Updated: Mar 5, 2021
You will read this book for the same reason I did: you love Melville and will jump at the possibility of finding out any previously unrevealed nuance from the author's life. If you are not one of those so entranced by the 19th century romantic, you will likely pass this title over and probably should. It is a tangent. A vector born of a wild, romantic theory of forbidden love put together with scant historical evidence. For those who aren't familiar with the author's life, it could boldly lead you to believe every detail. But for those who know Melville's story, it is both polarizing and irresistible. It is a brash theory, but for every scholar that would scoff at the idea of such conjecture, there isn't one that can prove that this relationship did not happen. Therefore, like all theories, it has its right to the open air. And the romantic air of the Berkshires is always refreshing.
Melville in Love uncompromisingly boasts the idea that Melville not only had an affair with Sarah Morewood but goes on to suggest that this relationship was primary in his life. Of course, it suggests it has also obtained the Holy Grail, which every Melville scholar dreams of finding: "The Muse of Moby Dick."
The author, Michael Sheldon, has a knack for digging up old letters and finding previously unciphered meaning. His biography on George Orwell in 1991 was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was based on 10 letters. Melville in Love is based on six, all of them from Melville to Mrs. Morewood. They are lavish letters, indeed, and are exceptional. There is a playfulness to the prose, a wordy dance between two young adventurers that seems to veil a deeper meaning.
The work is fast-paced. Sheldon ends each chapter with a hook into the next. "The fact that another woman had already found him and married him was inconvenient, but it wouldn't stop her." Like a wise boxer, he flurries just before the bell to win rounds with the reader and keep the next chapter coming. His use of quotes is also well-placed and humorous. He ends chapter seven with a description of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., "Virile in strength, yet bashful as a girl,/ Prouder than Hester, sensitive as Pearl."
Mr. Sheldon is obviously smitten with the Berkshires. He is full of spirit when describing the setting of Broadhall, its lake, and the ominous Mt. Greylock. It is a potent character in the story, the well of Herman's youthful memories and a passionate playground for the thrill-seeking Sarah Morewood.
Sheldon's real triumph though is resurrecting Morewood. Digging up her letters from the basement of Arrowhead, he has given new life to a forgotten figure in Berkshire lore. And, for that he should be commended. For 13 years she was a social force to be reckoned with in the Berkshires. An independent spirit, she rode the countryside as well as any man. She was unusual in her day and fought the restrictions of society, earning the hearts of many men and the ire of many "ladies." She was forthright in her letters and bold in her speech. Caroline Whitmarsh wrote that Sarah had inspired "men of genius," and went on to say about her, "there is a genius that rears temples and writes epics; there is a better genius that makes all earth its temple, and all existence special. Such had Mrs. Morewood." From Sheldon's prose we see her as a great beauty but not the garden variety. A fierce-eyed woman that could compel, frighten, and seduce with uncanny grace. On top of that she was intellectually curious and quick-witted. If her life had not been cut short, it is thrilling to think what she might herself have written. Her penmanship was so unique, so original; it surely came from a fiery, determined soul that one would easily guess could have drawn Melville in.
Today, her tombstone has fallen into disrepair. The stone has broken in two and the top is resting against the base. Her home, Broadhall, is now a country club. A golf course meanders through the hills and forests, then along a lake that still bares her name. Sheldon has given her life again. We see much more into her than we do the often opaque Melville.
Biographies of Melville can be stiff stuff to digest. Delbanco's Melville: His World and Work is academic and determined to place the writer into the broader context of society. Hershel Parker's tome is treasured but laborious for those not completely obsessed with Melville. Leon Howard gave a nice account in his biography of Melville. In it we could feel the man behind the books with greater ease than most and without the weight of a century worth of socioeconomics thrown in. Edwin Miller, in his 1975 work, believed Melville had a relationship with Hawthorne. Many scholars have gone down that rabbit hole just as eagerly as Mr. Sheldon has with Mrs. Morewood.
The strongest evidence Sheldon gives is this: Melville and Morewood lived next to each other for 13 years. Melville moved there at the same time she did and moved away right after her death. Six letters from Melville to Morewood were lavish in the praise of her beauty, once describing her as a "goddess." Melville and Morewood camped together on Mount Greylock without either one's spouse. Also there, however, was Herman's younger brother, Evert and George Duyckinck, and a friend of Sarah's.
From these bits Sheldon extrapolates an entire book of suggestion. Sarah was the muse of Moby Dick and the lusty Isabel in Melville's Pierre. And, he may be right. Certainly, the dates match up. And it is true that Melville was no farmer. It explains the abrupt move to Pittsfield better than the idea that he was following Hawthorne, who was six miles away in Lenox and who only lived in the area little over a year. There indeed is a trail, made by Herman, that leads from his estate, Arrowhead, to Mrs. Morewood's Broadhall. Pierre did fight a war between the goody-goody, safe girl and the taboo heat of the raven-locked Isabel. Herman's volatile relationship with Lizzie has also been well documented. But so far, there just isn't enough to show to make the theory of this wild love affair more than that, just a theory.