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Melville the New Yorker

…the immense concentration of self in the midst of such a heartless immensity, my god! who can tell it!


New York is an old city, and indeed looks it along many of these water-front streets1 where Herman Melville was born and spent his first fifteen years, this New York waterfront from which he first embarked at eighteen, and where later, from ages forty-seven, to sixty-six, he worked as a deputy inspector of customs. But New York is also the city most expert and ruthless in destroying its past, in eliminating every possible vestige of its past.

So to speak of Melville’s New York before we come to Melville the New Yorker: it is easier to find Achilles and Hector at Troy and Agamemnon at Mycenae than it is to find traces of Herman Melville in his native city. Of course there is still a Pearl Street, where he was born, and even a 104 East 26th Street, where he lived from 1863 to his death in 1891. There is and always will be the Battery, where Moby-Dick begins, as there is Gansevoort Street, jutting into the cobble-stones under the crushing West Side Highway. 470 West Street was where our inspector had his office, from which he regularly departed to inspect cargoes at piers all the way up to Harlem. Gansevoort Street was named after Melville’s grandfather, a hero of the Revolutionary War, and when Melville went into a hotel barroom on Gansevoort Street to buy a cigar, what misanthropic pleasure it gave our specialist in misanthropy to report to his mother that inquiring passers-by did not know what Gansevoort referred to.

Wall Street, where Bartleby preferred not to do any more copying, is and of course always will be with us. The Tombs, in whose courtyard Bartleby finally gave up the struggle, is not the horribly jammed Tombs where young men now hang themselves every year, but it is just as grisly and gloomy as the one in which poor Bartleby ceased being an inconvenience to various members of the New York Bar. Central Park, where Melville happily walked with his granddaughter Eleanor Metcalf, still looks pretty much as it once did, is still Frederick Law Olmsted’s romantic masterpiece with its stone fountains and stone draperies so dear to American Victorian taste, but it is no place to walk at certain hours without a harpoon. Grace Church, that gothic monument to Manhattan’s historically Episcopalian upper crust, still stands down on Broadway, but it is so surrounded by low coffee shops and cheap record stores that one has to know Melville’s satiric sketch “The Two Temples” to remember that it was consecrated to the very rich and well-born, and provoked Melville to portray himself being thrown out and then arrested for daring to enter it.

To a New Yorker with a feeling for local history, Melville’s New York does not really exist. Whitman’s New York has not altogether vanished, for Brooklyn is still behind the times, and Whitman’s lower-middle-class Brooklyn can still be seen on Fulton Street, where he worked as an editor and himself put Leaves of Grass to press, and on Myrtle Avenue where he went around with his father building houses. Even the New York that Henry James was born into, on the site of the NYU cafeteria, still exists, as does Union Square and Rutgers Square, already warm little immigrant countries, as James called them, where he played as a boy and went to school. The great staircase of the Metropolitan Museum of Art James lived long enough to describe in the story “Julia Bride,” and lower Fifth Avenue, though the old Rhinelander houses just off Washington Square are gone, is still recognizably the country James wrote about in fictions spanning New York from Washington Square, 1880, to “The Jolly Corner,” 1909, that haunting story about an old New Yorker confronting the specter of the hideous clubman he might have been if he had remained in New York.

But Melville’s New York has for the most part vanished from New York, exactly as has Edith Wharton’s New York. And this may be because these two represent, as James does not and Whitman certainly not, the old, partly Dutch aristocracy of Manhattan. Melville’s New York vanished a long time ago, even when the old Melville retired into it—it vanished as a physical landscape, as a caste, and even as a particular mercantile tradition in a city whose only aristocrats have been merchants. If Melville’s father, who was in the business of importing fine French dry goods from France, had not failed, Herman Melville might never have gone to sea, and like his Gansevoort and Melville cousins and uncles, he might have become one of those lawyers and bibliophiles and Columbia trustees, solid fellows like George Templeton Strong and the Roosevelts.

This New York aristocracy of merchants and lawyers, largely Anglican and Whig, still proud of the king’s crown in the blue Columbia flag, those for whom Columbia was to be their Yale and their Harvard, was supplanted by the finance capital and corporation types who took over New York well within Melville’s lifetime. It is interesting how little Melville wrote about social change in his native city, and how rare is even a minor sketch like “Jimmy Rose,” about a bon vivant turned bankrupt. The student of New York can learn more from Whitman and James and Edith Wharton, to say nothing of non-New Yorkers who were fascinated by the city, like Howells, Stephen Crane, and Dreiser, than he can from Melville.

