Wednesday, December 28, 2016

1859 puzzler: Romeo's "Melville" on the view from Owl's Head Mountain

The air that breathes my music from me is a mountain air!
  --Mardi: And a Voyage Thither
Writing on August 22, 1859 from the crowded lodge at the base of Owl's Head Mountain on the Canadian end of Lake Memphremagog, a correspondent of the New Orleans Times-Picayune using the nom de plume "Romeo" approvingly quoted or paraphrased "Melville" on the exceptional view from the summit:
Who, that has ascended the Owl's Head Mountain, has failed to agree with Melville, that the prospect from the summit is even more pleasing than that from the summit of Mount Washington, or the Franconia Mountains?
Say what? By "Melville" does the pseudonymous writer mean Herman Melville? Romeo's name-dropping now seems over-casual, and oddly phrased as a rhetorical question with a double-negative as the expected answer: "Nobody does not agree with Melville on the superior views from high atop Owl's Head Mountain." As printed in the Times-Picayune, the letter from "Romeo" lacks context that might clarify who is "Melville," and when and where exactly he compared mountain views in New Hampshire and Eastern Canada. Did Herman Melville actually travel in August 1859 from Pittsfield, Massachusetts to northern Vermont and the province of Québec? Hypothetically then, perhaps Herman and his wife Lizzie celebrated their 12th wedding anniversary on August 4, 1859 at scenic Lake Memphremagog, having journeyed there by train via New York or Boston for a second honeymoon. A few days earlier, Melville could have celebrated his 40th birthday by climbing Owl's Head Mountain. Wherever he was, Melville had already turned to writing poetry.

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 1, 1859:
Letter from Lake Memphremagog.
[Correspondence of the Picayune.]


In addressing you a letter from this delightful part of the mountain region of Lake Memphremagog, I should be trespassing upon the time and patience of your readers did I attempt to describe, at length, the beautiful, wild and romantic scenery at this point. Tourists and others who have traveled over the wide, wide world, have appropriately named these regions the Switzerland of America. The scenery is fully equal to that of the White Mountains, or of Lake George, and realizes a combination of the beautiful everywhere. Was ever tourist disappointed with the wild grandeur of Lake Memphremagog, or the majestic dignity of the Owl's Head Mountain, of whose stern visage even the untutored Indian stood in awe? Who, that has ascended the Owl's Head Mountain, has failed to agree with Melville, that the prospect from the summit is even more pleasing than that from the summit of Mount Washington, or the Franconia Mountains? Who has failed to admire Lake Memphremagog, studded with fairy islands, and the wonderful reverberation of sounds from the base of Bear Mountain? Who could sail across the bosom of these beautiful waters without being impressed with the grandeur of their scenery, and with the power of the Creator? It would seem that He had made these mountains, with their wild scenery, to delight the eye, to charm the sense, and to excite the awe and reverence, of those who are, for the greater portion of the year, surrounded by the works of man alone.
 A few days ago a large party ascended the Owl's Head; they numbered over fifty persons. Among them was an old gentleman from Montreal, named Day, who was over eighty-four years of age. The distance to the summit and back is nearly seven miles, and is traversed on foot. The old gentleman got through the journey with comparative ease, not seeming more fatigued than many of the other members of the party. Mr. Day is a man of great energy; he was for many years connected with the Hudson Bay Company in the fur trade of North America; the camp life in the woods seems to have given him an iron constitution, as he is the oldest man who has ever ascended the Owl's Head or Mount Washington.

There is a large number of Southerners here, besides those from Louisiana. Among the latter I notice the names of G. W. Ellis and family, S. M. Crofts, C. W. Shepard, Thos. Moorhouse and lady, Henry Vandenburg and family, James Watrous and family, Henry Wells and family, Miss Appleton, Miss Congrane, Miss Loring, J. S. Caldwalder, wife and daughter, Reverdy Slocum and wife, J. P. Saunders and family, Henry Hays and family, and others too numerous to mention.

The weather is remarkably fine, and is highly appreciated by all.
ROMEO.  --New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 1, 1859 
New Orleans Times-Picayune - September 1, 1859
Besides the odd construction of the Melville reference, Romeo's account seems disappointingly vague. Possibly "Melville" accompanied Romeo on a hike to the summit of Owl's Head Mountain. It's hard to be sure, however. Romeo tells of a recent ascent "by a large party," without saying definitely that he or "Melville" joined the group. Perhaps "Romeo" found the Mount Washington comparison written down by "Melville" in a visitors' book there at the Owl's Head Mountain House where he was staying.

