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.

25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes

By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

11 Chilling Facts About Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House

Can a house be born bad? That’s the question Shirley Jackson asks in her classic novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Released in 1959, the gothic novel follows four strangers who converge on a purportedly haunted house to “scientifically” seek out evidence of the paranormal. Things rapidly devolve and the characters—in particular, the novel’s lonely protagonist, Eleanor—realize, too late, that they’re in over their heads.

Upon its release, the novel sold briskly, earning Jackson a National Book Award nomination and high praise from critics. In its review, The New York Times called the story “caviar for connoisseurs of the cryptic” and described Jackson as “the finest master currently practicing in the genre of the cryptic, haunted tale.” It also caught the attention of Hollywood, and within four years MGM released a film adaptation, directed by Robert Wise. Since then, the novel has been made into a play and into a widely panned 1999 movie. On October 12, the first ever television series based on the novel will be released by Netflix.

Whether you’re getting ready to dig into the horrors of Hill House on Netflix or a fan of the original novel, here are 11 facts about The Haunting of Hill House you should know.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY REAL-LIFE PARANORMAL INVESTIGATORS

A photo of a ghost in the 1890s
The National Archives UK // Public Domain

Jackson was inspired to write the novel after reading about a group of 19th century “psychic researchers” who rented a house they believed to be haunted in order to study paranormal phenomena. The researchers studiously recorded their experiences in the house, and presented them in the form of a treatise to the Society for Psychic Research. In her essay “Experience and Fiction,” Jackson explained that she was most intrigued by the way the researchers revealed their own personalities and backgrounds throughout the study. “They thought they were being terribly scientific and proving all kinds of things,” she explained. “And yet the story that kept coming through their dry reports was not at all the story of a haunted house, it was the story of several earnest, I believe misguided, certainly determined people, with their differing motivations and backgrounds.”

2. JACKSON HAD A TERRIFYING SLEEPWALKING EXPERIENCE WHILE WRITING THE NOVEL ...

Early on in the writing process, Jackson awoke one morning to find something terrifying atop her writing desk: A note, with the words “DEAD DEAD” scrawled upon it, written in her own handwriting. Jackson, who loved ghost stories but did not believe in ghosts, brushed the strange discovery off as sleepwalking. In “Experience and Fiction,” she wrote that she used the strange note to motivate her, explaining, “I decided that I had better write the book awake, which I got to work and did.”

3. ... AND MADE AN UNSETTLING DISCOVERY WHILE RESEARCHING HAUNTED HOUSES.

A haunted house on a hill
iStock.com/DNY59

Before she began writing The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson scoured magazines and newspapers for photos of houses that seemed haunted. During her research, she stumbled upon a photo of a house in California that had a particular air of “disease and decay.” She was so struck by it, she asked her mother, who lived in California, if she could find any additional information about the house. Her mother’s response shocked Jackson: Not only was she familiar with the house, but Jackson's own great-grandfather had built it. After standing empty for many years, the house had been set on fire—possibly by a group of townspeople.

4. THERE WAS ORIGINALLY MORE THAN ONE VERSION OF ELEANOR.

In A Rather Haunted Life, Shirley Jackson biographer Ruth Franklin writes that Jackson initially struggled to decide what kind of character her protagonist, Eleanor, would be. Jackson wrote three different iterations of Eleanor before settling on her final version. One, according to Franklin, was “a spinster with a swagger”—a far cry from the introverted Eleanor of the finished novel.

5. IT'S A GHOST STORY WITHOUT GHOSTS.

Jackson often referred to the novel as a “good ghost story” despite the fact that it doesn't have any overt ghosts. Instead, it’s the house itself that seems to do the haunting. In her notes for the novel, Jackson explained, “The House is the haunting.” While much of the novel is left ambiguous, Jackson was clear about the connections between Hill House and her protagonist, Eleanor. “Jackson clearly intended the external signs of haunting to be interpreted as manifestations of Eleanor’s troubled psyche,” Franklin explains in A Rather Haunted Life. At the same time, Franklin notes, “The novel makes it clear that something in the house brings out the disturbance in Eleanor.”

6. JACKSON'S HUSBAND WAS TOO AFRAID TO READ IT.

Jackson’s husband Stanley Edgar Hyman was a well-known literary critic and professor who enthusiastically read all of his wife’s books—but not The Haunting of Hill House. According to Franklin, “For the first time he refused to read her manuscript: He found the concept of ghosts too frightening.”

7. THE NOVEL HAS EARNED COMPARISONS TO THE TURN OF THE SCREW.

Since its release, critics and fans have drawn comparisons between The Haunting of Hill House and the writings of everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Hilary Mantel. But the comparison that comes up the most is to Henry James’s classic novel The Turn of the Screw. In her introduction to The Haunting of Hill House, Laura Miller explains that the two novels share common themes, including “a lonely, imaginative young woman” and “a big isolated house.” In his 1981 book Danse Macabre, Stephen King writes, “It seems to me that [The Haunting of Hill House] and James’s The Turn of the Screw are the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.”

8. IT WAS JACKSON'S FIRST PROFITABLE NOVEL.

The Haunting of Hill House wasn’t just Jackson’s most popular novel: It was her first profitable novel. “Hill House was a financial and critical triumph," Franklin writes. “For the first time, a novel of [Jackson’s] had finally earned back its advance and was even making a profit.”

9. SHE SOLD THE FILM RIGHTS FOR $67,500—AND USED THE MONEY TO BUY A WASHING MACHINE.

When Jackson sold the movie rights to Hill House for $67,500 (“an astronomical fee for the time,” notes Miller), it propelled her family into true financial stability for the first time. They used the money from the film to pay off their mortgage and all other debts, and to buy living room drapes, a player piano, and a washing machine and dryer.

10. ROALD DAHL SENT JACKSON A LETTER AFTER READING IT.

Roald Dahl
Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Legendary children’s author Roald Dahl was so struck by The Haunting of Hill House, he wrote to Jackson suggesting she write for television. According to Jackson biographer Lenemaja Friedman, Dahl asked her to “consider writing a script for a television show that Ellyn Williams was doing in Britain.” It’s unclear whether Dahl himself was working on the show (his TV series Way Out premiered in 1961, two years after the publication of Hill House), but Jackson ultimately refused his request.

11. THE NOVEL HAS A LOT OF FAMOUS FANS.

Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Guillermo del Toro, and Carmen Maria Machado are all huge fans. Del Toro included Hill House in a series of six classic horror novels he curated for Penguin, Maria Machado called it “the scariest novel I’ve ever read,” and Neil Gaiman has written that, while plenty of novels have scared him, Hill House “beats them all.” Stephen King, meanwhile, has written that Hill House has one of the best openings he’s ever read, calling it “the sort of quiet epiphany every writer hopes for.”

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