This is so because Melville’s works are all an allegory of his own life. Unlike Edith Wharton, he was not concerned with the elimination from New York of his class. You never find in Melville the kind of exact description of social institutions that you find in A Backward Glance and The Age of Innocence. The part New York played in Melville’s life was essentially destructive and his expression of it was entirely self-centered. His father went bankrupt, broke down when Melville was thirteen, and, as if in signal of his excessive scruples in a city already savagely competitive, Allan Melville died. The family broke up; Maria Gansevoort Melville wrote to Lemuel Shaw, one day to be Melville’s father-in-law, that her husband’s parents and relatives had “deserted” her children. The loans advanced to Allan Melville during his lifetime by his father were charged against the estate.

So with nothing to live on and nothing to look forward to, Herman went to work. In 1835 he was a clerk in Albany, in 1837 a teacher in a district school; when almost twenty, in 1839, he shipped as a cabin boy to Liverpool. Thus began his real life, the voyages that made him an author, a subject from which the physical life of New York, the actual society, is so clearly missing that you may look in vain, in any of his works, for essential features of the New York of his times.

Where in Melville’s works, for example, would you learn that the economic crisis that killed his father was one of a whole series of economic epidemics, so to speak, that constantly threatened the stability of old New York? No one reading even the minor Melville works set in New York, like Pierre,” “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “Jimmy Rose,” “The Two Temples,” would even learn what New York looked like in the 1830s and 1840s—would know about the many great fires that regularly devastated downtown New York and even drove the wholesale dry goods trade out of the old burned-out district on Pearl Street, from Coenties Slip to Peck Slip. It is not from Melville that you would learn about the extraordinary increase in population during his boyhood, the effect from 1825 of the newly opened Erie Canal, the new look of the city with its gas lampposts after 1830, the Dutch realism of the shop signs, the buildings that were always collapsing because of their dishonest contractors, the porters with their metal numbers hung around their necks, the water carriers, the pigs always in the street to dispose of garbage.

But we all know that Melville is not a realist—not even about the sea, Joseph Conrad disgustedly thought. Yet despite the fact that New York is not really in Melville’s works, as it is in Specimen Days, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” A Small Boy and Others, Washington Square, Maggie, Sister Carrie, Melville is very much a New Yorker. New York was, even before the Civil War, and continues to be the prime American city, the most American of cities, the most urban manifestation of American history. New York is the very essence of the human unsettlement that made America, the restlessness that most characterizes it, the powerfulness radiating out from the greatest harbor, the central stock exchange, the great media center, the banks and corporation centers.

The lesson of American history in our time is the limitations of our power, but the drive of American history in the nineteenth century was made possible by the almost utopian expectations of American power—naïve, global in its scope, destructive. And on no other major American writer did these shattering, disruptive, all too deeply impressive characteristics so forcibly mark themselves as on the Melville who felt himself pushed out of New York, but who in Redburn obsessively described the degradation of the slums, and in Israel Potter London as the city of Dis—the Melville who in Pierre describes his absurd hero depositing everything in a police station on his arrival in New York, writing his futile book in a tenement overrun with every shady “apostle” and bohemian, then committing murder, and finally killing himself in a New York jail cell.

Melville the New Yorker is Melville the young sailor in Redburn, enthusiastically cheering on the Irish immigrants being loaded in the steerage ships for New York harbor. He is the New Yorker in his suggestion of the immensity and unfriendliness of the city in Pierre, for a cardinal point about New York is that, until our day, it was easier to write a memorable novel about Chicago than about New York—New York having been for more than a century an imperial center with most of its people in outlying provinces, which, as Mailer said of Brooklyn, are not the center of anything. Melville is never more a New Yorker than when he is celebrating New York’s incomparable marriage with the sea on the first page of Moby-Dick. Yet, in one of his greatest poems, “The House-Top,” he describes himself standing on the roof of his house on East 26th Street listening to the sounds of arson and riot below—the terrible draft riot when the mob went mad, the Colored Orphan Asylum was burned down, and recently arrived Irish immigrants lynched Negroes and hanged them from street lamps all over the midcity, and fought both police and army in the most violent insurrection ever seen in any modern American city.

  1. 1

    This essay was read to the Melville Society in the “Galley” on South Street, at the foot of Pier Sixteen.

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