis

The cover of 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe'
Amazon

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is the first of seven books in C.S. Lewis’s series The Chronicles of Narnia. Published in 1950, the fantasy novel follows the four Pevensie siblings, who, during World War II in England, discover a portal to a magical land called Narnia. There they encounter talking animals, a perpetual winter, and an evil White Witch.

Buy it on Amazon.

20. The Old Man and the Sea // Ernest Hemingway

Since 1952, The Old Man and the Sea has captivated readers with its story of Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman who hasn’t caught a fish in 84 days. After a long tussle with a huge marlin, Santiago finally kills the fish. Unfortunately, sharks devour most of the marlin’s carcass by the time Santiago gets home. The classic tale makes readers think about pain, suffering, empathy, futility, and growing old.

Buy it on Amazon.

21. The Westing Game // Ellen Raskin

The cover of 'The Westing Game'
Amazon

Readers of all ages love The Westing Game (1978) for its quirky characters, clever wordplay, and enthralling mystery. After multimillionaire Sam Westing dies, his will stipulates that his fortune will go to the person who figures out who killed him. An eclectic group of 16 characters, who are all residents of an apartment building on Lake Michigan, decipher clues to unravel the mystery.

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22. The Happiness Project // Gretchen Rubin

Published in 2009, The Happiness Project is a self-help book that takes readers through a year in the life of author Gretchen Rubin and her experiment to become a happier person. Each month, she makes tiny tweaks in her daily habits, focusing on everything from how to boost her energy to how to make more time for friends. Besides sharing her own experiences, Rubin also cites plenty of scientific studies on happiness and quotes writers and scholars who have written on the topic.

Buy it on Amazon.

23. Little Men // Louisa May Alcott

The cover of 'Little Men'
Amazon

Little Women was so successful that Louisa May Alcott wrote a sequel—Little Men (1871) picks up the March family saga with Jo, who is now married to Professor Friedrich Bhaer. While raising their two sons, Jo and her husband run Plumfield, a boarding school for boys. Fans of Little Women will be happy to know that characters from the novel (including Teddy and Amy) appear in the sequel.

Buy it on Amazon.

24. Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying // The Dalai Lama

Bibliophiles will love Sleeping, Dreaming, And Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness (1997). The Dalai Lama engages in a fascinating conversation with Western scientists about neuroscience, psychology, and consciousness. The scientists and His Holiness discuss everything from lucid dreaming and near-death experiences to meditation and Buddhist philosophy.

Buy it on Amazon.

25. The Devil Finds Work // James Baldwin

James Baldwin is mostly remembered for his essays and novels, but he also applied his talent for keen social criticism to film. In The Devil Finds Work (1976), Baldwin shares his views on the role of race in popular films such as The Exorcist (1973) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). He eloquently discusses everything from racial subtext and the idea of movies as an escape to the larger impact that films have on society.

Buy it on Amazon.

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A version of this article first ran in 2017.

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