Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Letters to Augusta Melville from Augusta Whipple Hunter, 1850-1852

Surviving letters to Herman Melville's sister Augusta Melville from her old Lansingburgh friend Augusta Whipple Hunter aka Augusta Ann Hunter (1820-1853) are in the Gansevoort-Lansing collection, Call number MssCol 11, of the Manuscript and Archives Division, New York Public Library, with the Melville family additions (Box 2 - Folder 33) which are also available on microfilm. Augusta Ann was the eldest daughter of Episcopal clergyman Phineas Leland Whipple and Alida Van Antwerp (married on May 20, 1819). Augusta Ann Whipple married Samuel Dimmick Hunter on October 1, 1846. Their daughter Alida W. was born in 1849, also the year of Malcolm Melville's birth to Elizabeth and Herman Melville.

Earlier letters from AWH to AM in the 1840's are amply cited in the first volume of Herman Melville: A Biography by Hershel Parker; and in Melville: A Biography by Laurie Robertson-Lorant. Augusta Hunter died in Bath on June 13, 1853. Later Augusta Melville noted the sad event on the back of one envelope:
"The last letter I shall ever receive from my poor friend Augusta Whipple Hunter
she died of congestion of the lungs in June 1853"
Augusta Hunter wrote from the village of Bath in Steuben County, New York, addressing her correspondence to Augusta Melville in Pittsfield, Massachusetts care of Herman Melville, and (on February 23, 1852 via Charles Hunter) care of Allan Melville at 14 Wall Street. Hunter's correspondence with Augusta Melville is valuable and interesting for many reasons, of course, not only for stray references to Augusta's brother Herman. Nevertheless, the Herman Melville references offer a good place to start. In Herman Melville: A Biography (V1.596) Hershel Parker alludes to Augusta Hunter's liking for her "particular friend" Tom Melville, expressed in the first of the four letters quoted below (October 18, 1850). Otherwise these early 1850's letters from Augusta Whipple Hunter have yet to be noticed in published Melville scholarship, unless I've missed something. Admittedly, Augusta Hunter's letters are some of the more legible documents in the incredible trove of "Augusta Papers" at NYPL. It would be a great boon to scholarship if one day the New York Public Library could make digitized images available online for transcribing by volunteers in one of those exciting, collaborative Manuscript transmission projects. Meanwhile I am grateful to Reference Archivist Tal Nadan, Librarian Meredith Mann, and their fine colleagues at NYPL for expert assistance with locating this material which I was able to view there on microfilm.

OCTOBER 18, 1850
I was so glad to hear of Tom once more, I consider myself a particular friend of his. But I had no idea he would love the ocean so well. I thought he would like Herman return home quite contented with land animals. How is Herman's boy? I have quite a desire to see him, having known Herman not so very well but well enough to remember him & some of his oddities. — And your Mother, Guss is she just as she used to be, & would she take any interest in me? When I think of you all I think of things as they were ten & twelve years ago. But I am sobered down some now. Do you believe it Guss?
--Augusta Whipple Hunter - Letter to Augusta Melville, October 18, 1850
AUGUST 15, 1851
Sunday I was looking over some of your old letters, why I had entirely forgotten that you ever had penned such long epistles, so well filled & refilled. 'Tis even so, do you remember? — Herman I have seen has another work in press but the name is still among the Berkshire mountains I suppose, as that has not made its appearance. I am quite anxious to hear its title for he is so peculiar in names. I am half the time afraid to pronounce them fearing some egregious blunder. How is his boy? — as to my young lady she grows daily & is a very healthy appearing girl not particularly advanced in wisdom but quite enough so, these extraordinary children not unfrequently exhaust their energies in early youth, and many a sleepy boy & girl have astonished the world in their mature years. --Augusta Whipple Hunter - Letter to Augusta Melville, August 15, 1851
NOVEMBER 17, 1851
... Why Guss you certainly grow more interesting in letter writing, your last epistle I enjoyed very much, my imagination has been with you ever since ascending the mountain, even gazing back, upon which I could not blame you notwithstanding the danger, & exploring the Ice Glen. How the thought of ever seeing the like myself makes me bound (inwardly of course!) & once more I feel young & active — Young & active I hear you exclaim, why Guss cannot have grown to a Grand Mother already? No she has not but she does not practice climbing & scrambling as much as she once did & of course her limbs soon weary. 
— Now that I am once again in my own quiet, pleasant home I can scarcely realize that I have been absent some six weeks visiting — How sorry I was that your Mother should not have been an earlier visitor in Lansingburgh I should have been so delighted to have seen her, I am glad that she remembers me for I can never forget her. — Guss Lansingburgh has changed, it has increased in size, strange faces meet me where once all was familiar, a railway has destroyed the beauty of my favorite brook, & more sad to me than all our Church has been remodeled, improved I presume every one would say, but Guss it grieves me thus to have associations connected with my dear Father's ministry & my own renewal of my Baptismal vows marred to say the least if not destroyed — Hereafter if I should visit Lansingburgh again it will be with feelings of strangeness. 'Tis my home no more — But I will not tire you....
 --Augusta Whipple Hunter - Letter to Augusta Melville, November 17, 1851
FEBRUARY 23, 1852
... You must be enjoying your winter very much, how dearly I should love to join you of an evening occasionally, not to interrupt your reading but to add one more to the listeners — I have indeed learned the title of Herman's last book & have read many interesting extracts, but the book to my knowledge has not visited our village. Mr. Underhill had not yet received it when last we examined his shelves, indeed we are always rather behind the times in literary matter, & the past winter have been more so than usual I think, as Mr. Underhill was unable to finish his business when last in N. Y. & has been obliged to neglect it very much at home on account of inflamed eyes — But Guss why is the book uninteresting to ladies,? the extracts have pleased me more than some of Herman's writings. Though none of his volumes are without interest to me I have my choice.
——— You may well exclaim at the immense number of books that are continually issuing from the press. But Guss I am sorry that many of them should be so worthless — yes worse than worthless, inculcating morals that tend to no good, creating sickly imaginations, in truth, making our American ladies in particular, silly, weak minded dolls. Every year I see more of this. I frequently wish for power to destroy the chaff of our fashionable literature.

Perhaps dear Guss you do not feel so sensibly as I the want of a solid literary taste among females, But actually I scarcely meet a lady who soars above the Lady's Book or some foolish love-sick novel....
 ... So Herman has another pet for you [HM's son Stanwix, born October 22, 1851] Guss you may kiss all your pets for me if their mothers will allow of such liberties....
--Augusta Whipple Hunter - Letter to Augusta Melville, February 23, 1852

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