When you get your morning coffee, you might not realize that Starbuck’s is named for the first mate in Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Starbuck is the voice of sanity when confronted by Captain Ahab’s madness. Getting your coffee anywhere else, advertisers suggest, would be crazy.
Forgotten for nearly a century after his death, Melville lived his later years working on the New York docks and was listed in The New York Times obituary section in minor detail. But, at one time, he was considered America’s first literary sex symbol, a perception solidified with his first works, Typee and Omoo, which recount his adventures in the Polynesian Islands, cavorting with the cannibals and frolicking with the native ladies naked in the waters. He said he felt like a “happy dog.”
But Moby-Dick cost him his happiness, readership and renown, and it wasn’t until after World War I that the public was ready again for this violent tale of the slaughter of the whaling industry.
A new book by Michael Sheldon makes an audacious claim: that Melville’s lengthy tome was inspired by a secret love life with his married Berkshire neighbor, Sarah Morewood. Melville was also married, living a domestic life with children of his own. Sheldon persuasively argues that Melville quite probably fathered two children with Morewood. It’s a thoroughly researched theory, and by the conclusion of Melville in Love, you’ll agree with the author that the later writings were more inspired by a tumultuous secret romance than by The Bible, Shakespeare and Dante.
The novel about Ahab’s maniacal quest for Moby-Dick, the white whale, is too tough for most high-schoolers and has also fallen out of fashion with many college professors, but Sheldon’s informed and easy prose revitalizes the book by connecting places and dates when the lovers were together, and apart from their spouses. To this he fuses the romantic epistles that have been hiding in plain sight for decades.
Sheldon, who has written biographies on George Orwell, Mark Twain and Winston Churchill, discovered in the Melville-Morewood letters a kinship that went beyond societal norms. “Melville’s letters really alerted me that something was going on,” he said recently. “He calls her his goddess. If you were married and you were calling a woman such names, your wife would have been suspicious. What first stopped me cold was ‘Why didn’t scholars think these letters were out of the ordinary?’ These are passionate letters. Why wasn’t this known about?”
Sheldon was a group biographer of Friends of Thomas about writers in post-WWI London, including T.S. Eliot, who were associated with a magazine called Horizon. (Cyril Connolly had penned a book called Enemies of Thomas.) Sheldon was the fifth biographer of Graham Greene and writes occasionally for the online magazine Zocalo. But none of his delving into lives of the greats has come close to his more recent findings.
“Melville was pretty much forgotten for 100 years. When people come back to him, he was so cold it was almost like an old murder case,” he said. When scholars first discovered these letters in the 1950s, they thought they were innocent feelings between a lady and her friend. “Back then, you didn’t flirt with your neighbor's wife, or he would have shot you. It was no game back then. And some of these hardcore Melville enthusiasts today don’t want to admit that these were love letters. They think everyone wrote like this, but I can’t find another example of it. You would have been taking your life in your hands.”
Melville’s relative anonymity and then his subsequent reascendance led previous researchers to follow traditional means of collecting evidence. Sheldon struck out on a new path, pouring through Morewood’s letters to Melville in the basement of Arrowhead, his home in Pittsfield, Ma., which is now a house museum. “I found the largest collection of Morewood letters there. Her oil portrait hangs in the house. The walls are lined with boxes from the Berkshire County Historical Society.”
“That’s the biggest factor,” Sheldon says of the revelation he found in the letters. “So little is known about Sarah Morewood. Scholars have minimized her impact, and I can’t think of any reason except thinking she was just some society lady. But she was wild for her times. She rode sidesaddle on galloping colts. In the days before her death, she went on 85-mile trip in horse and buggy, all over the countryside. She was poet, adored by a lot of famous men. When she died, the newspapers said she was a ‘representative woman.’ (Ralph Waldo) Emerson had written about representative men, like Shakespeare.”
Morewood’s English husband had been pretty much absent. The man she was spending the most time with was Melville, taking long walks and horse rides for many miles. They spent one night on Mount Greylock, the highest natural point in Massachusetts and part of the Appalachian Trail, a gorgeous place with a sublime vista of undeveloped land. Morewood writes to Melville that, after that occasion, she kept looking back like Lot’s wife.
“No lady in the 1860s would say that about herself,” Sheldon said. “You might as well say you were looking back on a city destroyed by God. It would have meant a lot to people in those days; Sodom and Gomorrah were the two most wicked cities in The Bible.”
Sheldon made another discovery. In his reading of other biographies, he was surprised to find the lingering perception that Melville had a sexual relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne.
“If anything, Hawthorne was homophobic. He criticized a Shaker community for their openness and wrote that the community should be wiped out,” Sheldon said, wishing he’d made more in his book of that false view. “Melville probably had some sort of relationship with men, with all his years at sea, but there is no documentation of any kind of a romance with Hawthorne.”
The Melville and Morewood families became officially connected much later on, when Herman’s daughter married Sarah’s son. That public ceremony may have hidden a private fear, and Melville explored the theme of incest in Pierre, the first work he wrote after Moby-Dick. In it, he moved from an adulterous relationship to an incestuous one.
“The readers of Pierre could handle adultery but not incest,” Sheldon said. “For Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter it was okay, but not in (Edgar Allan) Poe's ‘Fall of the House of Usher.’ Although he only hinted at in Pierre, people thought Melville had gone crazy. Who would put incest into a mainstream novel?”
Sheldon says reader reactions to his book are strangely divided along gender. “Women seem to love it. They get it. A man in a love affair like this could behave the way he did. Men don’t want to admit that their tough Melville was affected by a woman. The fundamental problem is that many men still refuse to take women seriously. They can say they do, but their actions suggest something else.”
One thing readers of Melville can agree on is that Captain Ahab is an attractive devil in many ways. He’s angry with God for not being a better God.
“Moby-Dick is really an outrageous book. Melville scholars want him to be revolutionary in his literature but conventional in his personal life,” Sheldon said. “That’s my point in the book: Melville was revolutionary in both his writing and his life.”