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.

House Boasting a ‘Harry Potter Room’ Under the Stairs Hits the Market in San Diego

Cupboard under the stairs featured on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter in London.
Cupboard under the stairs featured on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter in London.
Matt Robinson, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When Harry Potter fans dream of living like the boy wizard, they may picture Harry's cozy quarters in the Gryffindor dormitory at Hogwarts. One home owner in San Diego, California is trying to spin one of Harry's much less idyllic living situations as a magical feature. As The San Diego Union-Tribune reports, a listing of a three-bedroom house for sale in the city's Logan Heights neighborhood boasts a "Harry Potter room"—a.k.a storage room under the stairs.

In the Harry Potter books, the cupboard under the stairs of the Dursley residence served as Harry's bedroom before he enrolled in Hogwarts. Harry was eager to escape the cramped, dusty space, but thanks to the series' massive success, a similar feature in a real-world home may be a selling point for Harry Potter fans.

Kristin Rye, the seller of the San Diego house, told The Union-Tribune she would read Harry Potter books to her son, though she wouldn't describe herself as a super fan. As for why she characterized her closet as a “large ‘Harry Potter’ storage room underneath stairs" in her real estate listing, she said it was the most accurate description she could think of. “It’s just this closet under the stairs that goes back and is pretty much like a Harry Potter room. I don’t know how else to describe it," she told the newspaper.

Beyond the cupboard under the stairs, Rye's listing doesn't bear much resemblance to the cookie-cutter, suburban home of 4 Privet Drive. Nearly a century old, the San Diego house has the same cobwebs and a musty smells you might expect from the Hogwarts dungeons, the newspaper reports. But there are some perks, including a parking spot and backyard space for a garden or pull-up bar. The 1322-square-foot home is listed at $425,000—cheaper than the median price of $620,000 for a resale single-family home in the area.

If you want to live like a wizard, you don't necessarily need to start by moving under a staircase. In North Yorkshire, England, a cottage modeled after Hagrid's Hut is available to rent on a nightly basis.

[h/t The San Diego Union-Tribune]

10 Surprising Facts About E.B. White

Born on July 11, 1899 in Mount Vernon, New York, E.B. White wrote books, essays, and poems for both children and adults. Although you’ve probably read (and re-read) his books Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, there’s so much more to learn about White. In honor of his birthday, here are 10 things you might not know about the author of some of the most beloved children’s books of all time.

1. E.B. White went by "Andy."

Although children around the world know him as E.B. White, his friends and family called him Andy for most of his life. Born Elwyn Brooks White on July 11, 1899, he got the nickname Andy while he was a student at Cornell University. He shared a last name with Andrew Dickson White, the co-founder and first president of Cornell, and Cornell tradition dictated that all students with the last name White were given the nickname Andy. This suited Elwyn just fine; he once said, "I never liked Elwyn. My mother just hung it on me because she'd run out of names. I was her sixth child." It stuck, and he went by Andy for the rest of his life.

2. White wrote an obituary his dog for The New Yorker.

White’s love of animals is evident in his writing, and his dog Daisy was no exception. In 1932, he wrote an obituary for Daisy after a New York City cab hit her in front of a florist’s shop on University Place. Published in The New Yorker, the obituary describes Daisy’s life, from her birth to her untimely death at 3 years old: “Her life was full of incident but not of accomplishment … Once she slipped her leash and chased a horse for three blocks through heavy traffic, in the carking belief that she was an effective agent against horses … She died sniffing life, and enjoying it.”

3. White married his editor.

White began writing for The New Yorker in the mid 1920s. In 1926, he met Katharine Sergeant Angell, the magazine's fiction editor. Reminiscing about his first meeting with Katharine in the lobby of the magazine, he told The New York Times that she "had a lot of black hair and was very beautiful." Six years older than White, Katharine was a divorced mother with two kids, but the couple married in 1929 and eventually moved to a farmhouse in Maine.

"I soon realized I had made no mistake in my choice of a wife," White later said. "I was helping her pack an overnight bag one afternoon when she said, 'Put in some tooth twine.' I knew then that a girl who called dental floss tooth twine was the girl for me." Katharine continued to work remotely for The New Yorker, and the two were married until her death in 1977.

4. White's style guide for writers became a huge success.

The Elements of Style, a book that teaches people how to write effectively, clearly, and succinctly, is arguably the most famous writer’s bible in America. White’s English professor at Cornell, William Strunk Jr., originally wrote the book’s rules of grammar and composition in 1918. In 1959, White revised the book, and it has since sold millions of copies. In an interview with The Paris Review, White said: "My role in the revival of Strunk’s book was a fluke—just something I took on because I was not doing anything else at the time. It cost me a year out of my life, so little did I know about grammar."

5. White was a hypochondriac.

Throughout his life, White was a hypochondriac who worried that, for example, his sunburn was a brain tumor or an ant bite was fatal. In a piece for The New Yorker, his stepson, Roger Angell, posited that White’s anxieties were due to his childhood. White was the youngest of six kids (his parents were in their 40s when he was born), so minor ailments—such as a cough or stomachache—would likely elicit more parental attention and nurturing as the cherished baby of the family.

6. White struggled with anxiety.

In addition to his hypochondria, White suffered from a general anxiety that began in childhood. He described himself as "frightened but not unhappy … I lacked for nothing except confidence." As an adult, he was anxious about subways crashing, meeting new people, and speaking in public. At restaurants, he was overly cautious about accidentally eating clams (he claimed one had poisoned him once). He skipped weddings, parties, his Presidential Medal of Freedom awards ceremony, and even his wife’s (private) burial service, describing his anxiety as a "peculiar kind of disability."

7. White was an avid sailor.

Despite his massive success as a writer, White disliked reading indoors, much preferring outdoor activities. "I am restless and would rather sail a boat than crack a book," he remarked. That is, unless that book was about one of his favorite topics: sailing. “But when I latch onto a book like They Live by the Wind, by Wendell P. Bradley, I am glued tight to the chair. It is because Bradley wrote about something that has always fascinated (and uplifted) me—sailing." White injected his love of sailing into his book Stuart Little, which contains a sailboat race, and his son Joel became a world-renowned boat designer. Once, Joel made a boat named in honor of his daughter Martha, and White carved four dolphins on each side of the bow and sailed it afterward.

8. White fought to keep Hollywood's adaptation of Charlotte's Web true to the book.

In 1973, the animation studio Hanna-Barbera released an animated musical film version of Charlotte’s Web. The studio wanted to change the book’s ending by not having Charlotte die, but White pushed back against a happier ending. Although the studio obliged, White and his wife reportedly hated the animated Charlotte’s Web, regretting that it was made and calling it a travesty.

9. White was a major procrastinator.

White was open about his struggles with writing and procrastination. In an interview, he revealed that he would walk around his house, straightening picture frames and rugs, before sitting down to write. "Delay is natural to a writer," White admitted. But he cautioned that writers have to somehow conquer procrastination: "A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper."

10. White fought Alzheimer's disease with grace and humor.

Before White died in October 1985, he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. His son read his father’s books and essays aloud, and White usually enjoyed hearing his writing. Because he didn’t remember that he was the author of the words, he would pooh-pooh some passages, saying that the writing wasn’t good enough. But when he liked other passages, he would ask his son, Joel, who wrote the words. "You did, Dad," Joel said. White replied, "Well, not bad."

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