Melville in Love by Michael Shelden
The clues were always there, hidden in plain sight. Biographer after biographer, essayist after essayist saw the information; some missed it completely. No one who saw the clues put them together until now. In Melville in Love, Michael Shelden has unearthed major literary information that sheds new light on the life of Herman Melville and the creation of his masterpiece, Moby-Dick.
The sub-title reveals the focus of this splendid slice of Melville’s life: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick. It focuses on only 12 years, but these include writing and publication of the novel for which most readers remember Melville. It is remarkable that so many people of repute—Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.—knew the relationship and wrote about it yet no literary researcher ever put the story together until now. Holmes even left descriptions of her, and his novel Elsie Venner was inspired by Sarah Morewood, the object of Herman Melville’s affections. She is clearly the impetus for Elsie while her companion is named Dick, an allusion to Moby-Dick.
In 1851, less than a year after meeting her, Melville wrote to Sarah Morewood, “Most considerate of all the delicate roses that diffuse their blessed perfume among men, is Mrs. Morewood.” The successful writer of Typee and Omoo was something of a free spirit, mired in an unhappy marriage and a declining literary reputation when he met Sarah and found a kindred spirit. Ironically, her husband had bought a farm in the Berkshires that had been owned by Melville’s uncle and where he had spent many happy hours as a youngster. Melville was so besotted that, assuming heavy debt, he bought an adjoining, less productive farm so that he could be near her.
The letter noted above was just one of many that Sarah saved. They now reside in the library in Pittsfield, NY. These recently discovered letters and private papers form the basis of Sheldon’s compelling case that Sarah Morewood was a primary personal and literary influence on Melville as he wrote his greatest novel. Her inspiration caused Melville to write in a style more original and daring then previously seen, a style for which contemporary literary tastes were unprepared. Sheldon writes that “How they found their paradise, and how they lost it is the story of this book.”
Sheldon has written five previous biographies, including Orwell: The Authorized Biography, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and New York Times Notable Book. Melville in Love has proven him both a consummate researcher and a grand storyteller. Sheldon’s felicitous prose style draws the reader along, and his solid research strengthens his case for Melville’s desperation. He needed relief from his marriage, which continued for many years, while he fought an imaginary battle between Ahab and the whale and a real battle to save his faltering literary reputation. Melville is seen in an entirely new light, while Sarah Morewood is lifted from the shadows to be granted the credit she deserves.