In the summer of 1840, a twenty one year old Herman Melville quit his teaching post in Greenbush, New York after one term because he had not been paid. Idle, Melville and his friend James Murdock Frey left their upstate homes near Troy to journey to Galena, Illinois, seeking adventure and the help of Melville’s uncle to find them work.
Taking packet boats and trudging by foot along the Erie Canal, the two passed through Rochester. If the boom town left any impressions on Melville, he did not record them. Melville was more taken with Buffalo, strolling Canal Street with its bustling Lake Erie and Erie Canal traffic. Its smaller eastward cousin on Lake Ontario overlooked, Buffalo even appears in Moby-Dick as the “land-locked heart of our America.”Not finding suitable employment in Illinois, upon his return to New York, Melville signed aboard the whaler Acushnet as a “Boy” for 1/175th of the voyage’s profit: thus beginning his oceanic voyages that became the scenes for most of his fictions.
Six years later in July 1846 — this time travelling by train — Melville returned to Rochester for a more memorable occasion: reuniting with Richard Tobias “Toby” Greene who had come forth to authenticate Melville’s recently published first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life.
In July 1842, while whaling on the Acushnet, Melville and Toby — from Rochester — deserted or “jumped ship” in the South Pacific Marquesas Islands, spending a month on the island of Nuku Hiva where Melville closely observed Polynesian customs, including cannibalism. (Although the Typee natives who captured Melville did eat inhabitants of a neighboring valley, Melville and Toby were reassured that they would not be eaten.)
Based on Melville and Toby’s actual experiences — with imaginative reconstruction and adaptation of material from other books — Typee was widely popular, drawing critical acclaim in England and the United States, eliciting comparisons with Daniel Defoe’s classic travel and adventure narrative Robinson Crusoe.
At the same time, as explained by Wilson Hefflin in Melville’s Whaling Years (2004), despite its praiseworthiness, many contemporary critics raised the issue of Typee‘s authenticity. Hefflin writes, “Had Melville’s first book been published as a novel, a tale of romance, rather than as a factual travel book, contemporary readers would have had no reason to be incredulous.”
Melville was indignant by charges against his veracity. But, as Hefflin says, it was Melville’s word against the critics. Suddenly, Richard Tobias Greene — Melville’s fellow deserter and lone eyewitness — dramatically appeared — or reappeared.
Details on Toby’s date place of birth are sketchy; he was probably born in Dublin, Ireland but may have been born in Rochester or immigrated to the city as a young child. According to Toby’s obituary, in Rochester he took public school and academic courses. Later, Toby studied law in Canandaigua, NY with the well known attorney John Canfield Spencer, also a former Congressman and Secretary of War. Toby was admitted to the bar, but before practicing law, went to sea on the Acushnet.
As described by the Democrat and Chronicle‘s Jim Memmott, “A high seas mutiny with a Canandaigua connection,” Spencer’s son, Philip, was executed in 1842 for plotting a mutiny while a sailor on the USS Somers. In a literary/historical coincidence, Philip became the model for Billy Budd in Melville’s posthumously published novel. Both to be immortalized by Melville, quite possibly Toby and Philip knew each other in Rochester or Canandaigua as student and son respectively of the elder Spencer. We don’t know if Toby returned to Rochester or Canandaigua after his South Sea voyage, but by 1845 had established himself as a house and sign painter in Buffalo.
According to Hefflin, on April 9th, 1846 Toby read a review of Typee in the New York Evangelist, prompting a remarkable July 1 letter sent to The Buffalo Commercial Advertiser claiming he was the Toby of Typee and defending its accuracy. Apparently, not knowing how to find Melville, Toby wrote the letter as a means of contact. The tactic worked; Melville saw the letter the next day and soon arranged a rendezvous. On July 11th, Toby sent a second longer letter to the Commercial Advertiser entitled “Toby’s Own Story” and sometime between July 15th and July 22nd the two meet.
Though some speculate the meeting was in Buffalo where Toby lived, according to Melville’s biographer Herschel Parker, it was in Rochester, possibly at Toby’s Rochester family home. In an August 4th notice in the Albany Evening Journal editor Thurlow Weed — initially skeptical of the existence of Toby — locates the reunion in Rochester, saying the visit lasted two or three days.
A year or so later, Parker cites Weed review of Melville’s next book Omoo. Weed says:
These Marqesans adventurers [Melville and Toby] met subsequently in Rochester to assure themselves, as well a doubting public, of their respective identity and existence.”
