Read Melville in Love Online

Authors: Michael Shelden

Melville in Love






Most considerate of all the delicate roses that diffuse their blessed perfume among men, is Mrs. Morewood.



It is a winter scene like one you'd find in a faded calendar of old New England. A snowstorm has swept through the countryside overnight, sending the temperature plummeting and turning the landscape white. And there, on a gentle rise in a valley between two mountains in the Berkshires, is an old colonial mansion with plumes of smoke rising from its tall chimneys, and guests arriving in sleighs for Christmas dinner.

The year is 1851, and the house is the pride of Pittsfield, the nearest town on this western edge of Massachusetts. Lately christened “Broadhall” by its new owners, the elegant mansion has two grand parlors with fancy chandeliers, separated by a wide hall and a solid old staircase. It was built by expert craftsmen using huge oak timbers from the area, and the upper windows command a sweeping view of the snow-covered mountains and fields that spread out in all directions. To the north, about a mile away, the church towers of the little town dot the horizon.

At the door servants usher inside the dozen or so guests, all from the neighborhood, including a doctor, a rich farmer, the town historian, and their various wives and daughters. The parlors glow with candles and crackling fires, the table is set, and decorations are everywhere for “an old-fashion'd English Christmas, with Holly & Mistletoe, & bobbing apples.”

The hostess for this gathering is Sarah Anne Morewood, the twenty-eight-year-old wife of an English-born merchant and trader. Her husband is the prosperous but bland John Rowland Morewood, who also keeps a house in Manhattan, 150 miles away, where he devotes much of his time to his business and his local Episcopal church. His pretty wife likes living in the country. When the weather allows, she delights in exploring the Berkshire scenery on long “rambles” of ten miles on foot, or on rides of twenty miles on horseback. A free spirit who enjoys defying convention, she has a direct and open manner that can be unnerving, and she is full of strong passions. Proudly, she tells friends, “My feelings . . . are always intense.” The few surviving pictures of her capture that intensity in her eyes, which are dark and penetrating.

In solitary hours she is sometimes known to take paper and pencil to the woods and write lyrical verses about nature and love and death and other subjects typical of so many poems of the time. The editor of the
Pittsfield Sun
is an admirer of her writing, and a local church choir has set one of her verses to music. Thanks to her wealth, her literary interests, and her strong personality, she is already a prominent figure in the community, though her independent ways have also generated considerable gossip. It is whispered that she has shown too much interest in other men when Mr. Morewood is away.

Her husband is present on this Christmas afternoon, but Sarah's
interest is, in fact, focused on a male guest at her party. He is the owner of the adjoining farm, an author who has just published a sprawling novel about the doomed pursuit of a great white whale across the distant reaches of the Pacific.

, in an upper room of his farmhouse overlooking this rolling countryside, Herman Melville has completed
Moby-Dick; or, the Whale,
and the book is now in print. Landlocked, he has been going to sea in his imagination, spinning out his tale of the relentless Captain Ahab of the
chasing the white monster to the ends of the earth. Here, among these hills, he has found the inspiration to write the most ambitious American novel of the century, creating in Ahab a character to rank with the best of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, a wounded soul at war with the world and raging against it at every turn with curses hurled at man, beast, and God.

For the author of such a major work, Melville is still very young. At thirty-two, he is handsome in the rugged, masculine way of a young outdoorsman. Tall for the times, he is broad-shouldered and bearded, with dark brown hair that is thick and glossy, and blue eyes that are ever curious and alert. His own early adventures at sea on whaling vessels and an American warship are now well behind him. Eager to make his mark in the world, he has been trying to win fame as a writer almost from the moment his last ship docked, seven years ago. He has made remarkable progress, with several books now to his credit, each written at blazing speed, and most of them earning him praise if not a lot of money.

Published in November,
is far superior to anything he has done before. It raises its basic tale of a whaling voyage to the level
of an epic adventure and a spiritual odyssey. This is supposed to be his breakthrough work, a potential bestseller that will establish him as an author with few peers. It has only recently landed on the shelves of the local bookstore in Pittsfield, and the response has not been good. Buyers have been few. In fact, the novel is selling poorly everywhere, and though there are several favorable reviews, the bad ones are especially damning. “Tiresome,” “inartistic,” and “not worth the money asked for it” are some of the milder criticisms in the American press. The worst attacks portray the author as a clever rascal determined to imperil the reader's soul by “piratical” assaults on “the most sacred associations of life.” One critic is so outraged by the novel's impieties that he confidently prophesizes divine retribution as the price of the author's literary sins. “The Judgment Day,” declares the reviewer, “will hold him liable for not turning his talents to better account.”

Even here in Pittsfield some of the criticism has been harsh. An old puritanical streak among the town's best families has caused them to shun the book. They have been shocked to hear the author condemned so forcefully for his irreverence. “The serious part of the community about here,” Melville has learned, “have loudly spoken of the book[,] saying it is more than Blasphemous.” Deeply in debt from the purchase of his farm—little more than a year ago, when he moved abruptly from New York—he has pinned all his hopes on his masterpiece paying rich returns. Now the grim fact is slowly beginning to emerge that his earnings will be paltry. Throughout the rest of his life, the American sales of
will bring him only $556.37 on sales of just over 3,000 copies. The book is an unmitigated commercial disaster.

What should have been the happy close of a triumphant year, a time for celebrating the creation of a groundbreaking work, has in
stead become for Melville a sobering moment of public defeat. Sensitive to criticism, though often feigning indifference to it, he could be forgiven for avoiding any festive celebrations in the neighborhood and nursing his battered pride at home beside a warm fire. Yet here he is at the holiday party standing beside the most remarkable woman he knows, the new mistress of Broadhall. He seems to have some idea that a surprise is in store for him.

