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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

"Marriage, two convicts serving a sentence of hard labor, welded to the same chain."

The quote is from Leo Tolstoy's, The Kreutzer Sonata. Leo's wife, the Countess Tolstoy, was her husband's scribe and copyist, a female "Bartleby the Scrivener." * Herman Melville, the author of this short story*, wrote in pencil. Wife Lizzie recopied his work in ink, a female prototype for Bartleby, only she did not say, "I would prefer not to." Herman's three sisters were also enlisted as scriveners at the family's farmhouse, Arrowhead, according to a feminist scholar.

Having begun with Tolstoy's quote, I now quote another Russian: Anton Chekhov, who claimed it takes a lifetime to squeeze the slave out of oneself. Remembering Anton's words made me shift from unconventional Sarah Morewood to dutiful Elizabeth Shaw Melville. And I tried to imagine Lizzie on Christmas 1851, watching the wreath ceremony between beautiful, free-spirited Sarah and husband Herman (see last week's blog). Realizing that I knew little about Elizabeth, I entered her name and Sarah's in Google. Which is when I saw a familiar name, Jay Parini.

One summer at the Bread Loaf writers' conference I took a class on Hemingway from Parini, a Middlebury English professor. Seeing his name, I opened and printed his 1998 New York Times review, "Call Me Herman," about The Handsome Sailor. Both Sarah and Lizzie's names had popped up because the novelist, Larry Duberstein, based his book on Melville's later years, mainly 1882, in New York. But the novel's middle section takes place in the Berkshires during the time Melville finished Moby-Dick, then wrote the disastrous, Pierre. In the novel, Duberstein creates an imagined Sarah Morewood diary. This did not impress reviewer Parini, but he found her authentic correspondence insightful. He concludes, "There is little evidence from which to infer that a relationship (seduction & adultery) actually took place" between Sarah and Melville. Michael Shelden's 2016 Melville in Love provides evidence to the contrary. In Duberstein's novel, Melville is involved decades later with a Cora Stevenson; but unlike Sarah, Cora is not based on an actual person. Yet in the novel's first section, Parini notes, "The stunted marriage of Lizzie and Herman becomes palpable," raising many questions. Parini ends by saying the novel did not "shine much light into those shadowy last years" of Melville's life.


After too long on Google, delving into The Melville Society, I opened Elizabeth Hardwick's Melville in the Penguin Lives series. I read her short chapter on Elizabeth, laboring on a weary evening, to bring the skewered, cramped handwriting to legibility, and reading of "disenchanting matrimonial days and nights."


Hardwick comments with humor on the italicized phrase. Well, Lizzie, pass on in the manner of a court stenographer clicking away about heads severed with a hatchet.

Then Hardwick adds: "What did the burdened wife think of the incestuous follies of Pierre and about the magazine piece, "I and My Chimney," in which a husband is trying to save a treasured bit of household familiarity and the wife is in a rampaging renovation mood? Elizabeth would say that the obstructing female virago was Herman's mother, not herself."


Call Lizzie enslaved; and it seems obvious there is a definite conflict between the ardor of Melville's work and his unhappy household. Yet Herman and Elizabeth remained married for 44 years, through Malcolm's suicide and Stanwick's early death from T.B. in California.


Hershel Parker, known as the leading Melville scholar, whose first of two volumes on Melville ran 883 pages, suffers for his literary hero. First, Herman was ignored and forgotten, called Henry in his NY Times obit. Then a New York doctoral student named Weaver dug Melville from obscurity, even found through a granddaughter, the unknown novel, Billy Budd. And a Melville revival began in the early 1920s. Now the "new age" third wave, is washing Melville to shore, the old sailor tattooed with labels: wife beater, child abuser, alcoholic, misogynist, repressed homosexual, racist, and more. The penchant for judging an artist from 'then' according to 'now. What are your thoughts on this?


I will end with scholar Hershel Parker.

Annoyed at an interviewer's questions about the Melville marriage, and the depiction of his literary hero as a monster, Parker shot back, "A genius should not marry."


Next time: The delight of reading D.H. Lawrence's thoughts on Moby-Dick

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