Melville in Love, The Secret Life of Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick
by Michael Shelden (2016)
Did you know that Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick (the finest sea-faring novel ever written), climbed Mt. Greylock? In 1851 Melville climbed Mt. Greylock on the trail called Bellows Pipe. This ‘excursion to Greylock’ was by wagon and horses, and on foot. What is most amazing is that he made the climb with his secret lover Mrs. Sarah Moorewood. Sarah was a “wild beauty” who rode a colt named Black Quake. She had a salacious reputation that would make men tremble in her presence. And Herman Melville fell into her lusty charms.
The excursion to Greylock included a party of ten—family (no spouses) and friends—complete with brandy cherries, champagne, rum, port wine and gallons of enthusiasm. Before sunset they reached the hazy blue, white, and green mountaintop, viewed the watery atmosphere, “the air cool and pungent with the smell of balsam.” After dining by firelight, and under the stars, Herman and Sarah found themselves a private escape and made love for the first time on Greylock’s summit. A night that was “too merry for sleep” as Sarah wrote in her essay some time later.
“They did what would have come naturally to two people in love, taking advantage of the late hour and the darkness to enjoy a passionate bond that had been growing for more than a year.”
I’ve been reading a thrilling biography of Herman Melville, Melville in Love, The Secret Life of Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick by Michael Sheldon. Of course the scandal in the story is that both Melville and Moorewood were wed to others at the time. Sheldon writes of Melville’s muse, the woman and the mountain. Melville grew obsessed with Sarah, a dark and mysterious beauty just as Ahab grew obsessed with his ghostly white whale. The pursuit, the chase, the desires drove his creativity and his sexuality in a parallel race. This book is a stunning narrative prose that reads like a novel. Impossible to put down, Melville in Love deserves a place on your book shelf right next to Moby-Dick.
“Arrowhead” Farmhouse in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
In writing my own mystery Greylock, which takes place on Mt. Greylock and also deals with whales, I studied about Melville (and other creative artists like Hawthorne and Thoreau who climbed Mt. Greylock) and his years at “Arrowhead,” his farm at the foot of Mt. Greylock, where he wrote Moby-Dick in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He could view Mt. Greylock from his desk by the window, viewing the great slopes in the northern sky every day, writing and writing and writing his masterpiece. But none of the biographies I read pointed to an illicit affair by the author with the sexy and flirtatious Sarah Moorewood who lived nearby in Pittsfield. She was his neighbor, for heaven’s sake.
During the 1850s, Moby-Dick was a commercial disappointment, negative reviews, selling only 3000 copies and earning him just $500. But Melville was truly inspired as he put pen to paper. Melville’s deep and passionate love of Sarah Moorehead with her grace and beauty and intelligence became his muse to write his epic sea drama of the obsessed and mad Ahab in pursuit of his wicked whale. In fact, after Moby-Dick was completed, Melville wrote a scathing love story, Pierre, which reflected his love affair with Sarah. However, that one proved to be a failure as well.
Biographer Michael Sheldon brings the reader through Melville’s private adventures with rich descriptions; quite fast-paced, this biography is vivid with the emotional life and mindset of Melville. You won’t be disappointed or bored. Not a single page gets tedious.
If you are looking for a delicious summer read where history, literature, and nature are provocative elements, Melville in Love is a mesmerizing portrait of two lovers in a heart-breaking story.
“A scandalous surprise… Shelden carefully and convincingly presents his evidence regarding Morewood’s influence and how she inspired Melville to a greatness recognized by few of his peers… This well-paced, enjoyable read is a must for Melville fans.” — Library Journal
“Riveting in its incandescent sense of discovery, intimacy, and velocity, Shelden’s bound-to-be-controversial anatomy of a clandestine love transforms our perception of Melville and introduces “one of the great unsung figures in literary history.” — Booklist, Starred Review
Michael Sheldon is author of 6 biographies,
including the Pulitzer Prize finalist Orwell: The Authorized Biography.