Melville in Love|Michael Shelden
Melville in Love : The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick
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A new account of Herman Melville and the writing of Moby-Dick, written by a Pulitzer Prize finalist in Biography and based on fresh archival research, which reveals that the anarchic spirit animating Melville's canonical work was inspired by his great love affair with a shockingly unconventional married woman.

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 Pulitzer Prize-finalist Michael Shelden sheds light on this literary mystery to tell a story of Melville's passionate, obsessive, and clandestine affair with a married woman named Sarah Morewood, whose libertine impulses encouraged and sustained Melville's own. In his research, Shelden discovered unexplored 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--like Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and Nathaniel Hawthorne--Melville found the courage to take the leap from light works of adventure to the hugely brilliant, utterly subversive Moby-Dick.

Filled with the rich detail and immense drama of Melville's secret life, Melville in Love tells the gripping story of how one of our greatest novelists found his muse.

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  • ISBN-13: 9780062418982
  • ISBN-10: 006241898X
  • Publisher: Ecco Press
  • Publish Date: June 2016
  • Dimensions: 9.1 x 5.9 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.05 pounds
  • Page Count: 288

Moby-Dick: One masterpiece, two muses

This summer marks the 165th anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick. Two fascinating new books—one a historical novel, the other nonfiction—each identify a different person as the inspiration behind Herman Melville’s iconic novel.

In his debut, The Whale: A Love Story, former journalist Mark Beauregard supposes what many have speculated: that the brief but intense friendship between Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne went beyond camaraderie. 

The novel opens on August 5, 1850, with Melville and Hawthorne meeting for the first time while on an excursion with mutual friends in the Berkshires. Hawthorne is fresh off the success of The Scarlet Letter and living in Lenox, Massachusetts, while Melville is visiting his cousin Robert in nearby Pittsfield. Melville’s career is waning, and he is in a bit of a rut working on a novel about the whaling industry.

Though both are married, Melville instantly falls for the handsome, congenial Hawthorne. Shortly afterward, Melville moves his family to a modest farm six miles from Lenox. Hawthorne keeps Melville at arm’s length to resist his attraction to the younger writer, and so Melville funnels his yearning into his work. In effect, Beauregard presents Hawthorne as Melville’s own white whale, the object of his obsession.

Beauregard consulted biographies, journals and letters in crafting his clever and engaging, if unconfirmed, account. While the physical aspect of the relationship is limited to a couple of charged caresses and a drink-fueled kiss, the emotional toll of the affair—which ends when Hawthorne moves away from Lenox in 1852—is high, particularly for Melville. 

In Melville in Love, Michael Shelden—a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Orwell: The Authorized Biography—presents another candidate for Melville’s muse, one whose importance has been entirely overlooked for the past 165 years. 

Among the guests at cousin Robert Melville’s house in Pittsfield during the summer of 1850 were the Morewoods of New York City. Sarah Morewood was the “bookish and beautiful, intelligent and inquisitive, creative and compassionate” wife of a wealthy merchant. That summer, the vivacious Sarah organized picnics, hikes and other jaunts, which Melville enthusiastically joined. The attraction between Sarah and the dashing writer was immediate and mutual, and Shelden asserts that Melville moved his family to Pittsfield to be close not to Hawthorne, but to Sarah, who was in the process of purchasing Robert’s estate. 

Shelden argues that the ensuing affair energized Melville, and the passion that Sarah stirred in him flowed through his pen onto the pages of Moby-Dick. Unlike Hawthorne and Melville in The Whale, Shelden claims that Sarah and Melville consummated their relationship, during an overnight trek to the summit of Mount Greylock.

While there is no definitive proof of the affair, Shelden offers compelling evidence supporting his theory, including clues in Melville’s works. Melville in Love is a beautifully written, captivating story that may also be one of the most surprising literary revelations of our time. 


This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.