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 200th birthday on August 1, we’re diving into Melville’s adventures and fishing for some surprising facts.

1. Herman Melville's 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. Herman Melville 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. Herman Melville jumped ship in the middle of a 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. Herman Melville 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. Herman Melville 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. Herman Melville 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. Herman Melville 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. Herman Melville's 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 Herman Melville's 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.

Jane Austen's Handwritten Letter About a Nightmarish Visit to the Dentist Is Up for Auction

Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

For about $100,000, you could own a tangible reminder that Jane Austen hated going to the dentist, too—even when she wasn’t the patient.

After escorting her three nieces to a dentist named Spence in 1813, Austen was so appalled at the dental practices of the time that she described them to her sister Cassandra in a letter, which could now sell for $80,000 to $120,000 at an auction later this week. Smithsonian reports that the value is so high partially because only 161 of an estimated 3000 letters written by the celebrated author still exist; the rest were destroyed by Austen’s family after her death, possibly to avoid personal matters from leaking to the public.

jane austen letter about the dentist
Bonhams

This letter doesn’t contain anything particularly private, but it does provide some intimate insight into Austen—who famously remained unmarried and childless herself—as a doting aunt and sister.

“The poor Girls & their Teeth!” she wrote. “We were a whole hour at Spence’s, & Lizzy’s were filed and lamented over again & poor Marianne had two taken out after all … we heard each of the two sharp hasty screams.”

While Austen doesn’t speculate about whether or not the work on the aforementioned nieces’ teeth was necessary, she definitely had an opinion about Spence’s treatment of her third (and favorite) niece Fanny.

“Fanny’s teeth were cleaned too—& pretty as they are, Spence found something to do to them, putting in gold & talking gravely … but I think he must be a Lover of Teeth & Money & Mischief to parade about Fannys [sic].”

If you think a visit to the dentist is uncomfortable in the age of anesthetics and easily accessible milkshakes, you can imagine that getting teeth filed, filled, and pulled in the early 19th century was a full-fledged nightmare. The main fix for a cavity was simply pulling the tooth out, which the Jane Austen Center explains was often done with a pelican or key, both metal instruments that were braced against the gum and then twisted to tear out the tooth.

In addition to the horrifying dental report, Austen also writes about her mother’s improving health, a visit to a family friend, and a department store shopping trip.

Bonhams will include the letter in their annual Americana and Travel auction in New York on Wednesday, October 23.

Curious to know more about the woman behind Pride and Prejudice? Check out eight intriguing facts here.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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 vs. 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.

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