Book Review: Melville in Love
Melville in Love:
The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick
by Michael Shelden
If you’ve never reckoned Herman Melville a love-inflamed lothario, then you’ve reckoned without Sarah Anne Morewood, or so writes Michael Shelden in his game new book Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick. If you’re picturing the Melville of his Moby-Dick stage of life as a dour, hirsute brooder who certainly wasn’t in love with his wife Elizabeth, the uptight judge’s daughter, and might not even have been in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who could outdo him in the brooding department without breaking a sweat and matched him line-for-line in terms of talent, if that’s the Melville you picture when his name comes to mind, Shelden has a story to jolt you out of your complacency.
It’s in large part the story of Sarah Anne Morewood, the wife of a Manhattan businessman who kept a summer home in the picturesque Berkshire town of Pittsfield. Sarah Anne was a spirited and principled arriviste, a lovably pretentious social hostess fond of teasing her many guests. She was, as Shelden puts it, “A free spirit who enjoys defying convention.” The few surviving pictures of her, he tells us, “capture that intensity in her eyes, which are dark and penetrating.”
Melville was in her Berkshires circle. He participated, however clumpingly, in her social games. They corresponded, indulging in the florid semi-flirting rhetoric so common for the era. Melville, Shelden tells us, “is handsome in the rugged, masculine way of a young outdoorsman.” He’s “broad-shouldered and bearded, with dark brown hair that is thick and glossy, and blue eyes that are ever curious and alert.” According to Shelden, the two forged a deep bond and kept it mostly hidden, and this bond inspired Melville, up to this point the author of adventure-travel books like Omoo and Typee, to strike out into deeper and stranger waters with the book that would become Moby-Dick. This story is the heart of Melville in Love:
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.
It’s all bunkum, of course, but Shelden sells it with real stage-stomping conviction. If flirtatious banter is a lock-solid token of a life-altering erotic connection, then Melville (and most other men of the time, and most other men of all time) was having enough erotic connections to stupefy an elephant, and Shelden has nothing but flirtatious banter on which to build his case. Sarah Anne Morewood was a smart and eloquent literary dabbler with a penchant for house parties, but if she was in any way responsible for the weird (and, it might be added, entirely stag) genius of Moby-Dick, there’s nothing in the historical record – and absolutely nothing in Shelden’s book – to suggest it, let alone prove it. As a pseudo-historical fantasia to brighten a summer afternoon, Melville in Love is a fun and even thought-provoking thing. But after the researching and writing and re-writing of the great American novel had very nearly driven him to madness, Melville, payer of debts and stranger to ingratitude, dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne.