BY JANET MANDELSTAM
Herman Melville was living in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, far from the roaring surf, when he wrote Moby Dick, his great novel of the sea. Michael Shelden wondered why.
“If you ask scholars or Melville biographers, they either will say they don’t know or say that Melville was there to be near [Nathaniel] Hawthorne,” says Shelden, professor of English at Indiana State University and author of several well-received biographies. While Melville greatly admired the author of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne left the area and Melville remained in the Berkshires for 12 more years. “Why did he stay?” Shelden asked. He found his answer in the person of Melville’s neighbor, Sarah Morewood.
The discovery of the clandestine relationship between Melville and Morewood led to Shelden’s new biography, Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby Dick (Harper Collins).
Like his recent books, it focuses on a limited time in its subject’s life. Shelden has written about the last years of Mark Twain and the early years of Winston Churchill. “I take readers into the lives of famous people for a brief period.” In telling the stories of those lives, he says he brings “a novelist’s approach to biography —without making anything up.”
He centers this story in the 1850s when Melville, smitten with Morewood — “He walks into a room in the Berkshires and falls in love” — rashly buys the adjoining property in order to be near her. Shelden calls Morewood, “one of the great unsung women of the 19th century.” Intelligent and adventurous, she and Melville, both married, formed an intellectual and romantic bond that Shelden says sustained Mellville as he wrote his epic.
Shelden found the surviving letters that Melville wrote to Morewood. “They’re love letters,” he says. “Early scholars didn’t regard them as love letters, but you didn’t write those kind of letters to another man’s wife in the 1850s unless you were lovers.”
But a happy ending was to not be. “New England was still puritanical in those days,” Shelden says. He sees parallels between the author’s thwarted relationship with Morewood and Moby Dick: “Melville’s own obsession with something he can’t have turned into Ahab’s obsession with the whale.”
Like Melville, Shelden found inspiration in the Berkshires. After a speaking engagement in Boston, he drove across Massachusetts and visited Melville’s house, a historic site. That visit piqued his curiosity and ultimately led to Melville in Love.