Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Gansevoort Melville's Height

UPDATE: Turns out "small potato" was a common and freely exchanged slur in 1844, hurled at Democrat and Whig alike without regard to physical height. In Kentucky they called Gansevoort a small potato, but Gansevoort threw it right back at them in calling Theodore Frelinghuysen a "small potato Whig." From the Auburn Journal and Advertiser, October 30, 1844:

Gansevoort Melville.

A fortnight since we referred to the disgraceful terms used by the above “doughty champion of Democracy” in reference to Hon. Theodore Frelinghuysen. The Patriot man, forced by a sense of shame and mortification (perhaps, in a measure awakened by the impolicy of such language in this section) endeavors to help poor Melville out of the mire by a flat denial that any such language was by him used. This, however is altogether too barefaced to be of any service—as in the present case we chance to have in our possession the very language, taken down as heard by those present. After treating for a time of Mr. Clay, the speaker said,— “Theodore Frelinghuysen is a different sort of a Whig—a small potato Whig. He is as cold, selfish, sanctimonious and sacrilegious a man as God Almighty ever made, whose heart never felt one generous pulsation!” Here you have it, Mr. Patriot, word for word. While puffing the other portions of his speech, why did you not also devote a puff or two upon this also? So much for the “doughty” Melville! as well as for his “doughty” reporter of the Patriot.
Auburn [New York] Journal and Advertiser
October 30, 1844
Though dismissed in the New York Commercial Advertiser (and a day later in the New York Spectator, July 12, 1845) as a "small man," Gansevoort had been identified three months earlier by a Richmond, Virginia correspondent of the New York Herald (March 15, 1845) as

How big was Herman Melville's big brother, Gansevoort?  Huge, according to the published tribute by family friend William E. Cramer:
"His figure was majestic--some might say colossal...."
Quoting from Cramer's memorial in the Washington Daily Union (June 13, 1846), Hershel Parker observes "there is no record of Gansevoort's height other than this word 'colossal'" (Herman Melville: A Biography, V1.426). Likewise, the obituary in the Albany Argus seemed bent on maximizing Gansevoort's stature, physical or otherwise, with subtly heightening references to his "large" mind and "elevated nature" (as reprinted in the Vermont Gazette, June 9, 1846)
majestic, colossal, large, elevated...
but really, was Gansevoort all that tall?  Taller than 5'9" or so Herman, tall as their "imposing" maternal grandfather Peter Gansevoort, legendarily "gigantic in frame, six feet and four like Washington"?
Peter Gansevoort
1794 by Gilbert Stuart via Wikimedia Commons
I'm thinking not.  Probably not.  For one thing, we already have Gansevoort Melville on record joking about himself as a relatively short person, under six feet tall.  In 1844 Gansevoort's fiery campaign speeches on behalf of Polk and the Democrats won him fame and dubious glory as "Orator of the Human Race."  One of Gansevoort's crowd-pleasing anecdotes rehearsed his encounter down south with a strapping backwoodsman. The humor of the thing lies in the contrast between the robust Tennessean and the slightly-built speaker:
On one occasion, after I had addressed a large popular assemblage, a sturdy frontier's man, who was about six feet high, without a superfluous ounce of flesh upon his stalwart frame, one of your men who never turn their backs on either friend or foe, and who looked as if he could whip his weight in wild cats, (laughter) strode up to me and grasped my hand with an iron energy that gets up reminded me forcibly of a vice, and suddenly withdrawing his grasp, slapped me on the back with tremendous force, sung out--"Old horse--I love you!" (Roars of laughter, repeated again and again.)
In other words, Gansevoort Melville meets Davy Crockett. The point of the story, and the ensuing "roars of laughter," are incomprehensible to me if Gansevoort looked about equal in size and strength to his hulking "six feet high" admirer. The vice-grip, the hearty smack on the back, the astonishing exclamation of support ("Old horse--I love you!") are mainly astonishing, and comical, because of the supposed incongruity in their physical appearances.

New York Herald, November 5, 1844
Corroborating evidence for Gansevoort's shorter-than-we-knew height exists in the form of two negative, not to say nasty remarks by admittedly biased critics in the Whig press. For all their politically motivated harshness, the following squibs independently attest to Gansevoort Melville's noticeably short stature, assuming (particularly in the case of no. 2, below) that "small" means "short in height" as well as more generally "unimpressive' or "insignificant."

1. From the Louisville Daily Journal (September 13, 1844):
“If all the potatoes in Ireland were as small as that chap, the Irish people would starve to death,” said a gentleman on Wednesday evening after hearing Mr. Melville’s speech. 
Here the reference plainly is to physical size. Again the point of the joke is Gansevoort's presumed shortness of stature. Were he a tall man, the joke would instantly self-destruct. As slander of a genuinely big man it won't work either, since the lie would have been obvious and too easily exposed.

2. From the New York Commercial Advertiser (July 11, 1845):
The Evening Post condemns the appointment of Mr. Gansevoort Melville to the clerkship of the London legation. But the Post cannot deny that there is a degree of consistency about it. This is the day of small things in the administration of the government. Mr. Polk is a small man—most of his Cabinet members are small men—and Mr. Gansevoort Melville is a small man—very small. There is one point, however, in which he is unlike Mr. Polk. The President has a faculty of being quiet, but Mr. Gansevoort Melville though a small man, contrives at times to make a prodigious noise.
Reprinted the next day, July 12, 1845 in the New York Spectator:
New York Spectator, July 12, 1845
"Mr. Gansevoort Melville is a small man..."  Indeed, "very small," maybe smaller than James K. Polk

 already nicknamed "Napoleon of the Stump."

As a "small man" might Gansevoort Melville have displayed traits of the Small Man Syndrome?  Any sign of a Napoleon Complex?  Unimaginable when we thought him "colossal," but now perhaps worth thinking about.  Depending on their politics and sensibilities, contemporary hearers found the speeches of Gansevoort (abbreviated "Gas." and sometimes maliciously) full of stirring eloquence, or "the veriest gas" (Albany Journal, July 16, 1845).  Possibly some strain of overcompensating Napoleonic ambition inspired at least a bit of the bluster that won Gansevoort Melville his ambiguous fame as an American Anacharsis Cloots, "Orator of the Human Race."

New York Semi-Weekly Courier and Enquirer, March 23, 1844

Anacharsis Cloots
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1 comment:

  1. You are so good! You nailed "small potato Whig" finally 60 years after I copied it from an unpublished part of Philip Hone's diary. Hip, hip, hurrah! Go Norsworthy!

    And "Go, Gansevoort!" or as Willard Thorp wrote me long ago, in another world, "Up Gansevoort! Up Gansevoort!"