Saturday, March 11, 2017

Herman Melville's sketch of his uncle, Thomas Melvill, Jr.

Much abridged, Herman Melville's reminiscence of Major Thomas Melvill, Jr. was published in The History of Pittsfield by Herman's friend and former neighbor J. E. A. Smith. Below I give Melville's complete sketch, with missing text supplied from the transcription by Merton Sealts, Jr. in his article on "Thomas Melvill, Jr., in The History of Pittsfield," Harvard Library Bulletin 35.2 (Spring 1987): 201-217. As Sealts reports, the manuscript copy (not in Melville's handwriting) is in the Gansevoort-Lansing collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.

This image is from my personal copy of the 1987 article by Sealts in the Harvard Library Bulletin:


I have been asked to contribute to the History of Pittsfield some personal reminiscences of the late Major Thomas Melville Jr. long a resident of that Town.
As the request comes—and somewhat urgently—from a near relative I willingly comply though having known my uncle only in the latter and uneventful portion of his life my reccolections are somewhat meagre.
It may be well to begin with a brief recital of his career prior to his residence in Pittsfield.
He was born in Boston in the year 17— [1776] the eldest son of Major Thomas Melville of the Boston Tea Party and an officer of the Revolution, with whose cocked hat & small-clothes, worn to the end of his life, passed away probably the last vestige in New England of the old costume.
In early life at the age of seventeen some time towards the close of the last Century he sailed to France, and eventually became a banker in the Capitol. There he resided until about the year 18— [1811.] Consequently he was familiar with the stirring events which took place in that Country from the closing years of the Republic through the Consulate, and down to a period towards the collapse of the first Empire.
At that time when the part which France had taken in our War of Independence was still fresh in the minds of both Countries, no foreigners were so cordially welcomed into French society as the Americans.
Indeed the friendleness [friendliness] was if any thing, stronger on the French side than on ours, & for this reason, it may be, that the gratitude of the beneficiary seldom exactly comes up to the good will which the benefactor in some instances feels towards him. Under such auspices any young countryman of Washington, if possessed of the requisite manners found his way easy and delightful in the bright circles of the City on the Seine.
So fared it with my kinsman, as I have every reason to infer.
In certain departments the business of a European Banker makes it his interest to be hospitable. If his disposition coincide with his interest, his entertainments may be often extremely agreeable from the piquant mixture of the Company. The polite Bostonian's dinner in Paris lacked not as I have been told this quality, nor the zest of a very social nature in the host. Many distinguished countrymen did he from time to time entertain at his table, together with the Frenchmen of note invited to meet them. Among others, I have frequently heard him name Lafayette.
In the year 1800 my father Allan Melville, then quite young, made his first visit to Europe, and was for some month's the banker's guest. Though the brothers were never closely connected in business, they always retained a warm feeling for each other.
Of an enterprising & sanguine temper—too much so indeed—my uncle aside from his special vocation, engaged in various tempting ventures, incident to the wars then convulsing the Continent. Naturally he shared in many fluctuations.
I remember his telling me that upon one occasion, after prosperously closing in London some considerable affair, he held in his hands, before a cheery coal fire, the proceeds—negotiable bills, and for so large a sum, that he said to himself—holding them at arms length—"This much is sure—here it is—the future is uncertain—break off then, and get thee back to Boston Common." But a false friend—Hope by name (not one of the noted Amsterdam House) advised to the contrary.
Eventually such reverses overtook him, that recrossing the Ocean he returned to his father's roof. With him he brought—and to a strange land for them—his wife & two [four] young children: for as— I should have previously mentioned—he had married in Paris, the bride being a lady of Spanish extraction.
A miniature I have seen of her, presents a countenance of much beauty and of that kind which forcibly arrests the attention.
The War of 1812 breaking out about this time, he received an appointment as Commissary with the rank of Major, and was stationed at Pittsfield.
Thither were sent many prisoners from the Canadian frontier. These were lodged on grounds, then without the village, and known as "The Cantonment." 
 Subsequently he bought the Estate on the Lenox Road, now 1870 the property of Mr. John R. Morewood, a New York merchant.
The purchase was made of the occupant Mr. Elkanah Watson, a gentleman whose interesting life of travel & observation in an era of Historic importance, has been recorded in an entertaining volume by his son. 
The Estate was originally owned and the mansion & extensive offices built, at an early period by Mr. Henry Van Scha[a]ck a rich Mynheer & for those days an adventurous emigrant, from the adjoining river country of the old Patroons. 
Some of the large barns have been burned, others have decayed, and new buildings substituted therefor.

