Herman Melville: Nantucket’s First Tourist?

Sometime near sunset on Tuesday, 6 July 1852, the sidewheel steamer Massachu­setts churned into Nantucket harbor. Stand­ing on her deck was a young man who had never seen the island before. True, he had served as a harpooneer on board the Nan­tucket whaleship Charles and Henry, and had read such classics of Nantucket literature as Owen Chase’s Narrative of the Loss of the Whale Ship Essex of Nantucket, William Lay and Cyrus Hussey’s Narrative of the Globe Mutiny, and Obed Macy’s History of Nantucket. He had even written a rather long book about Nantucket whaling himself- Moby­Dick. But thissummereveningin 1852 marked Herman Melville’s first glimpse of Nantucket, the “ant-hill int he sea” that had long captured his imagination.

When Captain Edward Barker had seen the Massachusetts made fast to the wharf and her gangplank lowered, Melville disembarked with his two companions:

Lemuel Shaw, his father-in-law and Chief Justice of the Su­preme Court of Massachusetts, and John Henry Clifford, a prominent New Bedford law­yer and Attorney General for Massachusetts. Shaw and Clifford were traveling to Nan­tucket on business. Just as today’s Superior Court justices periodically hold court on the island, so too Judge Shaw was required lo hear Nantucket cases at regular intervals. At­torney Clifford had come to represent various clients in court, and perhaps to do a little campaigning, for Clifford was running for governor on the Whig ticket.

It’s ironic that this former whaleman, the author of Moby­-Dick, was arguably Nantucket’s first tourist- the first to visit the island for rest and relax­ation, and to enjoy her historic sites. As the three men made their way to their night’s lodgings (probably Ocean House, a hotel then belonging to the steamship line, and today privately owned and known as the Jared Coffin House), they may have noticed that the island’s streets seemed unusually quiet. That week the editor of the Nantucket Mirror complained bitterly about “the mass exodus of citizens to the mainland” to “enjoy independence day abroad and make a pleas­ant excursion.” School had been let out to “enable teachers and scholars to avail them­selves of the benefit of a trip to Hyannis,”and Fi re Companies #6 and #8 had gone to march in a parade in New Bedford. In an era when people left Nantucket for “social enjoyment and the benefit to the health from a change of scenery,” Melville may have been the first to travel to the island for those advantages. Still, the grumbling Mirror editor foresaw a lime when things might be different:

“It Might be well for the town on some future year to provide a celebration of the fourth of July at home; that we might not only enjoy the occasion ourselves, but attract visi­tors to the island, to spend some of their funds here … A little more enterprise in such matters would do no injury to the interest or reputa­tion of our ancient town.”

On the following morning.July 7th, Judge Shaw repaired lo his courtroom. He was to heart he complaint of one Nancy B. Wheldon, a woman deserted by her husband Thomas, who had “committed the crime of Adultery with divers lewd women to your petitioner unknown.” Nancy wanted a divorce and a suitable maintenance, but she and Thomas may have kissed and made up before the trial, as no notice was given, and Shaw ordered the case discontinued. The other fourteen cases on the docket that day involved dull disputes over deeds, insurance, inheritances, and bankruptcies. Judge Shaw made his decisions with great rapidity.and after just two hours in court was ready to rejoin his son-in-law.

We don’t know what Herman Melville did on thatJuly morning while the Chief Justice was in court. Perhaps he merely slept late, or perhaps he went with his father-in-law to hear the day’s caseload. Maybe he lin­gered over breakfast and read the Nantucket papers. lf he did, he would have seen Judge Shaw criticized i.n the Mirror, a news­paper opposed to capital pun­ishment, for sentencing a mur­derer to death by hanging. He might have read about a star­tling new invention, an electric harpoon powered by a hand­cranked battery and capable of electrocuting sharks and pilot whales. He could have perused the emotional editorials about slavery and glanced at articles about the nation’s eagerness to exploit its western territories. In July 1852, the United States had troops in the Isthmus of Panama to protect this overland shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and planned to spend thirty million dollars on the construction of a transcontinental railroad. Settlers greedy for California gold were deci­mating Indian populations. “Humanity may mourn; but the march of the pioneer of a system will still be onward … ” proclaimed the Mirror.

If Melville went for a walk, he may have stopped to browse at a bookstore on the corner of Main and Orange streets where Mitchell’s Book Corner stands today. The
proprietor would have known him, having advertised in the past-“New novel by Herman Melville. Redburn, his first Voyage; being the Sailor Boy Confessions and Remi­niscences of the son of a Gentleman, in the Merchant service,just rec’d … ” Or perhaps he shopped for a souvenir for his wife Elizabeth. Nantucket’s stores were well supplied with fur caps, cashmere and Bay State shawls, boas and muffets, French kid slippers, plain and rich chintz, printed muslins,silks,chemizetts, and lace-trimmed sleeves to match. Nostalgia for his days at sea may have drawn Melville to the docks, where he would have found whole­sale dealers in copper, cordage, duck, and chains; purveyors of London and Liverpool chronometers and other fine nautical instru­ments; and manufacturers of sperm, lard, and whale oil.