As a tourist Herman Melville certainly did leave comments in such guest registers. On Naushon Island in 1852 after visiting Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, Melville wrote:
"Blue sky— blue sea— & almost everything blue but our spirits."  --Quoted in Herman Melville: Nantucket's First Tourist? by Susan Beegel
In 1847 Herman and Lizzie honeymooned in the White Mountains of New Hampshire before traveling on to Canada. They stayed in Conway and probably made the ascent of Mount Washington--a good ten miles from hotel to summit on "worn-out horses" over "the worst bridle paths in the world" according to William Cullen Bryant. Even before reaching Conway Herman Melville was already comparing noteworthy prospects. At Center Harbor, "a very attractive place for a tourist," Melville duly noted
"Red-Hill, the view from which is said to be equal to anything of the kind in New England."  --Melville's Correspondence
Years later as a London tourist Melville specifically referenced Mt. Washington when describing the view from Primrose Hill:
"Clouds of smoke, as tho' you looked down from Mt. Washington in a mist." --Journal Of a Voyage from New York to London 1849
The White Mountains again show up as a reference point for Melville the tourist when he describes the Pyramids in his 1856 journal:
Pyramids not in line. Between, like Notch of White Mountains.  --Journals
John M. J. Gretchko quotes both journal references to the White Mountains in his chapter for Savage Eye, the outstanding collection of essays on Melville and the Visual Arts edited by Christopher Sten.

Journal entries show Melville to have been a connoisseur of fine views or "prospects" like the "ineffably fine" one from Richmond Hill in London. Closer to home, Melville's 1850 notes in his copy of A History of the County of Berkshire by David Dudley Field record the "fine prospect" from "a high hill in Richmond," Massachusetts. That 1850 inscription may be seen at Melville's Marginalia Online:
Composed a month or two after Romeo's letters from Lake Memphremagog, Melville's lecture on Travel opens like a guidebook with a view from the top of Greylock, from the perspective of some imaginary homebody:
"with what delight would he view the landscape from the summit! The novel objects spread out before him would bewilder and enchant him."  --Melville's Lecture on Travel
 Hershel Parker offers another reason besides the fine views for Melville's high climbing:
"Melville sought out high places for superb views and reminders of satanic temptation."
--Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative
All of which is to say, the comparison of mountain views that Romeo attributes to "Melville" sounds quite like something Herman Melville might have said. And the summer of 1859 happens to be a likelier time than most for Herman Melville to have made a previously unheralded train trip:
Very little is known of Melville's activities during the spring, summer, and autumn of 1859, though Henry Gansevoort found him "looking well and hearty" during a visit to New York in May and Evert Duyckinck described him in July as "doing nothing in particular."  --Merton M. Sealts, Jr. - Melville as Lecturer
About the relative paucity of documentary evidence, Hershel Parker concurs:
"Very little is known about the summer of 1859, when Melville was making himself into a poet." --Herman Melville: A Biography V2.408
At the time of Romeo's published correspondence, Lake Memphremagog was being touted as the freshest resort experience of the season: "A New Watering Place" (New York Herald, August 1, 1859) and "the Eden of the World" (St. Johnsbury Caledonian, July 9, 1859), easily accessible by railroad from New York City or Boston. John Ross Dix of all people had just published a breezy Hand Book for Lake Memphremagaog illustrated by the author.

Dix's guidebook contains a longish narrative poem (The Bold Smuggler of Magog) on the legend of Skinner's Cave that has been attributed to Dix--perhaps mistakenly, since Dix himself ascribes the piece to a "rhyming friend." Among other cuts indicated by asterisks, Dix has omitted some opening lines, comprising he says "a rather florid description of Lake Memphremagog."

The earliest Vermont letter from "Romeo" that I have found so far is dated July 30, 1859. Here, too, Romeo extols the view from the summit. But his comparison is extremely general, and there is no mention yet of any Melville:
"The views from the summit of the Owl's Head Mountain are as beautiful and extended as from any other mountain point in America."
It would seem that Romeo's encounter with Melville, or with Melville's words about Owl's Head Mountain in relation to Mount Washington and the Franconia Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire occurred between the writing of his two letters on 30 July and 12 August 1859. From the New Orleans Times-Picayune of Friday, August 12, 1859:
Lake Memphremagog, Vt, July 30.

