August 1, 2010

Birth of Herman Melvill(e)

New York City was facing a cholera epidemic when, on August 1, 1819, "a very promising child" was born (the quote is from his father). He was the third child of Allan Melvill and Maria Gansevoort Melvill and they named him after his mother's oldest brother; he would later add the "e" to become Herman Melville.

On his father's side, Melville was of Scottish heritage. His mother came from Dutch ancestry. Both his grandfathers had a role in the American Revolution: Peter Gansevoort earned the title of "General" and Thomas Melvill was one of those Bostonians who boarded ships and dumped their cargo of tea into the harbor in 1773 (Melvill, who lived far into the next generation, was the subject of a semi-satirical poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes).

Young Melville was raised in a bustling seaport and often listened to tales of his father's voyages across the Atlantic. For vacation, Melville once stayed at the home of an uncle in Rhode Island, a former sea captain who regaled him with stories of his travels.

Herman Melville eventually became one of eight children (four boys, four girls) as the family went up in social class. His father, a merchant, moved the family to a home on Broadway, where their yard was as large as a city block. A nation-wide financial crisis beginning in the year of Melville's birth challenged that upward mobility. Their financial situation finally hit rock bottom in 1830, and the family moved to Albany.

For all their monetary difficulty, young Melville did not suffer academically. When he won high honors for his skill at math in the Albany Academy (an event marked in the local newspaper), celebration came in the form of a trip to Pittsfield in western Massachusetts. Years later, Melville would return to the area to write his masterpiece, Moby-Dick (it was there also that he met Holmes).

*Herman Melville's birthplace is long gone but the spot is marked, as pictured above in a photo courtesy of Flickr user wallyg. His home in Albany is marked by a state historical sign.

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