Saturday, May 4, 2024

Review of a controversial Melville biography alleging a married woman was the cause of Melville's writing Moby Dick

MELVILLE in LOVE by Michael Shelton

Shelton in the past was nominated for a Pulitzer for one of his previous biographies. So I thought this was going to be a powerful biography.

But in this recently released biography, Shelton alleges, despite very little factual evidence, that Melville had a many-year'd fervent adulterous relationship with Sarah Morewood. The latter was a flirtatious, lively secular married woman living in the Berkshires where Melville had moved with his wife of 3 years and their 1st child.

Though Melville in Love is listed as biography not fiction, Shelton speculatively guesses as to what exactly Melville and other characters are thinking and intending. Such guesses would seem to make this fiction, not factual biography.

Then Shelton glorifies Melville's alleged affair, as if such an immoral and unjust action were one of the great romantic loves of history and literature.

And Shelton does this, too, by mischaracterizing Melville’s faithful, conscientious wife Lizzie, accusing her of being priggish, shallow, puritanical, etc.

But Melville had only married 3 years to Lizzie before his alleged affair began. Some literary commentators wonder why Melville married such a nonliterary, conservative wife and guess it must have been for her money because her dad was a well-known judge with lots of money, which he showered on his daughter and son-in-law for years. The father often helped Melville get out of debt when his books, beginning with Moby Dick, failed to sell.

However, Melville's, alleged, odd choice, not that different from other famous writers who lived off of their wife’s money so they could write full-time and who picked wives who were conservative, non-literary, etc. Just to start the list--especially true of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Bob Dylan, etc.

The old cliché, of opposites attract does seem to be true of Melville (and some other famous writers), though it is tragic, that after the wedding, Opposites often do ATTACK.” :-(

Allegedly, the only possible time that Melville and could have slept together in the small village without townspeople and family knowing was on a small gathering of young adults who hiked up Mt. Greylock one day and stayed there all night. It’s Shelton’s contention that somehow they managed to slip away in a couple of hours midnight hours, while others slept, to “sleep.”

Shelton fails to acknowledge that while it is true Sarah was very flirtatious in her letters to Melville and with him in person (until she died at the early age of 40!), she often was that way to other married men, too, including Oliver Windel Holmes, etc.

During a few of her young adult years, Sarah was living alone in the Berkshires, while her absent distant, business-focused husband lived and worked in New York City. Their relationship seems odd, though he did care for her in his own way, even had a piano shipped out to her at their estate in Pittsfield, etc.

I thought maybe I was being too critical of Shelton’s very doubtful biographical claim, but then I read a few literary reviews on Melville in Love. They were even harsher than my conclusions—skewering the biography and its thesis as almost ridiculous.

Especially, Shelton’s claim that Moby Dick was written because of Sarah’s ‘freeing’ intimate influence so contrary to the alleged very puritanical, restrictive views of Lizzie.

Besides, Moby Dick is extremely male-centered narrative, with hardly any women even mentioned! Some critics have even labeled it homoerotic, for such parts of the story as Ismael and Queequeg’s relationship, including hugging in bed. The long very odd novel shows no trace of any illicit romantic love affair.

From Wikipedia:
“Lizzie described their marriage as "very unexpected, and scarcely thought of until about two months before it actually took place".[83] She wanted to be married in church, but they had a private wedding ceremony at home to avoid possible crowds hoping to see the celebrity.[84] The couple honeymooned in the then-British Province of Canada, and traveled to Montreal. They settled in a house on Fourth Avenue in New York City (now called Park Avenue).

“According to scholars Joyce Deveau Kennedy and Frederick James Kennedy, Lizzie brought to their marriage a sense of religious obligation, an intent to make a home with Melville regardless of place, a willingness to please her husband by performing such "tasks of drudgery" as mending stockings, an ability to hide her agitation, and a desire "to shield Melville from unpleasantness".[85] The Kennedys conclude their assessment with:

“If the ensuing years did bring regrets to Melville's life, it is impossible to believe he would have regretted marrying Elizabeth. In fact, he must have realized that he could not have borne the weight of those years unaided—that without her loyalty, intelligence, and affection, his own wild imagination would have had no "port or haven".

“Biographer Robertson-Lorant cites "Lizzie's adventurous spirit and abundant energy," and she suggests that "her pluck and good humor might have been what attracted Melville to her, and vice versa".

“An example of such good humor appears in a letter about her not yet used to being married: "It seems sometimes exactly as if I were here for a visit. The illusion is quite dispelled however when Herman stalks into my room without even the ceremony of knocking, bringing me perhaps a button to sew on, or some equally romantic occupation".[87] On February 16, 1849, the Melvilles' first child, Malcolm, was born.”

Despite my negative review of this shallow Procrustean effort and Shelton claiming that Moby Dick is the result of his affair with Sarah, I did find it worth reading because of a few intriguing facts about Melville, and I was opened to the possibilities of speculative ideas that no other biographer has ever raised!

But Herman Melville lived such a tragic-misguided life; even worse, he treated his wife horribly often drunk in his 50's. Then his life winded down to a tragic end. Also, one wonders why his 3 main books are so very pessimistic, almost nihilistic in tone and detail with their main characters ending tragically.

Lastly, like often in American literature, AUGUSTINIAN-CALVINISM RAISES ITS SATANIC HEAD. It turns out that the central horror of Melville’s family background was the fatalism of Augustinian-Calvinism that he sought to escape from:_("

Notice Ishmael's statement in the 1st couple of pages: "Call me, Ishmael. Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces--though I cannot tell why this was exactly;
yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment."

A biography one can learn from, but not really a winner.

In the LIGHT of the GOOD, the TRUE, the JUST, the CARING...

Daniel Wilcox

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