- Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick by Michael Shelden
Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick
New York: Ecco Press, 2016. 271 pp.
Students of Melville's life and writings have generally considered the author's Berkshire years as an initially exuberant romantic idyll that gradually turned into a depressing rural purgatory as his new friend Nathaniel Hawthorne deserted him, his fiction became increasingly unpopular, and his debts mounted until his wealthy father-in-law saved him from losing his Pittsfield house and property in 1856. Yet besides the inspirational and transformative friendship with Hawthorne in 1850 and 1851, another key figure who helped to make his prolonged residence in the Berkshires a socially and intellectually fulfilling experience was his Pittsfield neighbor, Sarah Anne Morewood, owner of Broadhall, the property adjacent to his own Arrowhead. Wife of an English-born hardware merchant and twenty-six when Melville met her, Sarah Morewood and her husband purchased the capacious Pittsfield mansion that once belonged to Melville's uncle in the summer of 1850, when Melville's cousin Robert and his wife Susan were running it as a boarding house. Thereafter Sarah Morewood would be the energetic hostess for a seemingly unending series of dinners, scenic excursions, picnics, masquerades, and other social activities that helped make the summers of 1850 and 1851 so memorable in the annals of American literature, activities that would continue in diminished form throughout the 1850s and into the early Civil War era until Sarah's premature death from tuberculosis in October 1863.
Sarah Morewood has thus been known as a sympathetic social and literary friend during Melville's Berkshire years, but now the veteran literary biographer Michael Shelden wants us to view her as a woman with whom Melville shared a secret adulterous romance in the early 1850s and who thereby served as the hidden muse for his fiction beginning with Moby-Dick. As Shelden argues, "The simple fact is that Melville's most passionate relationship—the powerful key to unlocking his secrets—has been missing from the story of his life. As a result, there has been more confusion and misunderstanding in his biographies than in those of the other great American writers of his time" [End Page 83] (7). Such a claim inspires a combination of curiosity and skepticism—curiosity because the history of Melville scholarship has been punctuated with eye-opening discoveries of missing or unknown manuscripts, letters, books, and other significant biographical data, many thanks to the relentless sleuthing of Hershel Parker; and skepticism because this same series of revelations has been accompanied by several misleading dead ends such as the legend of Allan Melvill's illegitimate daughter posited by Henry A. Murray. Unfortunately, Shelden's claim to have discovered the missing romantic key to Melville's life in Pittsfield belongs in the latter category, potentially sowing confusion and misunderstanding among readers who may be tempted to see Melville through a distorting lens of romantic fiction.
Shelden improbably argues that Sarah Morewood—who was known to the whole Melville family as a passionate young woman with a taste for indiscreet male friendships—eventually found her soulmate in her Pittsfield neighbor Herman and that the relationship somehow avoided discovery and the scandal that would have ensued. Shelden presents as his first piece of evidence the brief affair that Sarah may have had in the summer of 1849 while vacationing in Pittsfield. The man was Alexander Gardiner, a bachelor clerk of the US Circuit Court of New York and brother to Julia Tyler, young wife of ex-president John Tyler who consulted with Gardiner on legal and financial matters. Something of a rake, Gardiner met Sarah while both were boarding in the house of a Pittsfield family named Chapman, but he likely stayed in Robert Melvill's boarding house as well. Both Gardiner and Sarah were accomplished equestrians and probably went riding together. Later hearing himself as the subject of gossip, Gardiner reported in a letter to his brother David in late September 1849 that servants at the Melvill house, much to...