I had become, in middle age in the midst of marriage to Herman Melville, a captive. And I wanted my freedom.
But it's the rare bride who says "I do" and doesn't. I did. Even at the worst of times, I believed in the power of love--a bit of naïveté, perhaps. It carried me, however. To the end, it carried me.
H.M. (as we called him) was, to put it kindly, a volatile man, with improbable highs and lows. One had to avoid him at all cost in the valley of his shadows, where darkness was his name. Yet part of my faith was to know he would climb, looking out at times from glittering heights. That once in a while I shared his view was my consolation over the days--months, even years--when I bided my time, unsure I would make it. Or that he would.
Word of my misery spread to my family in Boston, and urgent letters from my brothers arrived, one of them from Lemuel, who understood my plight. "You must act, Lizzie," he said. "Herman is a madman, plain and simple. Have I not said as much before? You didn't listen to me!"
The other was from Samuel, who failed to register the gravity of my situation. "One can never be sure about the consequences of one's actions in life," he wrote in his lawyerly way. "In other words, act with caution, dear sister. Tread carefully!"
Tread, tread, tread . . .
I had been treading long enough.
Two decades had passed since August 4, 1847, when I stood there as a bride in my white gown and feathery veil of tulle in the sunlit living room of our house on Mount Vernon Street among a crowd of well-wishing relatives and close friends. I was almost drunk with joy, believing I had found my very own Charles Dickens--a robust and blossoming man of letters, who would lift us to fame and good fortune.
The pocket doors had been opened between the front parlors, and there were flowers everywhere in tall Oriental vases: stephanotis, gardenia, lilies, and cascades of yellow, pink, and red roses from the back garden--my stepmother's brilliant handiwork. Through open windows I could hear the clatter of hooves on the cobbles outside.
Herman stood before me in a handsome blue suit (purchased with a loan from his brother Allan and made to measure by one of the finest tailors in Manhattan). Young Thomas, his teenaged brother, looked suddenly mature, almost a man, having grown a beard for the occasion--if the raspy shadow on his chin could be described as such. I was dreaming, in a whirl; but I noticed the rustling dresses of the women, the rows of polished boots. The air was humid, almost unbearably so, and yet the porcine Reverend Mr. Young stood before us in full canonicals, sweating indiscriminately, eliciting the solemn words: "I do, I do." Afterward, we signed our names boldly in the gilt-edged Bible that Aunt Lucy had provided, her gift for the wedding, with our initials engraved on the leather covers: H.M. and E.S.M.
I had become, at a stroke, Elizabeth Shaw Melville.
"You have taken a massive step, my dear," said his mother, whispering in my ear. "I will expect you to take good care of him. He deserves that much." Her round red face was impassive, and she stared at me through the narrow slits of her eyes like a sea turtle. I saw that she hated me, and did not respond. One should not respond in these situations.
This marriage was "an unlikely match," as my stepmother put in less than delicately a few weeks before the ceremony. "He has no stable profession," she said, "and there is a touch of insanity among the Melvilles. You need only ask your father. He will tell you the truth if you insist." As I knew, my father had once nearly married Allan's sister, Nancy. In a strange way I considered Herman more of a brother than a husband. To marry him seemed only to extend an arc already begun before my birth.
I did ask my father about this fabled "touch of insanity," but he refused to say anything about the madness that had gripped Herman's unfortunate father at the end, reducing the poor man to raging incoherence while tenderhearted Herman, an innocent boy of twelve, stood to one side, helpless and defeated. I think Herman spent the whole of his life trying to comfort that child, to convince him that all would be well.
