Herman Melville's epic novel, Moby-Dick, was a spectacular failure when it was published in 1851, effectively ending its author's rise to literary fame. Because he was neglected by academics for so long, and because he made little effort to preserve his legacy, we know very little about Melville, and even less about what he called his "wicked book".
Scholars still puzzle over what drove Melville to invent Captain Ahab's mad pursuit of the great white whale. In Melville in Love Michael Shelden sheds light on this literary mystery to tell a story of Melville's passionate and clandestine affair with a married woman named Sarah Morewood, whose libertine impulses encouraged and sustained Melville's own. In his research, Shelden discovered documents suggesting that, in their shared resistance to the "iron rule" of social conformity, Sarah and Melville had forged an illicit and enduring romantic and intellectual bond.
Emboldened by the thrill of courting Sarah in secret, the pleasure of falling in love, and the excitement of spending time with literary luminaries, Melville found the courage to take the leap from light works of adventure to the hugely brilliant, utterly subversive Moby-Dick.
©2016 Michael Shelden (P)2016 Tantor
I am an avid eclectic reader.
It is 165 years since “Moby Dick” was published. The book was published in 1851. The book was a failure at the time and Melville was ignored by the academics for a long time, and little was done to save his legacy. Little information is now available for biographers doing research. Michael Shelden was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his biography book “Orwell”. Shelden states while doing archival research he came across new information about Melville. He claims to have found a “long trail of clues” about Melville and Morewood. Shelden states he found a few letters from Melville to Morewood as well as poems written by both parties.
Shelden places the time line of the book between the years 1850 to 1852 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. This is during the time Melville was finishing writing “Moby Dick”. The premise of the book is an affair between Melville and his next door neighbor, the poet Sarah Morewood. Morewood was married, as was Melville, and known for her wit and beauty. The middle of the book deviates from his main theme and explores Melville’s relationship with painter J. M. W. Turner’s influence on “Moby Dick”. Shelden also at this time explores the friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The book is well written and entertaining; it reads like a novel. Based on what I read in this book I do not feel Shelden proved his case about the affair. It feels more like inference rather than documented fact. The reader must keep in mind that the language was a lot more expressive and flowery in those days than it is today. Many men and women wrote each other poems at that time. Morewood received many poems from male neighbors and friends. The book is interesting and provides a delightful peak into what summertime in the Berkshires was like in the 1850s. Sean Pratt did a good job narrating the book.
I had no idea that Melville was such a fiery and passionate young man, but, who else could write such a book as loved as Moby Dick?! I'll now be reading his other books!
I really felt like I was living in Melville's Victorian time, but can't help but wonder if the society wasn't so "Buttoned Down", would they have had to have so many secrets?
And why did one of America's Most Ingenious Artist end up working as a government employee, making 4 dollars a day after Moby Dick failed? Was he being judged by our Victorian critics of the times?
It was beautifully romantic, and made me think about the role of muses in artistic creation.
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