While in New York City last weekend and staying near The Battery end of Manhattan, I went out for my walk and decided to follow some of the path that Herman Melville would have traveled in his days there.
With an online walking tour as a guide, I set out. The place I wanted to really see was the Custom House where he worked as a customs inspector. I like to imagine him sneaking in some literary time between working on boring forms about tariffs.
Even with a guide, it can be confusing as there are several “Customs Houses” in the city. One is the Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street that had been the U.S. capital until 1790 when that honor moved to Philadelphia and the building went back to housing the government of New York City. The building was razed with the opening of the current New York City Hall in 1812. You can see part of the original railing and balcony floor where Washington was inaugurated in the memorial there. The current classical building was built as the first purpose-built U.S. Custom House for the Port of New York and opened in 1842. A nice place to visit, but no connection to Melville.
In 1862, Customs moved to 55 Wall Street which is where Melville spent his time. Now known as The First National City Bank Building, it rests upon the foundation and lower portion of The Merchants’ Exchange, built in 1842.
Melville’s wife’s family used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York in 1866. This was a humble position, but with a decent salary. He held the post for 19 years. He had a reputation of being the only honest employee in a notoriously corrupt institution.
Though he never knew it, his position and income “were protected throughout the periodic turmoil of political reappointments by a customs official who never spoke to Melville but admired his writings: future US president Chester A. Arthur” (Olsen-Smith).
The basement vaults below Melville held millions of dollars of gold and silver as this was one of six United States Sub-Treasury locations at that time. .
The Merchants’ Exchange replaced the previous exchange which burned down in the Great Fire of New York in 1835
“…it’s worth pointing out that [Herman Melville] worked in [the New York Custom House] as a deputy customs inspector between 1866 and 1885. Nineteen years, and he never got a raise – four dollars a day, six days a week. He was by then a washed-up writer, forgotten and poor. I used to find this subject heartbreaking, a waste: the greatest living American author was forced to spend his days writing tariff reports instead of novels. But now, knowing what I know about the sleaze of the New York Custom House, and the honorable if bitter decency with which Melville did his job, I have come to regard literature’s loss as the republic’s gain. Great writers are a dime a dozen in New York. But an honest customs inspector in the Gilded Age? Unheard of.”
― Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation
Just prior to his Custom House days, his writing career was not very successful. His greatest sales had come from his earliest books of adventure and travel. His first book was Typee (1846), a highly romanticized account of his life among Polynesians. That best-seller allowed him to write a “sequel” Omoo (1847). These books gave him enough money to marry Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of a prominent Boston family,
Next, he got to write a novel not based on his own travel experiences. That novel was Mardi (1849), also a sea narrative but a very philosophical one. It didn’t sell at all. It wasn’t what readers expected (or wanted) from Melville. He went back to something closer to the earlier books with Redburn (1849). This story about life on a merchant ship was better received by reviewers. So was the next book about the hard life aboard a man-of-war, White-Jacket (1850). But the books did not bring enough money to sustain the family.
In the summer of 1850, Melville moved his growing family to Arrowhead farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. There he befriended fellow novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne. Melville started the novel in New York in 1850, but finished it in Pittsfield the following summer. But this great American novel was a commercial failure, and the reviews were mixed.
Just to give a sense of those literary times, along with Moby Dick was the publication of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and in 1855 Thoreau’s Walden and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Melville was no longer a popular or well-known author and Pierre (1852) was at least partially a satire on the literary culture of the time – and not a best-seller. Either was his Revolutionary War novel Israel Potter (1855) which was first serialized in Putnam’s magazine but not well received by critics or readers as a book.
Melville published some excellent short fiction in magazines during this slow period: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), “The Encantadas” (1854), and “Benito Cereno” (1855) which were collected in 1856 as The Piazza Tales.
He wasn’t totally broke and in 1857 he traveled to England and did some lecture tours to earn money. He was reunited briefly with Hawthorne in England. He was also able to tour the Near East.
The last prose he would publish was the quite different and interesting novel, The Confidence-Man (1857).
“Where does any novelist pick up any character? For the most part, in town, to be sure. Every great town is a kind of man-show, where the novelist goes for his stock, just as the agriculturist goes to the cattle-show for his.
