Love at Harvard

Love's Story Told: A Life of Henry A. Murray

by Forrest G. Robinson
Harvard University Press, 459 pp., $29.95

Henry Murray
Henry Murray; drawing by David Levine

Love’s Story Told is a remarkable biography, with a startling tale to tell about the man who is its subject, the woman he loved, and the literary presences and psychological myths that dominated their lives.

One August morning in 1924, when the Cunard liner Scythia was on its way from Boston to Liverpool, its captain came down with acute appendicitis. As luck would have it, Sir John Bland-Sutton, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, was on board and was able to operate successfully on the captain. The chloroform was administered by a thirty-one-year-old American physician, Henry Alexander Murray, a well-to-do and extremely engaging New Yorker accustomed to regular holidays in Europe.

After the operation the two medical men relaxed over drinks in the lounge and it turned out that Sir John was addicted to the work of the largely forgotten American novelist Herman Melville. He had come over for just four days to explore New Bedford, the port from which Melville had embarked on his whaling voyage in 1841. Moby-Dick “was a kind of Bible” with him. He kept it at his bedside, and of course had the book with him. He urged it on Murray.

Many a book is said to have “changed” someone’s life. The charming, easygoing Murray, whose most obvious social trait was a regal tendency to flatter people and to get on with them all too easily, was so transformed, shaken-up, and galvanized by the force of Moby-Dick that both his professional and his personal life were to be redirected by the book. The immediate effect of Moby-Dick on Murray was to make him identify with Melville. He acclaimed Melville as a prophetic and unafraid discoverer of the unconscious, and saw Melville’s inner life as his own. (I am informed by several Harvard Ph.D.s in Psychology that as future director of the Harvard Psychological Clinic, Murray strenuously pushed for incorporating theories of the unconscious in psychological studies at Harvard.) Melville provided Murray with his first happy shock of recognition of himself. I met him just a few times, and was always exhilarated by his intellectual enthusiasms. Visiting him when he was a very old man (he lived to be ninety-five) I was not surprised to see pictures of whales mounted around his front door in Cambridge.

A patrician out of Edith Wharton’s old New York, Murray was leery of his cold and grandiose mother, who much resembled Melville’s, but until his great sea change he was faithful to the conventions of his upbringing. He had been a good little boy at Groton under the fierce eye of the Reverend Endicott Peabody; he became captain of the Harvard crew and was now the proper husband of a conventional Bostonian woman whose mother was a Saltonstall. Graduating in the class of 1915 with a gentleman’s C, he had almost indifferently gone into medicine. Handsome, rich, intellectually restless, with…

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