August 4, 2010

The Marriage of Melville

Shortly after the publication of Omoo, his sequel to Typee, Herman Melville married Elizabeth "Lizzie" Shaw, the daughter of Chief Justice of Massachusetts Lemuel Shaw. Judge Shaw had been friends with Melville's father, and Melville dedicated his first book to him. The marriage took place on August 4, 1847.

The couple spent their honeymoon in New Hampshire and Canada. They then moved into a large row house in Manhattan (purchased with the help of Justice Shaw). The household also included other members of the Melville family: brother Allan Melville and his wife, four unmarried sisters, his mother Maria Gansevoort Melville and, off and on, his brother Tom Melville.

The marriage was, by most accounts, disastrous or at least problematic. Lizzie never seemed to understand or appreciate her husband's writing (though she helped him as a copyist from time to time). His first work after marriage, Mardi, is peppered with condemnations or protests against marriage, praising bachelorhood instead. She considered leaving him in 1867, after twenty years of marriage and four children. In fact, her family and pastor seemed to support divorce. She chose to stay with Melville.

Of their four children, the oldest, Malcolm, committed suicide at 18 (shortly after Lizzie almost left Herman). Their second son, Stanwix, died of tuberculosis at age 35 while in San Francisco. Their daughter Bessie was crippled by extreme arthritis by age 26. Frances Melville, the second daughter, married happily and had four daughters.

Despite family tragedy, professional hardship, and a strained relationship full of rumors about affairs (today, she might take note of the rumors of homosexuality), Lizzie stayed with her husband and the couple tried to work everything out. With her help, Melville published three books of poetry at the end of his life; shortly before he died, he gave her an inscribed copy of his collection Weeds and Wildings. Carved in Lizzie's desk was the adage, "To know all is to forgive all."

*Some information for this post comes from The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville, edited by Robert S. Levine.

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