On a tour of the South Seas with his artist friend John La Farge, the American author Henry Adams was tempted by visions of Polynesian beauties and wished he had the talent "to paint a beautiful naked figure, standing on her swimming board. . . . I hope La Farge will do it." The watercolor above is La Farge's response to his friend's challenge, and the title of the work is "Fayaway." A tribute to Melville's famous maiden in Typee, it was the painter's idealized view of life in the South Seas, with a nude that is more European than Polynesian. Melville's literary portrait of Fayaway has inspired poets, painters, and songwriters, but it all began with the young woman herself inspiring dreams in Melville that would later move him to write the most memorable scenes in his first book, Typee (1846).
From May 10 to August 17 of this year, you can see J.M.W. Turner's four major paintings on whaling at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It will be the first time all four have been exhibited together. The Met owns one of the pictures, and the rest belong to the Tate. The announcement of the exhibition mentions "the possible impact" of Turner's work on Moby-Dick. This is too cautious. The English painter had a profound influence on the young American novelist, who visited London a few months before he began Moby-Dick, and who was twice entertained on that visit by one of Turner's oldest friends, the poet Samuel Rogers. The story of how Rogers helped to give Melville a revealing glimpse into the heart of Turner's artistic magic is one I tell in Melville in Love. In provincial Pittsfield of the 1850s you wouldn't have found many admirers of Turner's work. I know of only two--Herman Melville and Sarah Morewood, whose possessions at her death included a handsome volume of Turner engravings. (The picture above is Whalers--one of the Turners belonging to the Tate.)
The insipid face of Millard Fillmore may suggest why so few people can remember that he was president of the United States, much less that it was during his administration that Melville published Moby-Dick. Yet it is a sad fact that for a good 75 years President Fillmore was far better known than Herman Melville. Now he's largely forgotten and the novelist is the famous one. Whatever the year, we tend to take our political leaders too seriously, and to neglect shamefully many of the most creative people among us. It seems only fitting that mediocre Millard ended his political career in 1856 as the losing presidential candidate for the "Know-Nothing" Party. In the unlikely event that Hollywood might want to cast someone as President Fillmore, I hope Alec Baldwin is available.
Herman Melville's marriage to Elizabeth Shaw began at this door in Boston one day in August 1847 when he was only 28. It was not a happy marriage, and neither husband nor wife wanted to leave behind much evidence of their intimate life together. Only one letter from Herman to Lizzie, as she was commonly known, has survived, and it tells us little of significance.
Their backgrounds were very different. Melville had a hard life as a young man struggling to help his family after his father died, and later as a seafaring man traveling over much of the globe on whaling ships and an American warship. Lizzie grew up on the finest street in the most refined city in America as the only daughter of the most powerful judge in Massachusetts. She rarely had a care in her life until she left home to live with a writer with no steady job and an imagination as wild and fiery as any in literary history.
Her father's old house at 49 Mt. Vernon Street has changed hands many times in the last century and a half, and has recently undergone a massive renovation. But the long street running from the State House down to the river is still the most elegant and the most expensive in Boston. I was able to take only a few peeks inside during the construction, but for some detailed views of the renovation, see the amazing article by one of the contractors, Longleaf Lumber.