Herman Melville in Schenectady (History)

by Neil Yetwin

The name of Herman Melville continues to retain the power to evoke images of New England whalers plying the South Seas, of desperate mutinies aboard British naval vessels, and of the epic pursuit of an elusive white whale. Yet Melville’s life prior to his attaining an honored place in American letters was anything but adventurous, marked as it was more by personal loss and financial instability than by any literary success. It was during those uncertain early years that the future author of Moby Dick and his lesser-known elder brother Gansevoort both had brief associations with the city of Schenectady.

Herman Melville by Joseph EatonHerman Melville was born in New York City in 1819 to Allan and Maria Melville, both of whom came from prominent families. Melville’s paternal grandfather had participated in the Boston Tea Party; his maternal grandfather General Peter Gansevoort commanded Ft. Stanwix during the American Revolution. When Allan Melville’s import concern failed, the family was forced to move to a rented house in Albany, and there he tried to establish a cap and fur business. In 1831 Herman and Gansevoort were enrolled at Albany Academy until their father died insane and near-bankrupt a year later. Forced to leave school, the brothers tried to maintain the family business until their uncle Peter Gansevoort intervened and got Herman a position as a clerk at Albany’s New York State Bank. The 13-year-old worked six days a week filing, copying and running errands for $150 a year.

Over the next three years, Herman proved to be such a reliable and hardworking employee that he and fifteen-year-old fellow-clerk Frederick Leake were entrusted to go to Schenectady and conduct business with the newly-chartered Schenectady Savings Bank at 29 State Street. Unfortunately, Herman neglected to inform his family about the trip; eighteen-year-old Gansevoort, who was always protective of his younger brother, only learned about the odyssey after the fact and became so concerned that he borrowed a horse and rode to Schenectady to locate him. Gansevoort had good reason to worry. The two teenagers had taken the “De Witt Clinton”, the first train to run in New York State. Its half-dozen open cars were simply refitted stagecoaches in which three riders sat inside and two sat in “rumble seats” on the roof. Each passenger was given an umbrella which afforded little protection from the locomotive’s black smoke and burning embers; sometimes the metal strips fastened to the crude wooden rails separated and broke through the cars’ floors, maiming or even killing passengers. On March 7, 1834, Gansevoort wrote this entry in his diary:

“This afternoon at ½ after 3 o’clock started for Schenectady (to see Hiram Haight) on horseback, accompanied by Aly Bradford…I was very much surprised to meet brother Herman in the barroom at Davis’ in company with Frederick Leake, and at first could not imagine the reason of his being there, but on reflection saw that the bank must have sent them over, on enquiry I found my opinion confirmed – They came over in the afternoon car and were unable to return that eve’g there being no cars.”

Scholars believe that this was Herman Melville’s very first railroad trip.

Schenectady Lower State Street
Early map of lower State Street in Schenectady

The “De Witt Clinton” made three daily trips from Albany to Schenectady at 6:00 AM, 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM, and five runs from Schenectady to Albany, the last one departing at 4:00 PM. It appears that the two teenagers had taken the 4:00 PM run to Schenectady, unaware that there would be no return until the next day. Hiram Haight operated a hatting business at 105 State Street, and Gansevoort’s diary indicates that he and Haight were acquainted professionally. The “bar-room at Davis’” was attached to “Crane & Davis” at 154 State Street, which specialized in “grocery, provisions, liquors & wine.” Its co-owner, Harvey Davis was one of the Schenectady Savings Bank’s trustees, and he may have put up the Melville brothers and Leake that night in his home just a few doors down at 166 State Street.

Dewitt Clinton train

Herman was able to return to Albany Academy in 1835 until the Panic of 1837, forcing the family into final bankruptcy and into another rented house, this time in Lansingburgh. Gansevoort read law while Herman studied surveying at Lansingburgh Academy and taught school near Lenox, Massachusetts until 1841. Gansevoort secured him a position on the whaler “Acushnet”, and over the next three years Herman deserted two whalers, participated in a mutiny, lived among cannibals in French Polynesia, farmed in Tahiti (where he had been imprisoned for the mutiny but escaped),eventually making his way to Honolulu. There he joined the American Navy until he was discharged, returned to Lansingburgh, and completed the manuscript for his first book, Typee.

