Saturday, August 1, 2009

A tale of two sailors

Herman Melville was born August 1, 1819 in New York City, just over ten years after Poe's birth. The two would never cross paths but they certainly have connections. Both were under-appreciated during their lifetime, especially for works they were particularly proud of (Moby-Dick for Melville, Eureka: A Prose Poem for Poe, for example). Both made substantial enemies, both literary and personal, and died relatively miserable. Most importantly, both were interested in the sea.

Melville's connection to the ocean is more obvious than Poe's; Melville served as a sailor and for a time lived amongst a cannibalistic tribe — an experience which would inspire his popular book Typee. That particular voyage left from New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1841 — three years after Poe published his own novel featuring a character named Arthur Gordon Pym who takes to the sea and later finds himself among a cannibalistic tribe. The literary connections between Melville and Poe don't end there. Though speculative, it's all but certain that Melville's white whale was largely inspired by the symbolism of the color white in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Additionally, Poe and Melville were part of a subgenre of literature known as "Dark Romanticism" — a direct response to the Romantic movement's optimism and faith in the human experience (the third major Dark Romantic writer was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who easily connects to both Poe and Melville). I will be speaking about Poe's influence on Melville some time in September at New Bedford; date to be determined.

Perhaps ironically, August 1 has another interesting maritime connection. That date, in 1831, marked the death of William Henry Leonard Poe, the often-forgotten older brother of Edgar, who died of tuberculosis at age 24. In his short life, WHL Poe had traveled the world as a sailor. As a crewman aboard the frigate USS Macedonian, WHL Poe made it to South America, the West Indies, the Mediterranean, and Russia — all before the age of 20. When he returned to the United States, he became a writer (relatively unsuccessful; one notable work fictionalizes his younger brother's first true romance). After his death, WHL Poe was buried at Westminster Abbey in the Poe family plot (near where Edgar Poe was originally buried in 1849). Some say that the character of August Barnard in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym might have been inspired by WHL Poe.

RIP, William Henry Leonard Poe... and happy birthday, Melville. Smooth sailing to you both.

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