As part of George Cassidy Payne’s ongoing literary tour of New York — including Mark Twain in Elmira, Rod Sterling in Binghamton, Michael Herr in Delhi, John Burroughs in Roxbury and Kurt Vonnegut in Schenectady and Troy. Today, George takes us to Lansingburg, site of Herman Melville’s home.
Melville’s Mighty Theme: A Visit to Herman Melville’s Home in Lansingburg, NY.
The career of Herman Melville fascinates me. His first two books were popularly read but did not make very much money. Published four years later in 1851, his magnum opus was Moby-Dick, a book that many consider to be “the great American novel.” However, when Melville wrote Moby-Dick he was struggling to make ends meat as an author. What should have been his big break turned out to be a complete disaster commercially. Even worse, the book was widely criticized by his peers, and for all intents and purposes it spelled the end of his notoriety as a professional writer.
Sadly, he would be forced to take a job as a U.S. Customs Inspector in New York City-a post that he held for 20 years. Although he wrote several more novels and worked on an epic poem for years, he eventually faded away from public view.
Thirty years after his death, a Melville revival took place. For the first time all of his works were being reread and reappraised. A writer who died in obscurity was suddenly being seen as an innovator of the fictional autobiographical genre and a master storyteller of romantic adventure.
It was during this revival that his saga of a sea captain battling a giant whale became a great metaphor for the conflict between nature and humans. It was also during this period when his first two books-namely Typee and Omoo, were read not just as interesting descriptions of island life in Polynesia, but as precursors to the most extraordinary novel of the 19th century. Indeed, these early works are more than just travel literature. They reveal an author with a unique gift for blending fiction, natural history, and anthropology. Melville exploited all of these elements to heroic effect in his masterpiece.
What I didn’t know is that Herman Melville lived for a time in the city of Troy, NY. It was here that he penned some of his earliest writings; these books may not have matched the quality of work which was to come, but they provided him a creative outlet for his many sea adventures, and they put his name out there in the literary world. What is more, they gave him the encouragement and motivation he needed to write Moby-Dick.
To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. — Herman Melville