Friday, February 3, 2017

Melville's "good long visit" with Mary Gove Nichols

Image Credit: Encyclopædia Britannica
Mary Sargeant Gove Nichols (1810-1884) was an important and influential social reformer, popularly associated with the water-cure and "free love" movements. In 1844 her future second husband Thomas Low Nichols campaigned for the Democrats with Gansevoort Melville. After the election of Polk, Thomas Low Nichols advised on the best way to get Herman's first book published and later wrote favorable newspaper notices of both Typee and Omoo. Mary's letter to Alonzo Lewis with the Melville reference is dated "13th Mar."; the year 1850 can be reliably inferred from internal evidence, particularly her husband's recent graduation with a medical degree from the New York University.

Now we know what the author of White-Jacket was doing on March 12, 1850, besides plotting his next novel:
"... [John Godfrey] Saxe has become editor of the Sentinel Burlington Vt. I have been quite rich this few days having had a letter from three poets—John Neal, Saxe & yourself & a good long visit yesterday with Melville. Have you read his Mardi? "
--Mary Gove Nichols, letter to Alonzo Lewis - March 13, 1850.
Mary Sargeant Gove letters to Alonzo Lewis, 1848-1859, in the Clifton Waller Barrett Library, Accession #14020, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va. (Many thanks to Reference Librarian Regina Rush and colleagues at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library for their expert assistance with locating this item.)
Jean L. Silver-Isenstadt cites this and other letters from Mary Gove Nichols to Alonzo Lewis in her 2002 biography Shameless: The Visionary Life of Mary Gove Nichols. Dr. Silver-Isenstadt notes the friendship with Melville at the start of chapter 5, "Seminal Influence." However, Melville's March 1850 visit with Mary Gove Nichols did not make it into Jay Leyda's Melville Log and is not generally known in Melville scholarship.


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