Yesterday Smiley asked me why I find Moby-Dick a soothing read.
The "me" is my fictional character Nate, an imprisoned attorney in Reten La Planta in Caracas, Venezuela, circa 1993. Smiley is an Israeli with dubious connections, hence his name; and he asks Nate this question about Moby-Dick (MD). Nate laughs and says: "A whaling ship bound for inevitable catastrophe, Captain Ahab's monomania to kill the White Whale, a wild ass of a narrator, Ishmael, the USA hell-bent on civil war. Better than a bloody tranquilizer, Smiley."
Some readers are finding this true during the pandemic. One internet writer suggested two chapters a night of MD, along with two glasses of scotch. What this reader probably did not have, nor did Nate in Caracas, was knowledge of Herman Melville's life in the Berkshires. Beginning in 1850, the author's landlocked life there was not entirely dreary. Sarah Morewood, muse and lover, lived close by.
The facts of Melville's life at the time are these: Mother Maria lived with him, a woman he despised for her religious zeal. Besides his mother, three dependent sisters lived in Herman's house, along with his wife Lizzie Shaw, and baby Malcolm, born in 1849. Poor Herman!
The following is what the famous/infamous D.H. Lawrence wrote in the 1920s when MD enjoyed a revival. "A mother: a Gorgon.* A home: a torture box. A wife: a thing with clay feet. Life: a sort of disgrace. Fame: another disgrace, being patronized by common snobs who just know how to read. The whole shameful business just making a man writhe. In his soul he was proud and savage. But in his mind and will he wanted the perfect fulfillment of love."
(*Gorgon--Picture in your mind: snaky hair, brass hands, scaled skin.)
In 1846, Melville's tale of adventure, Typee, sold well and made him an overnight literary celebrity. His next four books, written in just four years, sold poorly. Then, living in the Berkshires, he began The Whale, and though horribly in debt, bought a farmhouse and 160 acres. Why this decision when he could have rented a house for 150 dollars a year? And why pay full price for overpriced property? The answer is that Melville wanted to be the neighbor of Broadhall, a mansion Herman's uncle had owned, which became the home of Sarah Morewood in 1850. Sarah: bookish, beautiful, intelligent, inquisitive, creative, compassionate, and lucky. Her rich husband worked in New York City and spent little time in the Berkshires.
Melville's new property, which he named Arrowhead, meant greater debt to his father-in-law, Judge Shaw of Boston, and more bank loans. Herman counted, however, on his new "whale" novel being a success and making him rich. Despite the burgeoning debt, Melville had a road built to connect his farm to Broadhall, which meant easy access to Sarah. Between them, the two lovers on horseback (or off) shared a total of 250 acres, and lots of secluded spots as their paradise. And Sarah's maiden name was Paradise, a name reminiscent of Melville's lovely Polynesian beauty, Faraway in Typee. Exotic mystery, forbidden pleasures, and Sarah a pantheist, who identified beauty and spiritual power in NATURE.
To be continued next Monday…
Melville in Love by Michael Shelden, published in 2016