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.

11 Amazing Hotels for Book Lovers

Planning a vacation? Escape reality—both literally and figuratively—by visiting one of these literary-inspired getaways. You'll have your nose buried in a book the entire time, but sightseeing is overrated anyway, right?

1. GLADSTONE'S LIBRARY // HAWARDEN, WALES

In the tiny village of Hawarden, in Flintshire, Wales, travelers can spend the night in an historic residential library, surrounded by tomes collected by one of the UK’s most famous prime ministers. William Gladstone, who served a record four terms as head of Her Majesty’s government, lived in nearby Hawarden Castle after retiring from government service. The bibliophile amassed more than 30,000 books, and housed them in a building he envisioned as becoming a place where people could someday sleep, eat, and study.

After Gladstone's death in 1898, the town’s residents raised money to build a permanent home for the collection. In 1902, Gladstone’s Library opened as a national memorial to its namesake; today, visitors can sleep in one of its 26 guest rooms, dine in an onsite cafe, and—most importantly—browse the library’s 250,000 titles until 10 p.m. (The library closes to the public at 5 p.m.)

2. HEATHMAN HOTEL // PORTLAND, OREGON


Heathman Hotel

Thanks to a partnership with bookseller Powell Books and nonprofit Literary Arts, Portland’s historic Heathman Hotel is home to a cataloged lending library of more than 2700 signed titles. It’s billed as the country’s largest independent hotel library, and it's also one of the world’s largest autographed libraries; titles include signatures from Nobel Prize and Pulitzer winners, U.S. Poet Laureates, former U.S. presidents, and more. Four days a week, an in-house librarian hosts a wine social in the Heathman's mezzanine library, home to more than 2000 of the collection's books. Guests sip local vintages, browse through titles, and select works to check out and read in their rooms.

3. THE JEFFERSON // WASHINGTON, D.C.

The Jefferson, Washington D.C.
The Jefferson, Washington D.C.

The Jefferson in Washington, D.C. draws inspiration from the life of Thomas Jefferson, and adds a luxurious twist. Its toile draperies pay homage to the president’s Virginia plantation, Monticello; a Michelin-starred restaurant, Plume, serves food inspired by Monticello’s gardens; and Quill, a lounge and cocktail bar, is adorned with 18th-century maps that trace Jefferson’s trips through Europe's wine country. The hotel’s crowning glory is its Book Room, modeled after Jefferson’s personal library. Guests can peruse titles reflective of Jefferson’s era or his favorite pastimes, or select works signed by famous authors, like Dave Barry and Ron Chernow, who’ve stayed as guests.

4. WONDERLAND HOUSE // BRIGHTON, ENGLAND

Wonderland House
Wonderland House

Vacationers can pretend they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole at Wonderland House, a six-bedroom hotel in Brighton, England that celebrates Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. (Carroll himself used to spend his summers in the seaside resort town, and is said to have drawn inspiration from his surroundings.) Each guest room contains whimsical furnishings and decorations that reference Alice—there are kettles, clocks, mirrors, and teacups galore—and the Mad Hatter-themed kitchen comes complete with a black-and-white checkerboard floor and all the fixings for a raucous tea party.

5. THE COMMONS HOTEL // MINNEAPOLIS

Guests at The Commons Hotel in Minneapolis can snuggle up with a good book, delivered right to their rooms by a resident book butler. Choose from a selection of titles, or ask the butler for a recommendation. If you feel like mingling with other bibliophiles, The Commons is located just steps away from the University of Minnesota, and is close to one of the nation's largest independent arts organizations, the Loft Literary Center.

6. THE STUDY AT YALE // NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT

The Study at Yale
The Study at Yale

Located on Yale University’s Art Campus, The Study at Yale is a boutique hotel that captures the Ivy League’s collegiate spirit. Photos of Yale’s campus by Michael Marsland, Yale’s photographer, line the walls; the living room/lobby has a floor-to-ceiling bookcase filled with titles curated by New York City’s Strand Book Store; rooms are furnished with cozy leather reading chairs; and eight “Study” suites contain designated study areas, complete with stocked bookcases.

7. THE LIBRARY HOTEL // NEW YORK CITY


The Library Hotel

New York City’s Library Hotel celebrates its proximity to the New York Public Library’s majestic flagship location, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, by loosely modeling itself after the renowned center of knowledge. The hotel houses more than 6000 books, distributed throughout private rooms and public areas, and each of its 10 guest floors is inspired by one of the Dewey Decimal System’s 10 major categories—philosophy, religion, math and science, technology, etc.

Individual hotel rooms are decorated to reflect genres or topics within these groups, meaning that guests can sleep in zoology, mythology, astronomy, and even erotic literature-themed suites. When they're not reading, guests can relax at the rooftop watering hole, the Writer’s Den & Poetry Garden, which by night turns into Bookmarks Lounge and serves literary-themed drinks.

8. THE LIBRARY // KOH SAMUI, THAILAND


Courtesy of The Library

Come to The Library—a boutique hotel in Koh Samui, Thailand's second-largest island—for its minimalist aesthetic, beachfront views, and blood-red swimming pool; stay for its amazing library, which includes a huge selection of books, DVDs, and CDs, and an iMac computer corner.

