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10 Fascinating Facts About Herman Melville

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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 198th 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 is 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.

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Collection of the New-York Historical Society, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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20 Powerful Quotes From Frederick Douglass
Collection of the New-York Historical Society, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Collection of the New-York Historical Society, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In his 1845 memoir, A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the famed abolitionist wrote that, “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.” Later in life, Douglass—who was born into slavery in Maryland—chose February 14 as his official birthdate, with some historians speculating that he was born in 1818.

Douglass would, of course, go on to become one of the most powerful leaders of the anti-slavery movement, working as an advisor to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and later becoming the first African American citizen to hold a government position. In 1872, he was Victoria Woodhull’s running mate in her bid for the presidency (even though he never officially accepted or acknowledged the nomination). He was also a dazzling orator, as these 20 quotes prove.

1. ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PROGRESS AND STRUGGLE

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

2. ON THE UNIVERSALITY OF SORROW

“A smile or a tear has not nationality; joy and sorrow speak alike to all nations, and they, above all the confusion of tongues, proclaim the brotherhood of man.”

3. ON THE VALUE OF EDUCATION

“Some know the value of education by having it. I know its value by not having it."

4. ON THE DENIAL OF JUSTICE

“The American people have this to learn: that where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither person nor property is safe.”

5. ON MEASURING INJUSTICE

“Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.”

6. ON EMPOWERING YOUTH

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

7. ON MORAL GROWTH

“A battle lost or won is easily described, understood, and appreciated, but the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection, as well as observation, to appreciate it.”

8. ON THE SECURITY OF A NATION

“The life of a nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.”

9. ON THE NEED FOR POWER

“It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”

10. ON FREE SPEECH

“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”

11. ON REBELLION

“The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.”

12. ON THE CONSEQUENCE OF SLAVERY

“No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”

13. ON RIGHT VERSUS WRONG

“I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

14. ON WORKING FOR WHAT YOU GET

“People might not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get.”

15. ON THE POWER OF KNOWLEDGE

“Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”

16. ON THE NECESSITY OF IRONY

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.”

17. ON REMAINING TRUE TO ONESELF

“I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.”

18. ON THE IMPENETRABILITY OF ONE’S SOUL

“The soul that is within me no man can degrade.”

19. ON THE COLOR OF ONE’S CHARACTER

“A man's character always takes its hue, more or less, from the form and color of things about him.”

20. ON USING THE PAST TO MAKE A BETTER FUTURE

“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.”

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15 Facts About Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees
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A tale of love and loss, sisterhood and trauma, Sue Monk Kidd's 2002 novel The Secret Life of Bees has won the hearts of millions of readers around the world. But few know the full truth behind this inspirational novel.

1. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES IS A BILDUNGSROMAN.

A bildungsroman is a novel that charts the moral or psychological growth of its protagonist. It's also known as a coming-of-age story. In this case, Kidd's novel follows the journey of its narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Lily Melissa Owens. After escaping her abusive father T. Ray, Lily finds solace with the beekeeping Boatwright sisters, and confronts the terrible truth about her mother's death.

2. THE NOVEL TACKLES RACE RELATIONS IN THE 1960S.

Set in South Carolina during the civil rights movement, The Secret Life of Bees presents examples of overt racism. In one scene, a trio of white men harasses Lily's mother-figure Rosaleen Daise, who is black. At the same time, the novel challenges pernicious racial stereotypes. Before meeting the Boatwrights, Lily, who is white, assumes all black women are uneducated laborers or maids like Rosaleen. Through her time with the sisters, who are accomplished business owners, the novel's heroine recognizes her own prejudices, and grows to realize her ignorance.

3. ASPECTS OF LILY'S CHILDHOOD MIRRORED KIDD'S OWN.

Upon the novel's 10th anniversary, Kidd offered a long list of autobiographical elements that can be found within The Secret Life of Bees. "Both Lily and I were adolescents during the summer of 1964, and like Lily, I was powerfully affected by the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the racial unrest that fomented during those hot, volatile months," she wrote on her website. "I, too, had an African-American caretaker. I, too, wanted to be a writer ... Lily and I created fallout shelter models for our 7th-grade science projects and wrote papers called 'My Philosophy of Life' before either of us were old enough to have a philosophy." Kidd clarifies, however, that she did not lose her mother when she was a child and her father was "nothing like T. Ray."

4. KIDD VISITED HONEYHOUSES AND BEEHIVES WHEN SHE WAS WRITING THE NOVEL.

"Some of those scenes where Lily is experiencing that rush of feeling and emotion when the bees come swirling out of their hives, I could never have gotten that from a book," the author told BookPage. "The fear and delight of all that and the sounds of it … the way your feet stick to the floor in a honeyhouse … the senses are alive in all of that experience."

5. BEES WERE A BIG PART OF KIDD'S CHILDHOOD.

In one way, Kidd lived in a honeyhouse of her own. "When I was growing up, bees lived inside a wall of our house, an entire hive-full of them—that is to say, 50,000 or so. They lived with us, not for a summer or two, but for 18 years," Kidd wrote on her website. "The room vibrated with bee hum. At times, the whole house seemed to hum. I remember my mother cleaning up the honey that leaked from the cracks and made tiny puddles on the floor. Being a good Southern family, we normalized the situation and went on with our lives."

6. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES WAS KIDD'S FIRST NOVEL, BUT NOT HER FIRST BOOK.

