Herman Melville: Neighbor

Thanks to John D. Larson, Swann’s 19th & 20th Century Literature Specialist, for contributing this post:

It’s a fine thing (call it geographic serendipity) to share a similar address with someone who remains unchallenged as the writer of the Great American Novel. In fact, those of us who find ourselves toiling at Swann as literature specialists (just me, as it happens) find ourselves giving a nod to this, each time we pass it:

A check of the address listed on it, and the mailing address for Swann, will confirm that Melville’s row-house was just one block up from Swann (we’re on 25th Street) at the same 104 number. A long sea-cast from my office window on sturdy line over the 69th Regiment Armory might make it there.

The sign proclaims that Billy Budd was written here, and regrettably assigns the implied diminutive of “among other works.” Those other works include some of the most compelling works of the latter half of the 19th century including Battle Pieces, an equal to Whitman’s Specimen Days, and the lovely slim bouquet of poems he wrote for his wife Elizabeth at the end of his life, Weeds & Wildings.

Much has been made about Melville’s eventual bitterness and obligation due to economic necessity into humping the daily grind of a day job, but he never stopped writing. For those of the Shakespeare Squadron, true despair means silence, and Melville was anything but (see his epic Clarel). And though Moby-Dick was not written at his New York home, it still seems appropriate enough to acknowledge Melville’s close ties between our respective locales: the house where he lived for 30 years just yonder up the road, and the house offering his best-known work at auction.