A companion to Herman Melville by Wyn Kelley

By Wyn Kelley

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J 628–9) Melville’s entry for November 12 is telegraphic and terse: ‘‘At Southport. An agreeable day. Took a long walk by the sea. Sand & grass. Wild & desolate. A strong wind. A good talk’’ ( J 51). If Melville had hoped to find renewed faith in the Holy Land, he must have been sorely disappointed. He was profoundly depressed by everything from the diseased and dirty street urchins to the vendors shrilly hawking cheap souvenirs at holy shrines. At the base of the Pyramids, he was gripped by ‘‘awe & terror’’ ( J 75) at the concept of monotheism, and peering into passageways that led to burial chambers made him feel dizzy and faint.

With Gansevoort running the fur business, and younger brother Allan apprenticing in the law offices of Peter Gansevoort, Herman felt pressure to find employment. He tried teaching in a country school in the hills above Pittsfield but found that his job consisted more of trying to control obstreperous louts than of inspiring future scholars. In his free time, he strolled beside the river reciting the poetry of Byron and Tennyson to various belles of Lansingburgh. Several anonymous love lyrics addressed to a girl named Mary Parmalee appeared in the local newspaper, and he wrote two melodramatic gothic sketches that appear to have been influenced by Edgar Allan Poe.

Three months later, somewhere off the coast of Brazil, the future author of Moby-Dick experienced the thrill of his first hunt, and for the next ten months, the men succeeded in harvesting 720 barrels of oil on their way to the Marquesas. A year and a half later, after stops in Rio, the Galapagos, and Santa, Peru, the Acushnet sailed into Taioa Bay, Nukuhiva. Not far from their anchorage they could see French warships that had brought four thousand soldiers to the island to prepare the way for colonization, and on shore were the remains of the ‘‘city’’ built by Protestant missionaries in 1833.

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