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DARK SIDE OF HERMAN MELVILLE STORIES PASSED DOWN BY FAMILY SHOW HIM AS MONSTER

DARK SIDE OF HERMAN MELVILLE STORIES PASSED DOWN BY FAMILY SHOW HIM AS MONSTER

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We knew for certain in 1975 that Herman Melville emotionally and physically abused his wife, Elizabeth Shaw Melville. There were recently discovered Shaw family letters.

"I do not think it could be managed better than by having her at our house and by keeping her there and carefully preventing her husband from seeing her, and telling him and everybody that we had made up our minds not to let her return," wrote Elizabeth's brother, Samuel.

In the 1920s, the first generation of Melville scholars and critics knew of Melville's wife abuse from Melville's family, and had the report of his granddaughter, Eleanor Metcalf, but either suppressed or ignored it. In 1975 Melville scholars found and published these 1867 letters.

So urgent was the situation in 1867, with Elizabeth intimidated and incapable, that her minister proposed kidnapping her. A plan to spirit her away from Melville was seriously discussed in the Shaw family.

In 1981 the Melville Society took up the question of Melville's wife abuse. Its findings, published in the monograph, "The Endless, Winding Ways in Melville," were curiously inconsequential. One writer suggested that Elizabeth Melville, a disorganized person, a poor housekeeper, "could not have been an easy person to live with." News of the 1867 letters rippled through the Melville networks, but did not significantly alter the ongoing celebratory reading of Melville.

This spring, in a special Melville issue, "American Literature" retold the horrors and took the case against the demented wife-beating Melville right into his fiction, showing us where and how that aggression appeared with evidence letters, stories, circumstances.

This is a flawed, tortured historical figure, not the intrinsic Melville alive in his text, so magnificently sympathetic.

Melville beat Elizabeth, threw her down the stairs, verbally abused and humiliated her before the children and censored her conversation with friends and family.

Four months after the 1867 family plot to kidnap Elizabeth, Malcolm Melville, the oldest son, committed suicide. The other son, Stanwix, a wandering delusional fellow, was dead at 35. Elizabeth was unmarried, arthritic. Frances was the only Melville child to marry. She passed on the inside story to her daughters, Eleanor and Frances.

Melville enslaved his three unmarried sisters who lived in his household -- Helen Maria, Augusta, and Frances Priscilla. They and Elizabeth toiled long hours copying Melville's hideously difficult manuscripts. One sister did her work with splints on her aching fingers. The sisters, we have it from Eleanor Metcalf, "were all a little afraid of him." It is something to think of, the sisters and wife, themselves captive, caught up in Herman's stormy narrative, doing that first reading of "Moby Dick."

When Melville was rediscovered in the 1920s, it took the Melville/Thomas/Metcalf family by surprise. Grim, ghastly Grampa was a literary genius, beloved, venerated. He was still immense in the family history as monster, whose furies were still cooking in the psyches of the granddaughters. Eleanor Metcalf's nervous breakdown coincided with the Melville revival. In the 1920s, Frances refused to speak her grandfather's name. Scholars and critics, some as big, obsessive, and threatening as Melville himself, to the man, men, besieged the granddaughters, wanted an entery into the family history that the family was still expunging.

As a child in the '40s, I listened to and loved the radio show, "Fiber McGee and Molly." Fibber was nasty, quarrelsome, disruptive. Molly was sensible, long-suffering. She had a saying: "T'aint funny, McGee." That sort of became a mantra for me. When our own furious violent Dad exploded in the night, I'd say in my bed, over and again, as the ruckus began, "T'aint funny, McGee." McGee kept a nightmarish closet stuffed with debris that he would periodically open, forgetting, and then it would all burst out, with great sound-effect noise, the junk, the wreckage.

In that high heaven where battered wives and murdered mothers forgive cruel husbands and evil fathers, what do they say, these women, in their perfect peace, what are their words?

NEIL SCHMITZ is professor of English at the University at Buffalo.

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