The feature-length documentary of Herman Melville's forbidden love affair with Sarah Morewood. COMING SUMMER 2018.
EXAMPLES OF THE RESEARCH DOCUMENTS AND IMAGES BEHIND THE BOOK
In Pierre--Melville's novel of 1852--the author imitates the language of courtly romance to capture his protagonist's desperate obsession with a forbidden love. It is the same language that colors Melville's own letters of the 1850s to Mrs. Morewood. He called himself "Your Ladyship's Knight of the Hill," and he addressed Sarah by a range of exalted names that he never used with anyone else in his life, and that are of a type rarely found in letters of other major authors from the period.
MELVILLE WRITING ABOUT SARAH MOREWOOD, from his letters to her:
"The ever-excellent & beautiful Lady of Paradise"
"Mrs. Morewood the goddess"
"Thou Lady of All Delight"
"My Lady Countess"
"Even Thou, The Peerless Lady"
"The Honorable & Beautiful Lady"
"With . . . three times kissing of your Ladyships hands"
Using such exuberant language in letters to his neighbor's wife ("With due obeisance & three times kissing of your Ladyships hands") was incredibly risky in a small town in rural Massachusetts. The same locals who condemned Moby-Dick as "blasphemous" would see Mr. Melville's affectionate humor in private letters to Mrs. Morewood as indisputable evidence of impropriety, and both Sarah and Herman knew it.
Emily Dickinson's three "Master" letters of the late 1850s offer a comparable example of this kind of exaltation of a lover, but in her case we don't know whether the Master in her love letters was real or imaginary, or even whether she sent the letters. But no one doubts the passion in those documents, and there is no reason to doubt the passion in Melville's letters to his married "goddess."
Melville's Joy in Writing Sarah Morewood's Name
As Melville happily told Sarah, the mere act of writing her name (as in the example above) had a noticeable effect on him. He suddenly slowed his normally hasty scrawl and wrote with greater care. After beginning a letter in March 1854 with "Dear Mrs. Morewood," he boasted affectionately: "See how my hand improves as the name is traced." If you're an author with notoriously difficult handwriting, and you pause not only to trace out a woman's name with care, but also to confide that fact to the woman, she can be forgiven for thinking you're in love with her, especially if she had just given you a beautiful book with the following quotation on the title page: "Wilt thou forget the happy hours/ Which we buried in love's sweet bowers."
While Mrs. Melville Slept Alone at Home, Herman Melville and Sarah Morewood Spent the Night with Friends on Mt. Greylock Drinking Champagne, Rum, and Port Wine, with Brandy Cherries as a Treat
The view from the summit of Mount Greylock in the Berkshires, where Sarah Morewood and Herman Melville spent a memorable night in August 1851, shortly after the completion of Moby-Dick.
Melville's Long Walks with Sarah Morewood in the Woods Surrounding Their Homes in the Berkshires
In a letter from October 1851 Sarah Morewood writes of her long walks with Herman Melville and their shared fascination for the Tower at the summit of Greylock, where they had sheltered with a party of eight others on that August night in 1851. The party included friends and siblings, but not Sarah's husband or Melville's wife. "Greylock is not forgotten here but often recalled in an amusing way--by Mr Herman or myself. In some of our long walks we have taken a spyglass with us so as to bring nearer to us the Tower and its associations [Sarah uses the old-fashioned script for the double "s" in "associations"]." (From the original at the New York Public Library)
Sarah Morewood as Melville's Rose
After receiving a gift of two books and two bottles of cologne from Sarah Morewood, Melville thanked her in this letter of September 1851: "Most considerate of all the delicate roses that diffuse their blessed perfume among men, is Mrs. Morewood; (I say it not in 'bitterness'--I appeal to all the Sweet-Briars, if I do;) for the little box contained nourishment for both body & soul . . . ." As he frequently made clear in his writing, the rose was his favorite flower.
If you're a respectable married man in the 1850s, you don't respond in this way to an intimate gift from another man's wife unless you're too much in love to care. Even more shocking for the time is his comment below that the gifts are like those from a goddess in "Paradise." To the modern ear, this may sound endearingly fanciful; but nothing in Melville's novels would have outraged his contemporaries more than these words to his neighbor's wife: "So I shall regard them [the gifts] as my Paradise in store, & Mrs Morewood the goddess from whom it comes."
The Night on Greylock and Sarah Morewood's Reference to Lot's Wife and Sodom
Lot's Wife, by the English sculptor Sir William Hamo Thornycroft
In the extract above from her memoir of "That Excursion to Greylock," Sarah confessed that she hated returning from the freedom of her night on the summit to the ordinary world below where the "iron rule" of social convention "cramps and confines our purest feelings." Her provocative reference to Lot's wife was a scandalous touch, for no proper New England matron of the time would have dared to mention herself and her friends in the same breath with the disobedient wife in the Bible who cast a "lingering look behind" at the destruction of Sodom.
Melville's Own Confession of His Feelings for Sarah
If--for the horse--a broken leg means losing a future in the company of the "sprightly Mrs. Morewood," then "considering all this," a broken leg would be just as bad for Melville. Or so he says in this coy letter written on a cold night, when he couldn't resist confessing his attachment to Sarah as he wrote to his closest friend at the time.
The Day Sarah Morewood Crowned Melville with a Laurel Wreath to Honor His Creation of Moby-Dick
The only award of any kind that Melville received for Moby-Dick in his lifetime was a laurel wreath to crown his achievement one month after publication. Sarah Morewood placed it on his head at a small ceremony staged at her house. It was a fitting tribute for her "Knight on the Hill," as Melville once described himself to her, his "goddess." The wreath was also something she could proudly create on her own, for among her many talents was one for floral design. The Pittsfield newspapers noted her many awards at the local flower shows, as in the example above from 1856, where she is identified as Mrs. J[ohn] R[owland] Morewood.