Ahead of The Secret Life of Bees, the Georgia-born author wrote three books about aspects of Christianity: God's Joyful Surprise (1988), When The Heart Waits (1990), and The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (1996). It wasn’t until she was in her forties that Kidd shifted her focus to fiction, beginning with short stories. The Secret Life of Bees came out in 2002, when Kidd was 53 years old.

7. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES HAS A SPIRITUAL CONNECTION TO KIDD'S EARLIER BOOKS.

The novel includes Christian iconography, notably the Black Madonna that adorns the Boatwrights' honey jars. Its coming-of-age plot also touches on spiritual awakening. As Kidd said in the 2002 interview with BookPage, "I think of it as something deeper and more profound happening to [Lily] at the level of soul, and I wanted her to have a real transformation and a real awakening … to this other realm."

8. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES'S MEMORABLE MARY FIGUREHEAD WAS BASED ON A REAL ONE IN A MUSEUM.

In the novel, a religious service is held before a statue called Black Mary or Our Lady of Chains, which is the figurehead of a ship that carries a great significance to the Daughters of Mary, a group of women who follow a religion invented by August Boatwright. Kidd had seen a similar figurehead while visiting a Trappist monastery in South Carolina. "The day that I discovered her," Kidd said, "I was totally captivated by … the powerful imagery of this [figurehead] Mary that was surfacing from the deep, washing up from the deep, onto the shores of consciousness, so to speak."

9. THE BOATWRIGHT SISTERS REPRESENT A CELEBRATION OF FEMALE FRIENDSHIP AND SORORITY.

On her website, Kidd tells the story of how she came up with the Boatwright sisters' characters and setting. She had woken up in the middle of the night thinking about where Rosaleen and Lily were going to end up after escaping T. Ray. She picked up a selection of photos that she had hoped would spark creativity. "My eyes wandered back and forth between pictures of three African-American women, an uproariously pink house, a cloud of bees, and a black Mary, and suddenly, it fell in one unbroken piece into my head," she wrote. "My two runaways would escape to the home of three black sisters, who live in a pink house, keep bees, and revere a black Mary. This sudden revelation may have happened in part because down deep I wanted a way to write about the strength, wisdom, and bonds of women."

10. KIDD WAS INSPIRED BY TWO CLASSICS OF AMERICAN LITERATURE.

The Secret Life of Bees won applause for its insightful look into the inner lives of its female characters. It may be no surprise that its author says reading the groundbreaking feminist novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin, published in 1899, made a big impact on her. Kidd also cites Henry David Thoreau's Walden, the 1854 transcendentalist treatise on simplicity and self-reliance. When she read each book, Kidd told Scholastic, "I would say they were turning points in my life, but also I can look back and say they affected me deeply as a writer."

11. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES WAS A RUNAWAY HIT.

The novel spent more than two-and-a-half years on The New York Times bestseller list and more than 8 million copies of the book have been sold worldwide. It has also been translated into 36 languages.

12. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES ALSO EARNED CRITICAL ACCLAIM.

Many reviewers praised Kidd's beautifully rendered characters and setting. "Lily is a wonderfully petulant and self-absorbed adolescent, and Kidd deftly portrays her sense of injustice as it expands to accommodate broader social evils," The New York Times Book Review wrote. "August and her sisters, June and May, are no mere vehicles for Lily's salvation; they are individuals as fully imagined as the sweltering, kudzu-carpeted landscape that surrounds them."

In deeming the novel "buzz-worthy," People wrote, "populated with rich, believable characters and propelled by a swiftly paced plot, this debut novel is a cut above most coming-of-age tales."

The Secret Life of Bees was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women's Prize for Fiction) in 2002, and won the American Booksellers Association's Book Sense Paperback of the Year award in 2004.

13. THE NOVEL WAS MADE INTO A STAR-STUDDED MOVIE.

Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote and directed Love & Basketball and other features, adapted The Secret Life Of Bees into a period drama. The cast included Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, Oscar nominees Queen Latifah and Sophie Okonedo, multiple Grammy winner Alicia Keys, and Dakota Fanning as Lily.

Kidd visited the film set in a tiny North Carolina town and marveled at how every detail of the production was just as she had imagined it. But months later, when she sat down in the movie theater to watch the film for the first time, she felt nervous. "I had no idea what I would see. I’d glibly said that handing over my novel to Hollywood had seemed like leaping out of an airplane, but sitting there waiting for the film to begin, it really did seem that way," Kidd wrote on her website. "The parachute opened, thankfully, and the whole thing floated rather nicely to earth."

The movie earned a People's Choice Award for Favorite Dramatic Movie and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture.

14. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES HAS BEEN ADAPTED INTO A STAGE MUSICAL.

As part of Vassar College's Powerhouse Theater's summer season in 2017, the college and New York Stage and Film presented a workshop production of The Secret Life of Bees as a musical, which starred Orange is the New Black standout Uzo Aduba in the role of Rosaleen. The show featured music from Tony winner Duncan Sheik and a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage.

15. KIDD REALIZED THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES WAS BIG WHEN IT WAS FEATURED ON JEOPARDY!.

Under the category "Women Writers," the long-running quiz show offered this answer: “Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel is about these insects.” Kidd recalled that moment on her website: "I blinked at the television. Finally, I came to life and shouted, 'What are bees?' Fortunately, the contestant did not need my help."

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