, he takes his hostess by the arm and leads her into the dining room, leaving her husband to follow, as if this is Melville's home, and Sarah is his wife. When they reach the table, “a beautiful Laurel wreath” lies before them on a plate gleaming in the candlelight, the handiwork of Mrs. Morewood, who has a talent for floral design. Without a word, she picks up the wreath and gently lifts it to Melville's brow, pressing close against him on her toes because he is so much taller. For a moment they look like actors playing a scene in an old drama. With a little imagination, this looks like the moment onstage when a queen crowns her champion or a maiden shows her favor to the victor of a race.

At this crucial time in Melville's career, when his fortunes are sinking and the town is turning away from him, few gestures could carry greater meaning than Sarah Morewood's act of bestowing on him the laurels he deserves. In front of all her guests she is vividly demonstrating that at least one person in the community understands Melville's triumph, that
is not a “Blasphemous” failure, but a mighty work worthy of a crown. She knows even now what it will take the larger world several generations to discover—her neighbor has written one of the greatest novels in the English language.

And, in the spirit of solidarity, she has chosen this afternoon to join the author in a bit of blasphemy of her own, crowning a mere mortal on a day sacred to the Christian faithful. The modern mind may find nothing objectionable in her action, but what she does in this house at this time in a small New England town is shocking. Among Mr. Morewood's friends who share his devout Episcopalian faith, Sarah's tribute with her laurel wreath can't seem anything but a “pagan” custom that has no place on this day honoring the martyr who wore a crown of thorns. To the pious, the only proper ceremony for the dinner table will begin with the bowing of heads as Mr. Morewood leads his guests in prayer.

What Melville does next is neither pious nor predictable. He gives Sarah a graceful, though no less provocative, response. At the very moment that all eyes are on him, he declines the honor as gently as possible by lifting the wreath from his brow and placing it on Sarah's. Saying he will “not be crowned,” he crowns her instead.

As his family will later note, Melville is “very angry” that his brilliant book has been damned by townspeople who are unlikely to have read it. Here in this highly theatrical episode at Christmas, with an audience of village notables, he and Sarah are staging a defiant ceremony that is both reckless and brave. It marks the beginning of a long period of deepening discontent for Melville, a grand but ultimately destructive turning away from worldly ambition and success.

The dinner at Broadhall goes ahead, but not without what must have been a long and uncomfortable pause. No more is said of the wreath. It's put aside and remains on a table until the evening comes to a close. And then at the last minute—as Melville takes the reins of his sleigh, preparing to go—a servant comes forward, and gives it to
him. Sarah won't let him leave without it. He rides away with the only prize he will ever receive for
a simple token of honor from a woman who—within a generation—will be largely forgotten.

is that Mrs. Morewood is in love with Mr. Melville, who is also married. Indeed, Sarah will prove the most enduring influence on Melville's life, a muse as well as a lover. Yet the story of their affair has remained secret. This scene at Broadhall didn't even come to light until a century and a half after it took place. Details of the romance have been slow to emerge because much of the evidence was left unexamined while Melville's literary reputation languished in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, and while Sarah's personal history faded into obscurity. Since then, biographers have shown little interest in a woman whom they have usually mentioned only in passing as a faceless “Berkshire neighbor.” The most highly praised of Melville's recent biographers—Andrew Delbanco—devotes just four sentences to her in a book of four hundred pages. Elizabeth Hardwick's biography—the last on Melville in the twentieth century—doesn't mention Sarah at all, nor does Nathaniel Philbrick in his acclaimed book
Why Read
nor do the sixteen distinguished scholars contributing essays on every aspect of the author's career in the recent Cambridge University Press
Companion to Herman Melville

The simple fact is that Melville's most passionate relationship—the powerful key to unlocking his secrets—has been missing from the story of his life. As a result, there has been more confusion and misunderstanding in his biographies than in those of the other great American writers of his time. What has been hidden is an affair so in
timate and revealing that it colored every aspect of his life. It offers an almost modern insight into the pleasures and pains of sexual freedom.

The man who wrote
and filled it with such powerful, urgent longing on an epic scale, and then followed that immediately with a wild lament for forbidden love in the novel he called
didn't soar to such heights or plunge to such depths in an emotional vacuum. The tempests in those books had their parallels in his life, and at the center of the storm was a relationship for which he was willing to risk everything.

Herman and Sarah left a surprisingly long trail of clues behind them, some of it in letters, some of it in documents long buried in archives, and some in barely disguised revelations published in their lifetimes. Most of the information comes from the first few years of their affair, in the early 1850s, when they were most absorbed in each other's lives. This is also the greatest period of Melville's career, when he wrote not only
but also two masterpieces of short fiction, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno.”

Melville fell completely under his lover's spell from the moment they met in the summer of 1850. Mrs. Morewood was a singular character in the Berkshires of her day, a woman both bookish and beautiful, intelligent and inquisitive, creative and compassionate. Melville regarded her seriously as a kindred spirit, though his biographers have not. She is one of the great unsung figures in literary history. Yet her unconventional ways often made her the talk of Pittsfield, and the author of
was not the only neighbor who found her fascinating. A summer neighbor—Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.—was so taken by her beauty and charm that he extolled them in verse, and wrote a novel largely inspired by her.

Even before she moved to Pittsfield, Sarah was known as an un
tamed spirit with a reputation for lavishing affection on her friends, male as well as female. Gossip was quick to spread wherever she went. By the end of her time in Pittsfield, she would have so many critics among the town's matronly guardians of virtue that one friend would say in her defense, “Her mistakes were nobler than some who criticized her; if she ever failed, it was thereafter to feel a more tender pity for the failing.”

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