Sarah's Provocative Laurel Wreath for Her Lover
The prologue to Michael Shelden's Melville in Love details Sarah Anne Morewood's "old-fashion'd English Christmas with Holly & Mistletoe & bobbing apples." One Shelden source for describing this 1851 dinner (and Sarah's wreath) is none other than the Gorgon: Maria Gansevoort Melville (see last week's blog). On December 29 and 30, she wrote to her daughter, Augusta, about the Christmas dinner at Broadhall. (The letter reported in 2002, used in the 2016 Melville in Love.)
"When dinner is announced, he (Herman) takes his hostess by the arm and leads her into the dining room, leaving her husband to follow, as if this is Melville's home, and Sarah is his wife. When they reach the table, a beautiful Laurel wreath lies before them on a plate…the handiwork of Mrs. Morewood, who has a talent for floral design.
Without a word, she picks up the wreath and gently lifts it to Melville's brow, pressing close against him on her toes because he is so much taller. For a moment they look like actors playing a scene in an old drama. With a little imagination, this looks like the moment onstage when a queen crowns her champion, or a maiden shows her favor to the victor of the race."
What is necessary backstory, dear reader, before I continue with this Christmas scene?
In November of 1851, Moby-Dick was published.
But I would like to imagine an earlier time in 1851 at Arrowhead, Herman's farmhouse, prior to completion of MD. From morning until late afternoon, he is in his study, pencil in hand, working on his novel, straining his eyes, worrying about excessive debts, while below in the farmhouse, five women and a baby depend on him. Still, despite his circumstances, Melville is convinced his Whale book will be his breakthrough novel, a bestseller, receive favorable reviews, and relieve him of debt. What happens? "The book is an unmitigated commercial disaster." In Melville's lifetime, Moby-Dick sells just over 3,000 copies and earns him $556.37, according to the April 1969, Harvard Library Bulletin.
The rub for Melville, besides the literary world's general disdain of MD, was the Pittsfield community's reaction. Melville was harshly criticized, and his novel called Blasphemous with a capital B. This takes us back to Sarah's wreath and notable persons from the community at her Christmas dinner and "pagan" ceremony. Now, Melville lifts the wreath from his brow, places it on Sarah's, says he will "not be crowned," and crowns her instead. Shelden surmises there was a long and uncomfortable pause following this scene. The wreath stays on the table. Later the guests disperse. As Melville takes the reins of his sleigh, laden with wife and mother, a servant comes forward with the wreath. Sarah will not let Herman leave without her token of honor to the artist and genius, who has written a "mighty work worthy of a crown."
If you were to read Shelden's book, you would see what a playful duo Herman and Sarah were, especially in "coded" correspondence and pranks, like the one they staged on Christmas, with its quasi-reversal of the Apollo-Daphne myth. Yet Sarah obeys Apollo's decree that the leaves of this Greek god's favorite tree, the Laurel, be used for her lover's victory wreath.
Next week: " A mountain lion doesn't mate with a Persian cat," joked D.H. Lawrence, who called Melville a "proud and savage" man.