Allan Melvill (the "e" was added later, as it seemed more familiar to American eyes) left his family destitute, thus forcing them upon the frowning mercy of Maria's wealthy relatives in Albany. (My father, always loyal to old friends, also supplied a good deal of money in the form of loans he knew would never be repaid.) "It was a failure of nerve in Allan, and nothing more," my father mused, lighting his pipe with exaggerated slowness behind the burl desk in his study, shifting uneasily in a cracked red leather chair that had belonged to his father. The scales of justice--fitting for a judge--stood on the fireplace mantel behind him, a reminder of the balancing acts he performed daily as chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
"Allan glanced at his noble ancestry, then shrank in fear," my father said, fingering his long white locks, which touched the shoulders of his jacket. His belly ballooned from his starched shirt, nearly popping the buttons. "Greatness was not in the cards, not for him, alas," he continued. "I felt sorry for the boys, especially young Herman, who seemed quite lost."
My dear and wonderfully supportive father died in the spring of 1861, leaving me adrift. My family could do nothing for me. I was a Melville--hardly a Shaw at all--trapped in this sad house in Manhattan. Somehow I had to get away from Herman. I didn't really want to leave him, but there seemed no choice. Sometimes we think by feeling. We go where we must, as the path turns, taking us willy-nilly where it will.
Anyone who actually read his novels--Mardi or Moby-Dick or that repulsive Pierre--could guess at the truth, that my husband was not balanced. He walked the edges of life, peering into the abyss, taking his readers with him. He sought everything or nothing, quarreling with God, accusing Him of indifference, even hatred of the human race. This instability disfigured his novels and stories, which one critic called "the unhappy products of an overheated imagination."
Readers (myself included) much preferred his first books, Typee and Omoo--and for good reason. One could peruse them without strain, although their morality remained in question. (My husband never cared what anyone thought of him--especially a critic! That would have been pandering, and H.M. did not pander.)
Having resettled unhappily in New York in the fall of 1863, Herman grew restive. He realized, I think, that a mere change of scenery could not solve his problems or heal old wounds. Now fits of temper interrupted his more usual silence, especially at meals, when he would shout at me and the children. (Nothing we did seemed to please or comfort him.) After dinner he would sulk in the parlor, consuming large quantities of whiskey while laboring over books of philosophy composed by wordy Germans with names one could neither spell nor pronounce. "My eyes, my poor eyes," he complained, as darkness fell and the lamps flickered. "I shall be blind soon, and you will have to read to me."
He was not modest and often compared himself to the English poet John Milton, who went blind in old age, relying on his wife to read to him, to write down his thunderous interminable lines.
"I will never read to you," I told him.
"You hate my work," he said. "You hate whatever I do."
How could he say such a hurtful thing? Had I not copied and recopied several of his novels while sitting in the cold north parlor at Arrowhead, our farmhouse in the Berkshires, shuddering because he failed to cut and stack enough logs for the fire? Had I not recited countless passages by the light of many candles, reading them aloud in the wee hours of night, making little and large alterations at his request? His handwriting revealed the waywardness of his character, its uncertainty and awkwardness. His inconsistent spelling suggested an inconsistency in his soul. I told him as much one night, sending him into one of those rages where he shattered glasses against the wall and frightened Maria, his mother, and his obsequious sisters. Our children cowered upstairs, terrified by their father's ill temper.
"You must not arouse him so, my dear," said Maria, repeatedly.
"Oh, do you think so?" I would say.
"I do indeed, and you should mend your ways. This will never do. Not for me, not for my son."
Maria had been a not-so-silent partner in this marriage from the beginning, a constant companion, presiding over meals, knitting in the parlor wherever we lived, snoring in the bedroom next door, eavesdropping, offering "gentle" suggestions, defending her son. She glowered at me, as if I could never do the appropriate wifely thing to make her precious Herman comfortable, happy, proud, self-confident, and successful. I could never, in her view, get it right. "My son requires a delicacy of approach," she said one day, in a dark hallway at Arrowhead after I had scolded him about leaving open the barn door, prompting our elderly horse, Waldo, to wander off by himself down Lenox Road.
"He is not so fragile as you think," I explained.
She glared at me as though I were a shrew, then walked away in her usual huff. One could hear doors slamming throughout the echo chamber of that icy house.