Gansevoort had since become a popular orator, speaking throughout Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and New York State in support of the expansionist policies of Presidential candidate James K. Polk. He had already appeared at eight rallies in as many days from Buffalo to Utica until finally arriving at Schenectady. On Friday, October 11, 1844 the Schenectady Reflector announced in bold print that “GANSEVOORT MELVILLE” who had already “won laurels as an eloquent and powerful speaker”, would be addressing a Democratic rally at the Court House on October 17th.

The October 25th Reflector reported that despite the inclement weather, the rally “quite exceeded our expectations.” Judge Alonzo Paige, chairman of the Schenectady County Democratic Committee, introduced Melville, who was “greeted with an enthusiastic and hearty welcome” from the large crowd.

Melville “held captive the minds of his audience” for more than two hours on the political and military necessity of annexing and occupying Texas and Oregon, and warning against England “insidiously attempting to check our territorial expansion.” New York Lt. Governor Daniel Dickinson followed Melville with similar remarks until Judge Platt Potter thanked the speakers “amid tremendous cheers” and adjourned the meeting “with high hopes and in excellent spirits.” Gansevoort went on to speak at Troy, Waterford and Albany before returning to his home in New York City on October 22nd. When Polk was elected President, Gansevoort’s reward was being named Secretary of the American Legation in London. It was there that he secured the publication rights for Herman’s Typee, which had been rejected by every American publishing house. Tragically, Gansevoort died in London of cerebral anemia on May 12, 1846, just two months after Wiley & Putnam of New York published Typee in America. His body was shipped home and interred at Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands.

Typee was an immediate sensation, with positive reviews and excerpts published in New York, Philadelphia, New Haven, London, Paris, Dublin and Honolulu, as well as local coverage in the Albany Evening Journal and Albany Argus. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman and Margaret Fuller all praised the book in glowing terms, its only detractors coming from the ranks of Christian clergymen who were offended by Melville’s respect for indigenous religions and his biting criticisms of missionary activities in the Pacific Islands. The New York Evangelist, for example, suggested that Typee should only be read by those who enjoy “theatres, opera-dances, and voluptuous prints.” Some of those reviews were so inflammatory that an anonymous U.S. State Department functionary borrowed the Library of Congress’ copy of Typee, leaving the ominous notation, “For examination.” Nevertheless, the Young Men’s Associations of Schenectady, Albany and Troy all invited its young author to speak in their respective cities in the fall of 1846. Unfortunately, Melville was reluctant at that point to go on the lecture circuit and declined all three invitations.

Moby Dick

By 1850 Melville and his family were settled at “Arrowhead”, a homestead in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was there he completed Moby Dick which was published in 1851 to mixed reviews. Still unable to support his family by his writing, he finally took to the lecture circuit from 1857 to 1860, speaking about “The South Seas”, “Traveling” and “Statues of Rome” throughout the Midwest , New York State, and once in Montreal. The closest he came to returning to Schenectady during this period was when he spoke in Saratoga in December 1857.

In debt and behind in his mortgage payments, Melville left “Arrowhead” and worked as a deputy customs inspector in New York City until his death from heart disease on September 28, 1891, just 6 years after retiring. In the decade following the centennial of his birth, Moby Dick was finally recognized as a masterpiece in the same league as Homer’s Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno.

It is almost certain that the later literary success of that 14-year-old bank clerk who once sought warmth and shelter at Crane & Davis’ Schenectady bar-room was due in no small part to the devotion of his unsung older brother who 10 years later had so eloquently captivated his audience at the Schenectady County Court House.

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Howell, George R. and Jonathan Tenney, editors. History of the County of Schenectady, New York, from 1662 to 1886. New York: W.W. Munsell & Co., 1886.

Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville 1819-1891. 2 volumes. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Compay, 1951.

Monroe, Joel. Schenectady Ancient & Modern. Geneva, N.Y.: W.F. Humphrey, 1914.

Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: A Biography. 2 volumes. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Schenectady Directory and City Register For The Years 1841-42. Schenectady: Printed By J. & W.H. Riggs, 23 Union-Street, 1841. Reprint by John P. Papp Historical Publications, 1979.

Schenectady Reflector

Sealts, Merton M. Melville as Lecturer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957.

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