How a secret love affair inflamed Herman Melville’s fiction.
Biographer Shelden (Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill, 2013, etc.) claims that Melville’s novels, including Moby-Dick, were inspired by his love for Sarah Anne Morewood, his attractive, young, married neighbor. This passionate relationship, he argues, stands as “the powerful key to unlocking his secrets,” although nearly every other Melville biographer has ignored it. Melville and Morewood met in 1850, when both were summering in the Berkshires, where she had bought property. Soon after, Melville borrowed money from his father-in-law to acquire a tract of land adjacent to the Morewoods' and moved his family from New York. There, “in the grip of his own obsession,” he wrote feverishly about an obsessed captain’s hunt for an elusive whale. The novel, Shelden argues, “is the result of the author’s own extended dive into the depths of his life.” Morewood, pretty, restless, and flirtatious, sounds like a version of Madame Bovary. Leaving her boring husband to his business, she loved hiking, parties, and champagne. The famed physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, also an admirer of hers, observed her effect on Melville. Holmes’ novel Elsie Venner, “a tale of characters searching for love and willing to do anything for it,” offered a “revealing glimpse into Melville’s secret life.” Shelden argues that Melville himself exposed the affair in Pierre, about “an idealistic youth whose life is forever changed by his romance with a dark, mysterious beauty” who claims to be his secret half sister and lures him away from his “uncomplicated” girlfriend, just as Morewood lured Melville away from his wife. The emotionally fraught novel, with its inexplicable theme of incest, proved too much for readers and ended Melville’s trajectory to fame.
Shelden bases his conclusions on correspondence and archival research but often conjectures about what “must have” occurred. Nonetheless, he offers a provocative portrait of the canonical writer and his world.