—The Confidence Man
With money running out, they left the farm and returned to New York so he could take a position as Customs Inspector. They moved to Allan Melville’s house at 104 East 26th Street, for which they traded their Pittsfield farm.
Melville turned to poetry. That first year at the Customs House he published Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War which contains his poems on moral questions about the American Civil War.
Probably he had given up on the novels due to the poor sales and reviews. Publishers probably weren’t interested either. But I think the trips abroad had an influence on his thinking and I can see him sneaking in some poetry at lunch and breaks from Customs House work at his desk as he walked and maybe stopped coffee houses around Wall Street.
“… the New York guidebooks are now vaunting of the magnitude of a town, whose future inhabitants, multitudinous as the pebbles on the beach, and girdled in with high walls and towers, flanking endless avenues of opulence and taste, will regard all our Broadways and Bowerys as but the paltry nucleus to their Nineveh. From far up the Hudson, beyond Harlem River where the young saplings are now growing, that will overarch their lordly mansions with broad boughs, centuries old; they may send forth explorers to penetrate into the then obscure and smoky alleys of the Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street; and going still farther south, may exhume the present Doric Custom-house, and quote it as a proof that their high and mighty metropolis enjoyed a Hellenic antiquity.”
― Herman Melville, Redburn: His First Voyage
I made a stop at 54 Pearl Street, which would have been Fraunces Tavern in Melville’s time. It’s not here anymore, so I had to imagine him at what was described as “a slightly rundown tavern and meeting place.” At numbers 58 and 62, you get a glimpse of what he would describe as “grimlooking warehouses.”
Along Pearl Street was Coenties Slip, a man-made inlet, now filled in and making up parts of Water, Front and South Street. Melville knew the area as a boy, and wrote in Redburn: “…somewhere near ranges of grim-looking warehouses, with rusty iron doors and shutters, and tiled roofs; and old anchors and chain-cables piled on the walk. Old-fashioned coffee-houses, also, much abound in that neighborhood, with sun-burnt sea-captains going in and out, smoking cigars, and talking about Havana, London, and Calcutta.”
This could not have been a happy time for Melville and his family. In 1867, his oldest child Malcolm died at home from a self-inflicted gunshot, which may have been an accident or may have been suicide.
He publishes Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land in 1876, a long and difficult metaphysical piece. In 1886, his son Stanwix died. That year Melville would retire.
Melville died from cardiovascular disease in 1891, but he had continued to write in his retirement years. Two more volumes of poetry were privately published and one was left unpublished. He was working on another sea novel but the unfinished Billy Budd was not published until 1924.
The 1919 centennial of his birth seems to have started a “Melville Revival”and critics and scholars explored his life, novels, stories and poetry. Certainly, Moby Dick makes every list of the great American works of fiction.
On my walk, I visited (as we know Melville did) Trinity Church to climb up into the belfry. I’m not sure how religious Melville was, but I know that we seem to share similar spiritual concerns, so a prayer for him seemed appropriate.
I walked by what would have been the Post Office a block away from the church on Nassau Street between Liberty and Cedar Streets. It was demolished in 1882. I thought about Melville possibly mailing off his writing to publishers there in the hopes of reviving his career.
If he got to go out for lunch during a work day, he would have seen clerks heading up and down the this busy street. Maybe he dropped in on his brother, Allan, whose law office was at No. 10 on the second floor. It certainly figures into his wonderful short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” with “the numerous stalls nigh the Custom House and Post Office.”
This section from Nassau to Broadway is sometimes called “Bartleby’s Wall Street.” I found no one selling ginger cakes or any apple sellers that would allow me “to moisten [their] mouths very often with Spitzenbergs.”
If Herman’s daily work was boring, being a scrivener like Allan, (they were the all-male secretarial pool of that day) and copying legal documents in “quadruplicates of a week’s testimony” sounds even more boring.
I didn’t get to the intersection of Park Avenue south and 26th Street which was dedicated in 1985 as Herman Melville Square. This is where Melville lived from 1863 to 1891.
A giant species of sperm whale was named in honor of Melville. Livyatan melvillei was discovered by paleontologists who were fans of Moby-Dick. I suppose it is a kind of sad irony that this species is extinct.