However Melville spent the morning, he rejoined his father-in-law at noon to “dine with a friend,” commonly held to be Thomas Macy. A former postmasterof Nantucket and a prosperous importer and manufacturer of sperm oil, Macy was intensely active in island politics. The son of Nantucket historian Obed Macy, Thomas had a gift for public speaking, and was much in demand as the presiding officer at town meetings and other public assemblies. Macy and Shaw had met on many previous occasions and Melville owned a copy of Obed Macy’s History of Nantucket person­ally inscribed to him by Thomas. Melville had cited the book in Moby-Dick, where he refers to “the worthy Obed.” Thomas Macy must have appreciated the young author’s enthusiasm for his father’s work. Without unduly stretchingavailable evidence, we may assume that the three men dined companion­ably in Macy’s elegant home at 99 Main Street.

After dinner, they rode “to Siasconset, & various parts of the island.” Sankaty Bluff, with its attractive lighthouse newly con­structed in 1849, made a particular impres­sion on Melville, and his literary imagination began to work on a story about a lighthouse keeper’s daughter named Agatha. She would rescue and tenderly nurse a shipwrecked sailor, and they would be married and have a daughter. Then, the husband would go to sea, and Agatha would await his return for seven­teen years, only to find that in the interval he had married another woman and had chil­dren by her as well. The story would be based on an actual case recounted to Melville by lawyer John Clifford on their Nantucket visit, and would be filled with Melville’s admira­tion for “the great patience, & endurance, & resignedness of the women of the island in submitting so uncomplainingly to the long, long absences of their sailor husbands.” Agatha was not to be a merely passive heroine, how­ever. She would be “learned” in maritime matters and “active during the wreck,” her lover’s “saviour” when his ship is driven onto Nantucket shoals in a great storm. Sankaty Bluff would form a dramatic setting for such a story, and in an August 1852 letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville describes it in detail:

“The afternoon is mild & warm. The sea with an air of solemn deliberation, with an elaborate deliberation, ceremo­niously rolls upon the beach. The air is suppressedly charged with the sound of long lines of surf. There is no land over against this cliff short of Europe & the West Indies. Young Agatha … comes wandering along the cliff. She marks how the continual assaults of the sea have undermined it; so that the fences fall over, and have need of many shiftings inland. The sea has encroached also upon that part where their dwelling-house stands near the light-house. Filled with meditations, she reclines along the edge of the cliff and gazes out seaward … , Suddenly she catches the long shadow of the cliff cast upon the beach 100 feet beneath her. It is cast by a sheep from the pasture. It has advanced to the very edge of the cliff, and is sending a mild, innocent glance far out upon the water. Here, in strange and beautiful contrast, we have the innocence of the land placidly eyeing the malignity of the sea.”

Nantucket readers would like nothing better than a Herman Melville story about the Sankaty lighthouse-keeper’s daughter, but the fate of the Agatha tale remains a mystery. We know that Melville planned the story care­fully, for he wrote three long letters to Hawthorne about it in 1852 and obtained john Clifford’s notes on the case. And we know that he intended to write the story, for after an autumn 1852 visit to Hawthorne in Concord, Melville told his friend that he in­tended to begin it “immediately upon reach­ing home,” and asked Hawthorne to “breathe a fair wind” upon the endeavor. Family let­ters tell us that Melville wrote steadily through­out the winter and spring of 1853, and, by late May, had completed a manuscript he called The Isle of the Cross, a work believed to be the Nantucket story, almost certainly a novel. Later that spling he apparently submitted his work to Harper Brothers for publication, but, for reasons unknown, “was prevented from printing” it. The reasons must have been compelling, for Melville never again attempted to publish The Isle of the Cross. Today, the whereabouts of his Nantucket novel are un­known. The manusclipt may have been lost or destroyed after Melville’s death or even duling his lifetime, but it’s prettier to think that the yellowing, hand-written pages sur­vive in an old trunk in some dusty attic, waiting to be discovered.

After their excursicH around the island, Melville and judge Shaw “passed the evening with Mr. Mitchell the astronomer, and his celebrated daughter, the discoverer of com­ets.” Mr. Mitchell, of course, was William Mitchell, cashier (a position equivalent to president) of the Pacific National Bank, former president of the Nantucket Atheneum, and Fellow of Harvard College. His celebrated daughter, Maria Mitchell, was a talented as­tronomer and mathematician in her own right, and had in 184 7 astonished the world by discovering a telescopic comet, winning a gold medal from the King of Denmark and becoming the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

As far as William and Maria Mitchell were concerned, Chief justice Shaw was their most notable guest that evening. They might have asked him about his role in a sensational Boston trial of 1850, when chemistry profes­sor john Webster was found guilty of murder­ing a prominent citizen named Parkman, hang­ing his body from grapples in a locked vault, and gradually disposing of the bits and pieces in a laboratory furnace. Or they might have asked about his 1851 walk through a furious, stone-flinging mob to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act in the Sims trial, for despite his personal abhorrence of slavery, Shaw believed (prophetically) that without the rule of law dissent over slavery could plunge the country into civil war. Or the Mitchells might have chosen to discuss science with Shaw. Like Maria, he was a Fellow of the American Acad­emy of Arts and Sciences, and he had pub­lished papers in the Academy’s proceedings on subjects suchascamphene, a burning fluid expected to replace sperm oil.

