Melville in Love, written by Michael Shelden, is a reexamination of Herman Melville’s arduous struggle to write a bestselling novel—one which could restore his insufficient bank funds and enable him to remain in his beloved Berkshires. The book was Moby Dick, written in 1851, at the height of Melville’s obsession with his Berkshire neighbor, Mrs. Sarah Morewood. Herman Melville became entranced with Morewood at first meeting—not uncommon, given that Mrs. Morewood was a flirt and men often fell hard for her beauty, independence and forthright attitude. However, as Shelden very adroitly shows us, Melville’s passion led to his ultimate downfall. He risked close personal relationships, money, and critical acclaim chasing life with a married woman he could never be with openly.
Shelden refers to Sarah Morewood as Melville’s muse and even suggests that one or two of her children may have been fathered by Herman Melville. Their secret, longstanding affair was undiscovered by contemporaries and modern critics alike until author Michael Shelden put the pieces together. Shelden does an admirable job of showing how the lovers used amorous messages hidden in literary references to express their passion. This is demonstrated in the marked copy of John Dryden’s Poetical Works Melville sent to Sarah, highlighted in Melville in Love. Sarah behaved similarly, once donning a costume reminiscent of Aunt Tabitha, a Tobias Smollett character, foul-mouthed and sex-obsessed, for a party she once hosted. Herman and Sarah knew family, friends and community members would not be savvy enough to pick up on literary references, though some, such as neighbor Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and publisher Evert Duyckinck may have wondered at the nature of their relationship.
The world, as a whole, was fooled however. The main focus remained on Herman’s writing, which had become disappointing. Readers never warmed to the story of Moby Dick and Melville’s following novel, Pierre, had readers and critics alike thinking he’d gone insane. In fact, as Shelden shows us, the novel was, in fact, a veiled portrait of the romantic relationship wreaking havoc on his personal life and sending the writer into depression.
Shelden has done an excellent job of relating the scandalous story and proving its’ truth. He implements knowledge of other notables’ research, as well as factual evidence from the lives of Melville’s friends and community members to make a logical case for the ruinous affair. Shelden leaves the reader with a renewed interest in Herman Melville, and if not personal respect, at least admiration for Melville’s fervor, in regard to emotion and determination. The literary world can be thankful to Michael Shelden for uncovering the true man and circumstances behind one of the greatest novels ever written. His expose gives us a richer understanding of the phrase “lust for life” and allows a clear vision of how ambition drives the human race.