Casting about me for some new and un-hackneyed place of resort for a few weeks refuge from city turmoil, and where might be found united several indispensable requisites for comfort and recreation, such as fine mountain and lake scenery, boating, fishing, bathing, bowling, pleasant walks, together with comfortable quarters, absence of routine and etiquette, and above all, moderate charges, I deem myself particularly fortunate in finding all these combined in a rare degree at Lake Memphremagog at the Owl's Head Mountain House, A. C. Jennings, Esq., proprietor. Everything is done here for the comfort, convenience and gratification of the guests. The lake and neighboring streams are laid under contribution daily for a supply of delicious trout, longe, pike, pickerel, &c., while berries, fresh from the mountains and adjoining pastures, are quite sufficient to tempt the appetite of the keenest epicures.

Every day of my sojourn at this delightful place has developed some new phase of beauty. The weather is very fine--just warm enough, during the day, for comfort. Thick clothing has been worn most of the time. The nights are most delicious. No mosquitoes or other insects to disturb one's rest, while couple of good thick blankets and a counterpane are not at all uncomfortable. Indeed, during the hottest of weather, this summer, in New York and Boston, we have been sitting here, nights and mornings, before a crackling fire, which looked cheerful land felt comfortable. The mountain scenery is charming. It has no superior on this continent. The views from the summit of the Owl's Head Mountain are as beautiful and extended as from any other mountain point in America. 
A large portion of the tide of the fashionable and pleasure travel flows this way, and it has been quite as gay here this season as it has been at Saratoga Springs. Every time the little fairy steamboat Mountain Maid touches the wharf, she discharges from her decks a merry crowd of pleasure-seekers. Yesterday morning she landed a large number of passengers, representing some fifteen different States--Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana &c. Quite a number of New Orleans denizens, with their families, are sojourning with us. 
Lake Memphremagog is very much like Lake George: it is situated partially in the Northern part of the State of Vermont and partially in Canada East; it is about fifty miles in length and five or six miles wide; it runs north and south, and discharges its waters through the St. Francis river, into the River St. Lawrence, at Lake St. Peter. The lake abounds with beautiful islands, of all sizes, from a quarter of an acre to four hundred. The scenery about these delightful, wild, and romantic regions, can never be forgotten. 
The New York and New Haven Railroad brings you here direct from New York city.

ROMEO.  --New Orleans Times-Picayune, Friday, August 12, 1859
From Lake Memphremagog Romeo wrote also to the Richmond Enquirer, where his most concise report of August 15th was published the following week on August 23, 1859:
Lake Memphremagog—Owl's Head Mountain House—Lake Memphremagog, August 15, 1859. Messrs. Editors: Lake Memphremagog has become, within the last two years, as fashionable as the White Mountains, Saratoga Springs, or Lake George. During the whole of the present season, parties from all parts of the inhabited globe have thronged this place. Last evening the steamer Mountain Maid landed over one hundred and fifty passengers at the wharf. Over forty of that number were from our old Virginia State. I will give you an account of the place and the people in my next. The weather here has been remarkable fine—nights and mornings we sit by a glorious fire, while the temperature by day is most delicious. But you shall receive all particulars in my next. In haste, yours, &c., ROMEO. --Richmond Enquirer, August 23, 1859
Who else could "Melville" be? Running through all the Melvilles listed in the earlier post on Melville or The Disambiguities, I don't see any more likely than Herman to be Romeo's Melville. In Louisiana newspapers at Genealogy Bank, the one person identified merely by the surname "Melville" in the years 1857-1860 is Herman Melville. John W. Overall refers to Herman Melville as "Melville" in two of his "Paragraphs for the Times" columns for the New Orleans Sunday Delta, published on April 18, 1858 ("A Cuban Lulu") and August 8, 1858 ("Polynesian Dances"). The Times-Picayune kept up with Herman Melville in the years 1857-1860, as evidenced by announcements of his Mediterranean trip in 1856-7, publication of The Confidence-Man, lectures, and the piracy of Typee in 1859 by Kinahan Cornwallis. However, these announcements in the Times-Picayune always give Melville's first name.

Found on  
New Orleans Times-Picayune - October 17, 1858

Found on

Earlier in the 1850's the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin had regularly published friendly views of Melville and his writings in letters from New York correspondents, namely A. Oakey Hall writing as "Hans Yorkel" and Augustus Kinsley Gardner who wrote under the pseudonym of "Caleb Quotem." Both referred familiarly to Melville as "Melville."

This one is a puzzler. It would be nice to find another letter from Romeo with more details of his (or her?) summer adventures.

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