In fact, Shaw’s fame overshadowed Melville’s for many years. Because the judge’s long career coincided with the Industrial Revo­lution in Massachusetts, his decisions deeply influenced commercial law in the United States, and in a 1918 biography of Shaw, his now renowned son-in-law is mentioned in just two sentences and a footnote carefully explaining that “Herman Melville was an au­thor of considerable ability.” Yet, although Melville was unknown to many of his con­temporaries, the Mitchells would have been familiar with his talents, and perhaps able to draw him into discussion. The Nantucket Atheneum owned a copy of his Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, and William Mitchell, who was interested in the South Seas, might have asked Melville about his sojourn with a canni­bal tribe in the Marquesas. The Nantucket newspapers had reviewed Omoo and Redburn, and Maria Mitchell may have purchased a copy of Moby-Dick for the Atheneum during her tenure as librarian.

We can only speculate about what might have been discussed that evening in the Mitchell’s living quarters at the Pacific Na­tional Bank, but one thing is certain. Unless it was raining or foggy, father and daughter took Melville and Shaw to their makeshift observatory on the roofof the bank for a view of the stars, a treat they characteristically extended to distinguished guests. After a similar visit, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in  his diary, “In William Mitchell’s observatory I saw a nebula in Cassiopeia, the double stars at the pole, the double stars of Zeta Ursi.”

Although they met only this once, Melville would re­member Maria Mitchell, a dark-eyed, handsome woman almost exactly his own age, for the rest of his life. Sometime between 1886 and 1891, the year of his deal h, he wrote a very strange poem titled “After the Plea­sure Party” and told in the voice of a woman astrono­mer. Melville had been re­cently reminded of Mitchell by Julian Hawthorne’s biog­raphy of his parents, Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife, a book which mentions the astronomer’s long so­journ with the Hawthorne family in Italy, and her celi­bate career as a professor of astronomy at Vassar College. While “After the Pleasure Party” has little to do with the actual life of Maria Mitchell, Melville clearly identified with her sacrifice of sexual fulfillment for sci­ence, and her voice becomes a vehicle for his own despair over a life he believed wasted in the pursuit of a madden­ingly elusive literary fame:

“And kept I long heaven’s watch fort his, Con­temning love, for this, even this? O terrace chill in Northern air, o reaching, ranging tube I placed Against yon skies, and fable chased Till, fool, I hailed for sister there Starred Cassiopeia in Golden Chair. In dream I throned me, nor I saw In cell the idiot crowned with straw.”

The next day, Melville’s last on Nantucket, was also full, spent in “various calls&: visits.” Judge Shaw recorded the most important visit-“Amongst others met with Captain Pol­lard, who was master of the whale ship Essex, whale for the climactic final chapter of Moby­-Dick.

“Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal mal­ice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s star­board bow, till men and timbers reeled. Some fell fiat upon their faces. Like dislodged trucks, the heads ofharpooneers aloft shook on their bull-like necks. Through the breach, they heard the waters pour, as mountain torrents down a flume.

What happened when Herman Melville met Captain Pollard, whose unhappy history he had recounted in Chapter 45 of Moby-Dick? According to the author, they simply “exchanged some words.” Melville could hardly have invoked this elderly man’s nightmarish memories by asking him about the loss of the Essex, about his three-month ordeal in an open boat, about the drawing of lots, about consuming his murdered nephew’s flesh to save his own life. Nor could Melville have asked Pollard about the loss of his second command, the ship Two Brothers, smashed on French Frigate Shoals somewhere west of the Sandwich Islands. But Melville did call on Pollard, perhaps in the parlor of his little house at 46 Cent re Street, now the Seven Seas Gift Shop. The ill-fated cap­tain had long ago given up the sea to become a night watchman on Nantucket wharves, but while “to the islanders he was a nobody,” to Melville he seemed “the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble that I ever encoun­tered.” Later Melville would write about Pollard in a poem called “Clarel.”

At ten o’clock on Friday morning, 9 July 1852, the steamer Massachusetts cast free from her moorings, car­rying Herman Melville away from his first and last visit to Nantucket. Together with Judge Shaw, he was bound for another three days of rest and relaxation on Martha’s Vineyard, and a crossing by sailboat to Naushon. The trip to Nantucket had been a suc­cess. According to Shaw, “Melville expressed himself extremely well pleased with the excursion, he saw many things &: met with many people, whom he was extremely glad to see.” Or, as Melville himself described his vacation in the islands, scribbling in a guest register at Naushon-“Blue sky-blue sea-&: almost everything blue but our spirits.”


This article is from the Fall 1991 issue of Historic Nantucket. 

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

> >