Melville the New Yorker

Herman Melville
Herman Melville; drawing by David Levine

…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…

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