But the mansion still stands, though somewhat changed, and partly modernized externally. 
It is of goodly proportions, with ample hall, & staircase, carved wood-work & solid oaken timbers, hewn in Stockbridge.
These timbers as viewed from the cellar, remind one of the massive gun deck<s> beams of a line-of-battle ship. On this farm Major Melville interested himself largely in the raising of sheep and improvement of their breed, also in the introduction of some crops not previously known in the county. 
 He was the second President of the Berkshire Agricultural Society and had much to do with originating it.
Not far from this period his foreign wife paled and withered a transplanted flower.
His second bride an exemplary lady, was a ward of Gen. Dearborn of Roxbury Mass.
Ultimately he experienced new misfortunes; and living in the plainest way became a simple husbandman, though of broad acres, whereof many lay fallow, or in lake or pasture.
Near this period I first saw him. It was in 1831, I think, at evening, after a summer day's travel by stage from Albany. Well do I remember the meeting, upon that occasion, between him and my father. It was in the larch-shaded porch of the mansion looking off, under urn-shaped road-side elms, across meadows to South Mountain.
They embraced, and with the unaffectedness and warmth of boys—such boys as Van Dyke painted.
In 1836 [1833] circumstances made me for the greater portion of a year an inmate of my uncle's family, and an active assistant upon the farm. He was then grey, but not wrinkled; of a pleasing complexion; but little, if any, bowed in figure; and preserving evident traces of the prepossessing good looks of his youth.
His manners were mild & kindly, with a faded brocade of old French breeding which—contrasted with the surroundings at the time—impressed me as not a little interesting, nor wholly without a touch of pathos.
He never used the scythe, but I frequently raked with him in the hay-field. At the end of a swath, he would at times pause in the sun, and taking out his smooth-worn box of satin wood, gracefully help himself to a pinch of snuff, partly leaning on the slanted rake, and making some little remark, quite naturally, and yet with a look, which—as I now recall it—presents him in the shadowy aspect of a courtier of Louis XVI, reduced as a refugee, to humble employment in a region far from the gilded Versailles.
At that period on Sundays between services, the broad bar-room of the principal tavern of Pittsfield—long since removed—situated on the village square, was the convenient resort, (not for unsober purposes, since the decanters were inexorably closed) of many church attendants whose dwellings were at a distance. Here too dropped in the magnates of the village. Eminent among them was the late Edward A. Newton, well known as a man of fortune, who had travelled, and who lived with all things handsome about him, like the old English Squire in the play.
The exchange of salutations and pinches of Rappee, between this tall & stately gentleman, and my plainly clad but courtly kinsman, presented a picture upon which the indigenous farmers there assembled, gazed with eager interest, and a kind of homely awe. It afforded a peep into a world as unknown to them as the Vale of Cashmere to the Esquimaux Indian.
To the ensuing conversation, also, they listened with the look of steers astonished in the pasture at the camel of the menagerie passing by on the road. It is different now. Those primitive days, with whatever picturesqueness pertained thereto, are gone with the old Elm of the Green.
By the late October fire, on the great hearth of the capacious kitchen of the old farm-mansion I remember seeing the Major frequently sit, just before early bed time, gazing into the embers, his face plainly expressing to a sympathetic observer, that his heart—thawed to the core under the influence of the genial flame—carried him far away over the ocean to the gay Boulevards.

Suddenly under the accumulation of reminiscences, his eye would glisten, and become humid: and with a start he would check himself in his reverie, give an ultimate sigh; as much as to say, "Ah, well!" & end with an aromatic pinch of snuff. It was the French graft upon the New-England stock, which produced this autumnal apple; perhaps the mellower for the frost.
Let it not be inferred here from that the amiable side of my uncle's character partook of indolence. On the contrary he was of a very industrious and methodical turn of mind. Mighty folios of accounts, dating back to the days when he was commissary, with laborious diaries of the farm, remain monuments of his diligence.
By the hearth fire above mentioned, he often at my request, described some of those martial displays and spectacles of state which he had witnessed in Paris in the time of the first Napoleon. But I was too young & ignorant then, to derive the full benefit from his pictorial reccollections.  
Nor though he possessed so much information, and had a good understanding was his mind of that order which qualifies one for drawing the less obvious lessons from great historic events happening in one's own time, and under one's eyes. 
In 1837, though advanced in years, the Major yielding to strong inducements, and with a view of ultimate benefit to his children went to Galena in Illinois, there to occupy a responsible position in a mercantile house.
Eventually when circumstances permitted his family joined him.
In 1841 [1840] I visited my now venerable kinsman in his western home, and was anew struck by the contrast between the man and his environment.
He died at Galena in 184- [1845] not without the consolation of knowing that his venturous removal so late in life to what was then the remote West, had in part been already attended with many happy results to his family, the promise of which benefits had generously impelled the step.

But enough. He survives in my memory a cherished inmate—kindly and urbane—one to whom, for the manifestations of his heart, I owe unalloyed gratitude and—for the rest—pleasingly though strangely associated with Tuileries and Taghconics.
[--Herman Melville]

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