I should have listened to Lemuel, who understood from the outset that Herman Melville would make a poor match. "Johnny Harrison is the one for you, Lizzie," he told me. Johnny was Lemuel's best friend, a Harvard man, and a lawyer in Boston. He was nicely dressed, polite, almost decorous in manner.
But I did not like decorous and polite men, not in those days. I had lived my life among the decorous and polite.
For better or worse, I found H.M. appealing, even irresistible. I had heard of his exploits and adventures from his older sister, Helen, a dear friend. He had sailed around the globe, gone whaling, lived among cannibals in the South Seas, and walked the streets of Liverpool and London. In New York City, he dined frequently in the best literary company. He had huge ambitions for himself, although his temper made his life (as well as ours) difficult, frustrating and offending those who might otherwise have championed his cause.
I didn't mind the short temper, not at first. I certainly admired the alertness in his eyes, their penetration--he could look through a wall of stone. I also liked his maturity. He was twenty-eight, and he understood the ways of the world. I believed I could tame the beast that lay within his breast, and to a certain extent I did. But it was intricate work, the work of a lifetime.
He had burst into our house one evening after dinner, unannounced, fresh from his adventures at sea. Full of improbable tales, he sat with my father in his study, where they drank sour mash and debated the great issues of the day. Although Herman had no formal education, having been forced to leave school early, he managed to work his way steadily through eons of Greek and Roman history, modern English and American literature, as well as some of the great European philosophers. He later borrowed thick volumes bound in buckram from my father's library, which he proceeded to underline as if they were his own!
"This young man has an inquisitive mind," my father told me, purring with approval. "You needn't worry about him."
But I did nothing but worry for twenty years, and then the situation became impossible for me, or so it seemed. I could not imagine myself living for another two or more decades in the House of Melville. Ways of escape crowded my thoughts.
Each evening he came home from his work as inspector at the New York Custom House covered in grime, his white collar soiled, hands filthy. He carried the smell of the city about him, its reek and plunder, the red dust. He made very little money--the salary was an insult to a man of his station--but that wasn't the problem. The money didn't matter as much as he thought it did--not since we had left the Berkshires and moved back to Manhattan. I had a sizable legacy now from an aunt in New Hampshire, and my father had advanced us plenty of funds over the years, paying off old debts that Herman had incurred behind my back. Father's death had made our economic lives more than a little easier.
But the fluctuating moods of H.M. troubled me. Gloom surrounded him for weeks and months, driving him beyond what was tolerable. I could feel despair coming upon him as we lay in bed, a storm blowing up in his body. Yet he was a survivor, a man who clung to his daily habits as if for dear life.
In New York, he followed a routine that, perhaps, saved him from mental shipwreck. He rose at dawn, reading ponderously at his desk or taking notes, drinking coffee in the front parlor, with hot bacon rolls followed by a fat cigar. He left home promptly at eight, taking with him his badge of office, Number 75. He often jumped a horse car down Broadway, walking slowly westward to the Custom House office at 207 West Street, off Gansevoort--a street named for his illustrious maternal grandfather. After doing paperwork for an hour or two, he set off on his rounds--the part of the job he adored.
God knows where he went in the course of a day. An acquaintance of mine had seen him as far north as Central Park, a landlocked oasis where he would have found no ships to inspect. He often lingered in Battery Park to watch the vessels coming and going. Mainly he trudged along the Hudson, calling on foreign vessels, checking cargoes, absorbing tales of the sea. I often imagined him sitting on a bench, his face to the sky, listening to voices that called from the past, from the wharves themselves, from black openings between red-brick buildings that overhung the docks and the dark passages of his mind. As he said almost nothing about his work, I had to guess what it was like for him, that he strolled the wharves obsessively, visiting ships, checking lists of imported goods. In the late afternoon, he sat alone in one tavern or another and listened intently to stories of sailors long at sea. I dare say, he wished he could, like them, begin another passage. He was always hoping for another passage.
Copyright © 2011 by Jay Parini. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.