Herman Melville died in 1891 at the age of seventy-two. He was buried next to his son Malcolm in a cemetery in the Bronx. His death was marked negatively, as it were, by an absence of public ceremony; just another burial of an obscure New Yorker. This obscurity, or neglect, was to become part of the dramaturgy of Melville’s image, even for those who hadn’t read him in the past, as well as for those, more than a few, who haven’t read him in the present. The man and his work—nine novels, brilliant shorter fictions, poems, and his departing gift to American literature, the beautiful Billy Budd, published after his death—were unearthed in the 1920s and the whole skeleton given a voluptuous rebirth.
Melville was not a gifted angel winging up from the streets, the slums of the great metropolis, Manhattan. His father, Allan, came from a good merchant family of Boston who could claim the sort of heraldic honor that to this day, two centuries later, keeps the prideful busy with the genealogists; that is, service in the American Revolution. Allan’s father, Thomas Melville, was among the young men who, in 1773, boarded the ships of the East India Company and dumped their tea in the water. A felicitous bit of patriotic vandalism which the family could claim like a coat-of-arms to hang with noble diggings in their Scottish ancestry. Melville’s mother was Maria Gansevoort of Albany, prominent Dutch early settlers. Her father was also a hero of the Revolution, fighting at Fort Stanwix against Indian and Tory troops.
When Melville was twelve years old, his father, Allan, died of what seems to have been a virulent pneumonia. He died as he had lived, in debt, a condition for which the Melvilles may be said to have had an almost genetic liability. (Dollars damn me! the author, Herman, could honestly announce. His life after the financially advantageous marriage to the daughter of Judge Lemuel Shaw of Boston was ever to be punctuated by “on loan from Judge Shaw” and “paid for by Judge Shaw.”) The father’s business in imported luxury goods had led him to move the family from Boston to New York, where the son, Herman, was born in 1819 on Pearl Street. Matters did not go as profitably as the beleaguered entrepreneur had hoped and so it was to be a move to Albany, the principality of the much more prudent Gansevoorts. However, the radiance of these solid patroons did not cast its beams of solvency and, with the death of the father, creditors were in scowling pursuit.
In Albany, unremitting black weather for the Melville household. The widow and her children were forced to sell much of their furniture and other effects and to escape in ignominy to a cheaper town, Lansingburgh, nearby. Herman for a period taught school, took an engineering diploma at Lansingburgh Academy, failed to get a position, wrote some youthful sketches which were published in the local paper—and then, and then…
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Copyright (c) 2000 by Elizabeth Hardwick