The Day Melville "Kidnapped" a Bride for Sarah Morewood's Costume Party
Forgotten for More Than a Century
What remains of Sarah Anne Morewood's gravestone in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. One of her poems was set to music and sung by a choir when the cemetery was dedicated in September of the year she met Melville. Her memory and her grave have been sadly neglected for decades. Melville in Love features excerpts from her poetry that have not been seen in more than 150 years. Melville was profoundly influenced by her poetic temperament, and by their mutual love of literature.
The Source of Mr. Morewood's Wealth
Sarah Morewood's husband was devoted to two things--his church in New York and the family business in the city, where he was a partner with his brother. He spent long hours at work or at church while his wife enjoyed her freedom in the Berkshires. While she was focused on art, literature, nature, and society, he was content to sell his galvanized lightning rods and other mundane items. In Melville's story of the 1850s "The Lightning-Rod Man," the romantic narrator spars verbally with a hard-driving salesman obsessed with the lightning rods he peddles. Speaking with an almost religious fervor, the salesman insists that his item is "the only true rod," arguing that the narrator risks death and damnation if he doesn't buy one. With utter contempt for this "trade with the fears of man," the narrator scorns the salesman's effort to mix business and religion, breaking the rod and throwing the man out.
Melville's Romantic Gift to Sarah Morewood
Though he was sinking deeper into debt for much of the 1850s, Melville gave this expensive volume of Dryden's poetry to Sarah Morewood and highlighted for her the passage above in one of the most erotic poems of the book. It describes the moment when a young couple enjoying a clandestine romance escape to a hidden spot where they have sex for the first time. The woman is waiting for her lover when he knocks at the door of the hideaway, and when she opens it, the young man is so eager to make love that he rushes forward, and--as Melville noted--"The first step he made was in her arms."
Sarah Morewood's Love Life in the Berkshires
Sarah Morewood was attracted to handsome men of the world like Gardiner and Melville, but she also liked teasing and provoking earnest men of faith like young George Duyckinck, whose devotion to religion was even greater than Rowland Morewood's. George accompanied his older brother Evert Duyckinck--Melville's friend--on the Greylock excursion in 1851. Not long before Sarah sent cologne and novels to Melville, George sent her the formal letter above with two religious books. It is impossible to take him seriously as a love interest, though at least one literal-minded critic has misjudged her long and often amusing effort to lead George into temptation as proof that this innocent, lifelong bachelor in New York was the great passion of Sarah's life. In fact, she found it convenient to mislead Melville's gullible mother and sisters into assuming that her target was George, deflecting suspicion from her real love for the novelist who became her neighbor when she moved to the Berkshires, and who moved away only when she died--13 years later.
The Art of Reading Other People's Mail
One obstacle to researching Melville's story arises when those in his circle left behind important letters written in the "cross-hatching" style of the times. As the example above from Sarah Morewood shows, these letters are immensely difficult to decipher, and she wrote often in this fashion, supposedly to save paper. The dating of events in Melville in Love depended several times on information painstakingly extracted from letters like this one from October 1851. Even the date itself of this letter is hard to establish because Sarah gave it not at the beginning but at the end of her message, writing it across the text of her first page after her name and an early name for her Pittsfield mansion: "Truly yours, Sarah A. Morewood, Southland Oct. 27th." (The original of this letter is among those she wrote to George Duyckinck, now held at the New York Public Library. Addressed "Dear Sir," this letter is friendly but restrained, and adds to the evidence that the Greylock climb ten weeks earlier didn't create an intimate connection between Sarah and George.)
"Be She Now Remembered By Us All." Melville Toasts the Spirit of Sarah Morewood
In the archives at the Berkshire Athenaeum is the remnant of some written toasts delivered at a party in the Morewood home after Sarah's death. The document was attributed to Melville long ago and someone attached his name to it before it came to the Athenaeum. In the Correspondence volume of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville, Lynn Horth makes a detailed case that the "Final & Concluding Toast" above is Melville's tribute to the departed "spirit" of Sarah Morewood on the occasion of her daughter's wedding at the Morewood home in 1882. Certainly, it cannot be confused with three toasts that the author Cornelius Mathews sent to the Morewoods in 1851 because a)Mathews is nowhere named in the document but Melville is; b) the toast is addressed to a woman who is no longer physically present ("If there be a spirit in this Company . . . be she now remembered by us all"); and c) the last words once again toast the health of Mr. Morewood because he is living but his wife is not. For all these reasons, the document must date from a time after Sarah's death in 1863.
Oliver Wendell Holmes's Forgotten Fictional Portrait of Sarah Morewood's Affair with Melville
Sarah Morewood was not only a muse to Melville but also the model for the main character in the novel Elsie Venner, which was published ten years after Moby-Dick. Its author--Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.--was also Sarah's neighbor in the Berkshires and shared Melville's fascination with her. Though not her lover, Holmes was so captivated by her that he extolled her beauty and charm in occasional verse, including a poem written at her death and quoted for the first time in Melville in Love.
A century ago the connection between Sarah and Elsie Venner was so firmly established in Pittsfield that a local guidebook confidently referred to Sarah's former mansion as "the old home of Elsie Venner." The above page was taken from a booklet published in Pittsfield in 1919. Until Melville in Love, no modern book had explored the revealing connection between Sarah's affair with Melville, and their thinly disguised portraits in Holmes's story.