According to Hefflin, no records have been found of what was discussed in Rochester, but apparently out of the conversation came a sixteen page sequel to Typee, “The Story of Toby,” later included in revised editions of the book. Exhilarated by seeing Toby again, Parker speculates Melville began composing “The Story” immediately on the train ride home.
We do know that Toby gave Melville a daguerreotype (or perhaps the image was made during the visit) and a lock of Toby’s hair that Melville called “those ebon curls.” Although not seeing each other again, Melville and Toby maintained a warm correspondence for many years.
11 years later in May 1857, Melville returned from a seven-month trip to Europe and the Levant including a stop in Italy. Under financial strain, Melville took advantage of the 19th century vogue for visiting lecturers and joined the lyceum circuit. In 28 cities, mostly across the northeast and Canada, from May 1857 – February 1858, Melville delivered “Statues in Rome” [from Melville as Lecturer (1957) by Merton M. Sealts, Jr. Scanned courtesy of the Robbins Library, University of Rochester].
Based on Melville’s observations of ancient Roman statuary, the lecture asked: “Can art, not life, make the ideal?” — in which Melville answered in the affirmative. The lectures proved less popular and remunerative than Melville hoped. According to Parker, income amounted to $645.00, which after subtracting $221.30 in travelling expenses, left a profit of $423.70, enough only to pay taxes and some debt.At Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, on February 18th, 1858, sponsored by the Atheneum and Mechanics’ Association, Melville presented “Statues in Rome”.
One of the pleasures of scholarship — amateur or professional — is following in the steps of previous researchers. Merton M. Sealt Jr.’s 1957 Melville as Lecturer is the most comprehensive account of Melville’s speaking career including the talk at Corinthian Hall.When searching for what little we know of Melville’s 1858 lecture, I trod along the same paths as did Sealts. As seen in the footnotes below, Sealts asked Rochester Public Librarians Miss Gladys E. Love and Miss Emma Swift to search the files of the Rochester Democrat and American and Union and Advertiser for advance notices and reviews. Today, our thanks go to Master Michael J. Nighan who dutifully scoured the microfilms, finding the same pieces. I also contacted Jody Sidlauskas, Associate Archivist at the Rochester Institute of Technology, holder of the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics’ Association collection. As Miss Love and Miss Swift also discovered, the 1858 RAMA Annual Report makes no mention of Melville. While the Democrat and American review praised Melville’s “mystic philosophy” and considered “Statues of Rome” proof of Melville’s aesthetic acumen, the overall tenor was negative. The lecture was boring. From the reviewers’ perspective, the mass of Rochester lecture goers knew little about ancient history and cared less for Melville’s musing on old monuments, dismissed much like Melville as “sermons in stones.” Mistaking his role as a “popular lecturer,” Melville “erred in his choice of a theme.” Finally, Melville was capable of “doing better.” As catalogued by Sealts, while quite a few adulatory reviews appeared in other venues, similar critiques were made. In some cities, Melville’s dramatic performance was panned; he spoke either too slowly, softly or in a monotone with too few theatrical flourishes. Similarly, other reviewers felt the lecture was highly commendable, but better suited as an essay. As in Rochester, a common refrain was the lecture was too remote, bookish or unattractive to the masses. The Boston Journal wanted something “more modern and personal.” Along those lines, the more caustic “Reporter” of the Bunker-Hill Aurora complained that except for a single bit of conversation which Melville had quoted, the “Reporter” would “hardly have guessed he [Melville] had ever been to Italy at all.” At the same time, a critic in Clarksville blamed not Melville but a provincial, popular taste incapable of responding on as a high level of culture as Melville’s subject and treatment demanded.
The next lyceum season — perhaps expediently yielding to the observation of the Rochester reviewer that Melville had erred in his choice of subject — Melville instead wrote and delivered, “The South Seas.” Melville realized his sea voyages and sea narratives — replete with sensational topics like tattooing, taboos and cannibalism — were more amenable to popular taste. Although he delivered “The South Seas” fewer times than “Statues of Rome” — and not in Rochester — Melville exceeded his previous take, clearing $518.50.
As far as determined, until now, Melville’s lecture at Corinthian Hall escaped the notice of local historians. In a piece on Corinthian Hall, rocwiki.org lists many luminaries who spoke at the hall: Frederick Douglass, Susan B Anthony, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, William H Seward, and William Lloyd Garrison. Today, we can add perhaps America’s greatest author.SEE ALSO Melville’s Mighty Theme: A Visit to Herman Melville’s Home in Lansingburg, NY.