Two sorts of books feature “secret” in the title. The first reveals the mysterious in the familiar, while the second simplifies the enigmatic. If the first explores the uncanny, the return of the repressed, the second fixes on conspiracy, the hidden cause of history’s ambiguities. Victoria Nelson’s “The Secret Life of Puppets,” enthralling, instances the first. The second is exemplified by Michael Shelden’s reductive “Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick.”
Shelden believes the most “enduring influence on Melville’s life, a muse as well as a lover,” was Sarah Morewood, a married, high-spirited flirt who summered in the Berkshires mansion that the author’s uncle once owned. Rowland Morewood, a well-to-do New York City merchant, had bought the 250-acre property in Pittsfield expressly to please his nature-loving, poetry-writing wife.
Sarah met Melville in the summer of 1850. He had traveled north from Manhattan to visit his cousin and escape the heat. To a woman who confessed to hating “the iron rule[s]” of polite society, this former sailor of perilous seas and beholder of unclad Polynesians was irresistible.
Unaccompanied by their spouses, Melville and Sarah enjoyed Pittsfield social events together, including a Christmas celebration during which she crowned him with a laurel wreath; a costume party where both dressed as sexed-up characters from Humphry Clinker; and a group campout on Greylock Mountain. Melville also shared an amorously playful correspondence with Sarah, and he gifted her with a Dryden collection in which he marked an erotic passage. And in 1850, the author purchased a farm near the Morewood property. He and his family lived there until 1862.
From these facts Shelden fabricates his secret narrative: Herman’s romance with Sarah animated “Moby-Dick” and the novel that followed, “Pierre.”
Shelden can verify neither love affair nor literary influence, however, since his evidence is entirely circumstantial.
At times he responsibly confines his claims to the possible. “Perhaps” Melville was thinking of Sarah monopolizing his gaze when he noted how a single hedge can obstruct a wide vista.
But all too frequently, Shelden commits what Alistair Fowler calls “the fatal switch from subjunctive to indicative.” Melville’s “romance with Sarah” fired the “imagination and ambition” behind “Moby-Dick.” “Pierre” explains how his passion for Sarah “abruptly caused him to settle in the Berkshires, sent him deeply into debt, [and] strained his marriage.”
Emboldened by his leaps from speculation to declaration, Shelden even suggests Melville was the father of two of Sarah’s children.
Shelden diminishes genius to bodice-ripping. This happens when you conflate life and art. While certainly the artist’s life affects his art, art is not simply biography. Among multitudinous other things, art is, the Ishmael of Melville surmises, a fathoming of “the ungraspable phantom of life.”
Eric G. Wilson is author of “Keep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life” and “How to Make a Soul: The Wisdom of John Keats.”
Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick
By: Michael Shelden.
Publisher: Ecco, 271 pages, $25.99.