9. BOOK AND BED // TOKYO

Sleep with books instead of stuffed animals at Book and Bed, a Tokyo hotel with 30 tiny beds hidden inside a giant bookshelf. The hotel lacks basic creature comforts, like private bathrooms, and the bookshelf's 1700 Japanese and English titles aren't technically for sale, but the entire setup has novelty to spare. “The perfect setting for a good night's sleep is something you will not find here," Book and Bed's website acknowledges. "There are no comfortable mattresses, fluffy pillows nor lightweight and warm down duvets. What we do offer is an experience while reading a book (or comic book)."

10. THE BETSY // MIAMI BEACH

The Betsy, South Beach
The Betsy, South Beach

At The Betsy, a glamorous Georgian- and Art Deco-style hotel located on South Beach's Ocean Drive, visitors can hit the beach and the books. Owner Jonathan Plutzik's late father was Hyam Plutzik, a three-time Pulitzer finalist for poetry, and The Betsy reflects his literary legacy. Guest rooms have small libraries, and the hotel places bookmarks on guests’ pillows, inscribed with Plutzik's poetry. The Betsy also hosts regular arts and cultural events, and has a special Writer's Room reserved for artist residencies.

11. SYLVIA BEACH HOTEL // NEWPORT, OREGON

Oregon's Sylvia Beach Hotel is named after Sylvia Beach, the renowned American publisher/expat who, in 1919, founded Paris's Shakespeare and Company bookstore, publisher of James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses and hangout for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The hotel is perched high on a bluff overlooking central Oregon's Nye Beach, and each of its 21 rooms is named after a famous author—Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Virginia Woolf, to name a few. To encourage guests to unplug—and take advantage of the third-floor oceanfront library—there are no TVs, phones, or Wi-Fi.

10 Classic Books That Have Been Banned

iStock
iStock

From the Bible to Harry Potter, some of the world's most popular books have been challenged for reasons ranging from violence to occult overtones. In honor of National Book Lovers Day, here's a look at 10 classic books that have stirred up controversy.

1. THE CALL OF THE WILD

Jack London's 1903 Klondike Gold Rush-set adventure was banned in Yugoslavia and Italy for being "too radical" and was burned by the Nazis because of the author's well-known socialist leanings.

2. THE GRAPES OF WRATH

Though John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, about a family of tenant farmers who are forced to leave their Oklahoma home for California because of economic hardships, earned the author both the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, it also drew ire across America because some believed it promoted Communist values. Kern County, California—where much of the book took place—was particular incensed by Steinbeck's portrayal of the area and its working conditions, which they considered slanderous.

3. THE LORAX

The cover of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax
Google Play

Whereas some readers look at Dr. Seuss's Lorax and see a fuzzy little character who "speaks for the trees," others saw the 1971 children's book as a dangerous piece of political commentary, with even the author reportedly referring to it as "propaganda."

4. ULYSSES

James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses may be one of the most important and influential works of the early 20th century, but it was also deemed obscene for both its language and sexual content—and not just in a few provincial places. In 1921, a group known as The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice successfully managed to keep the book out of the United States, and the United States Post Office regularly burned copies of it. But in 1933, the book's publisher, Random House, took the case—United States v. One Book Called Ulysses—to court, and ended up getting the ban overturned.

5. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT

In 1929, Erich Maria Remarque—a German World War I veteran—wrote the novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which gives an accounting of the extreme mental and physical stress the German soldiers faced during their time in the war. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book's realism didn't sit well with Nazi leaders, who feared the book would deter their propaganda efforts.

6. ANIMAL FARM

The cover of George Orwell's Animal Farm
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The original publication of George Orwell's 1945 allegorical novella was delayed in the UK because of its anti-Stalin themes. It was confiscated in Germany by Allied troops, banned in Yugoslavia in 1946, banned in Kenya in 1991, and banned in the United Arab Emirates in 2002.

7. AS I LAY DYING

Though many people consider William Faulkner's 1930 novel As I Lay Dying a classic piece of American literature, the Graves County School District in Mayfield, Kentucky disagreed. In 1986, the school district banned the book because it questioned the existence of God.

8. LOLITA

Sure, it's well known that Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is about a middle-aged literature professor who is obsessed with a 12-year-old girl who eventually becomes his stepdaughter. It's the kind of storyline that would raise eyebrows today, so imagine what the response was when the book was released in 1955. A number of countries—including France, England, Argentina, New Zealand, and South Africa—banned the book for being obscene. Canada did the same in 1958, though it later lifted the ban on what is now considered a classic piece of literature—unreliable narrator and all.

9. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

Cover of The Catcher in the Rye

Reading J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye has practically become a rite of passage for teenagers, but back when it was published in 1951, it wasn't always easy for a kid to get his or her hands on it. According to TIME, "Within two weeks of its 1951 release, J.D. Salinger’s novel rocketed to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Ever since, the book—which explores three days in the life of a troubled 16-year-old boy—has been a 'favorite of censors since its publication,' according to the American Library Association."

10. THE GIVER

The newest book on this list, Lois Lowry's 1993 novel The Giverabout a dystopia masquerading as a utopiawas banned in several U.S. states, including California and Kentucky, for addressing issues such as euthanasia.

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