Melville’s Mighty Theme: A Visit to Herman Melville’s Home in Lansingburg, NY.

Melville’s Mighty Theme: A Visit to Herman Melville’s Home in Lansingburg, NY.

At Corinthian Hall, on February 18th, 1858, Herman Melville delivered a lecture — “Statues in Rome — to the Atheneum And Mechanics’ Association of Rochester for which he was paid fifty dollars. In 1846, Melville was also in Rochester to visit his friend, Richard Tobias Green, a native Rochestarian. During a voyage to the South Seas in 1841–2, Melville and Greene jumped ship in the Marquessas Islands; their voyage became the subject of Typee. In 1840, Melville traveled through Rochester  by canal boat on his way  Illinois to visit his uncle.

Rochester Daily Democrat (Rochester, New York) - November 20, 1851. ( The advertising notice naturally offered a praiseworthy account of the commercially unsuccessful Mob Dick.

Rochester Daily Democrat (Rochester, New York) – November 20, 1851. The advertising notice naturally offered a praiseworthy account of the commercially unsuccessful Moby-Dick. In January 1852, the Daily Democrat printed another favorable notice: “MOBY-DICK, or THE WHALE”—Is another attractive book, by Herman Melville, the popular author of “Omoo,” Typee,” and other well known works relating to Sea-Life. It is replete with wild adventures and thrilling scenes. Mr. Melville is a master, and a light, in that path of Romance in which he has chose to walk. His descriptions are graphic and complete, and are thoroughly imbued with that grace and charm which is a peculiarity of his genius. The work is dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne. (

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.

George Cassidy Payne

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.

Rochester Daily Democrat (Rochester, New York) - May 12, 1847 (

Rochester Daily Democrat – May 12, 1847.  As discussed by George, early reviews of Typee and Omoo focused on the manners and customs of the Polynesians.(

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

“A New York State historic marker commemorates the nine years that Herman Melville lived there and wrote his first two novels, Typee and Omoo. Melville was a graduate of The Lansingburgh Academy and taught in the area. The furnishings at the headquarters reflect the various architectural changes the building has undergone during its two centuries of existence. The society’s collections includes maps, photographs, diaries, business records, town and village records, and the Burleigh panoramic views.”

Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope. Herman Melville

In 1973 the society established “Melville Park” directly across First Avenue from the Melville House. The park is located on the site of the early 19th century shipyard of Richard Hanford.

Saturday, August 3, 2019 – Herman Melville Bicentennial Celebration – Details are still being worked out, but it will involve something very different for LHS, Stephen Collins portraying Herman Melville in the one-man play “Sailing Towards My Father.” It will be presented in the Gardner Earl Chapel in Oakwood Cemetery – a rare opportunity to see a play performed there. The amount requested will not be prohibitive – we hope you’ll attend, after all! There will also be refreshments, and a sale of reasonably-priced used Melville books.

The Melville House and Museum is located at 114th Street and 1st Avenue. Built in 1786 by Stephan Gorham, the first postmaster of Rensselaer County.

It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation. Herman Melville

A view of the Hudson from the front porch of Melville’s home. Is there some principal of nature which states that we never know the quality of what we have until it is gone? Herman Melville

The Hudson River behind Melville’s house. A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard. Herman Melville

View of Melville’s high school from the Oakwood Cemetery viewshed. Lansingburg High School also graduated U.S. President Chester Arthur.


Herman Melville in Rochester, 1840, 1846 and 1858

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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