Thursday, May 13, 2010

Searching for Herman Melville

I have looked for the Pacific in New York grocery stores; on the walls of New York art museums; even in the comfort of my own New York home, watching movies about the Pacific on my laptop computer. And I have sure been reading a lot about the Pacific - piles of academic titles decorate our apartment floor. Still, I have not yet looked for the Pacific among New York's many historical sites. Are there any historic sites in NYC that speak to Pacific history?

My mind turned to Herman Melville this week. He was born (in 1819) and raised in New York City, and he, like me, spent at least some of his life (during his teenage years in the late 1830s) dreaming Pacific dreams while living a New York life. A lot of what Melville first learned about Oceania and about Pacific Islanders was from other Euro-Americans: from their published accounts of adventures and journeys in the "South Seas" and even from his own family members, some of whom had their own journeys in the Pacific that predated Herman's own Pacific explorations of 1841 to 1844. But for Melville pre-1841, the Pacific was not just stories, tall tales, and imagination. It was a tangible reality. It was tangible just blocks from his home in downtown New York - he heard it in the creaking sounds of boats docked in the harbor and in the chatter of voices of sailors coming in from the sea; he saw it in the commodities unloaded off ships and in the many-hued faces of sailors from around the world (including "kanakas": Pacific Islanders) who were in New York, be it for just a day or for months, between journeys. Something about New York harbor and its motley crew of characters attracted Melville...

View of New York Harbor from the Brooklyn Bridge

I decided to go on the search for Herman Melville's New York. I thus decided to look for the Pacific (its peoples, its commodities, its stories) in the place where Melville himself would have looked for it: where Manhattan island meets the sea.

Armed only with this fascinating guide from the American Academy of Poets (and you might also want this accompanying map which I discovered only after the fact) I set out, by bicycle, south to the harbor...

Typee, "Starbuck," and a very strange snack-stop

At first, I got a bit sidetracked. I stopped at Starbuck's for hot chocolate and coffee cake (surely not traditional mariners' food) and read a bit more of Melville's first novel, Typee, which I had started days before. I sat next to a window that looked out at Battery Park and beyond to the harbor. And as I read (and drank and munched) I wondered what Herman Melville would have seen out of the window of this Starbuck's. Would he have seen whalers and tubs of whale oil rolling in from a long Pacific journey? Would he have seen Hawaiian sailors and other Polynesians roaming through the park? Probably not, but he could likely have met these sorts of scenes on the docks and at the sailors' favorite grog shops located nearby.

Reading Typee at Starbuck's - I finally realized that this was actually Herman Melville Historic Site #1: not only was this Starbuck's (at the corner of Pearl Street and Battery Park) on the same block - just houses down perhaps, if not sitting right on top of it - as Herman Melville's childhood home at 6 Pearl Street, but also, the coffee shop chain itself was named after the first mate of the Pequod, the ship featured in Melville's Moby Dick. The first mate's name was Starbuck. What a weird historical site this is! At once, my coffee cake and hot chocolate seemed to have both everything and nothing to do with Melville and the Pacific.

View of Melville's childhood home (around 6 Pearl Street) today

Some mid-nineteenth century scenes that Melville would (perhaps) have recognized nearby

I really wanted to see ships and sailors much more than I wanted to see old buildings, though, and thus I diverted quite rapidly from the American Academy of Poets' walking tour and sought to find Melville on my own, at the sea, among the ships and sailors of New York...if any still existed?

Schermerhorn Row, South Street Seaport

So I walked down Fulton Street to where the East River meets the harbor, at South Street Seaport. The South Street Seaport Museum is headquartered in Schermerhorn Row. These buildings were used as merchants' offices, etc., during Melville's day. Depending on what was shipping out and in of this port during the early and mid nineteenth century, the Pacific may or may not have been a tangible reality here.

Inside Schermerhorn Row on the third floor. To the right is the exterior of 12 Fulton Street. Inside 12 Fulton Street are the museum galleries.

Museum galleries are also located on this quaint block of Water Street, including the old print shop at 211 Water Street

I visited all the galleries at the seaport, but of all that was currently on view, the nineteenth century maritime history of New York was almost completely absent from the museum's presentations. One gallery focused on Franklin Roosevelt's love of ships, another on a great ocean liner of the 1930s, and yet another on great ocean liners (and the history of cruise ships). Each of these exhibitions had a "recreation" theme, whether it was about recreational collecting (like FDR did) or recreational boating (as cruise-ship patrons did). Where were all the commodities? Where were all the laborers? Where was the dirt and grime? Where was Herman Melville's captains and sailors? Where were the "kanaka" laborers from Oceania?

I walked down Pier 16 to the river. The historic boats were closed to the public that day due to the rain.

View of the Brooklyn Bridge and the East River from Pier 16, South Street Seaport

I did enjoy seeing the ships' masts juxtaposed against the skyscrapers. The ships' masts provided a visual stimulus that Melville would have known quite well and that is so rarely encountered in today's "high-tech" New York economy. Yes, huge transoceanic vessels loaded with shipping containers marked with Chinese names on their sides go in and out of New York Harbor all the time; those workers, those commodities - those voyages - are all that remains of Melville's New York Harbor. If he lived today, would he write novels about the adventures of those sailors?

Ships between Piers 16 and 17

The Peking (1911) docked at Pier 16

Searching for Herman Melville in New York City, I had all along figured that because he grew up in New York, that it was here that he got the idea to jump on a whaling ship, the Acushnet, and head out to spend three years of his life in the Pacific Ocean. But he boarded the Acushnet in 1841 (at age 22) in the whaling town of New Bedford, Connecticut, not in New York harbor! It was New England that had a real Pacific connection at that time: whaling towns like Salem, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, not to mention Boston; Mystic and New Bedford, Connecticut; not to mention Rhode Island, and even Long Island, here in New York State, where whalers frequently docked at Sag Harbor and Cold Spring Harbor, were all points of contact between Euro-American peoples and Pacific peoples. But New York City does not appear to have been a big part of the Northeast United States - Oceania connection during the nineteenth century.

Evidence abounds that Pacific Islanders were frequent visitors - and residents - in all of the above-mentioned whaling towns during the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1850s and 1860s you just could not operate a whaling expedition without "kanaka" labor, most often Hawaiians, but also Tahitians, Marquesans, Samoans, &c. Many Polynesian whalers came to New England and lived New England lives. Did they do the same in New York City? What are the stories of the first Pacific Islanders to live in New York City? What were their lives like? Was Melville familiar with them? Or did they live almost completely in the shadows? Were they, like the unseen sailors on the huge vessels going to and from China today, the "ghosts" that fueled our economy, bringing us the commodities that we mindlessly consume?

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