Here below is my transcription of Augusta Melville's letter to her brother Allan Melville in New York City, written on May 16, 1851 at the Van Rensselaer Manor House
in Albany, New York. As she informs Allan, Augusta had been there for at least two weeks ("a long fortnight"), visiting and
socializing with Albany relatives--2nd cousin Catherine "Kate" Van
Rensselaer, for one, a younger sister of Augusta's close friend Cornelia
"Nilly" Van Rensselaer Thayer.
Augusta's own home at the time was her brother Herman Melville's Arrowhead farm in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. While she was away in the month of May 1851, Herman was busy doing or supervising repairs and improvements to the farmhouse.
"The whole place will have been so much improved by the time of my return, that I expect hardly to recognize it."
Before she left to rejuvenate in Albany, Augusta had been working hard as Herman's copyist, tasked with turning her brother's scribblings into a legible manuscript for the printer. To Allan, in passing, Augusta made what has to be the earliest comment on record by any reader of Moby-Dick, five months in advance of its publication in England as The Whale:
"So you had a flying visit from Herman? When does he make the longer one? That book of his, will create a great interest, I think. It is very fine. By the way, have you seen Willis' Hurry-Graphs?"
Believing Herman's new book to be nearly finished and ready for the press, Augusta predicted it would "create a great interest." After praising the Whale in manuscript as "very fine," Augusta went on to commend Hurry-Graphs; Or, Sketches of Scenery, Celebrities and Society by Nathaniel Parker Willis (where "Herman Melville, with his cigar and his Spanish eyes" is mentioned at the start of the chapter on Lieut. Wise, Author of Los Gringos); and in a postscript, Jane Bouverie by Catherine Sinclair.
Augusta Melville's letter to Allan Melville on May 16, 1851 is now at Arrowhead, donated by Anna Waller Morewood (1905-1994). Hershel Parker quoted it for the first time in "New Melville Documents and Sub-Intentioned Death," Chapter 17 in Suicidology: Essays in Honor of Edwin Shneidman (Jason Aronson Inc., 1993) pages 289-298 at 291. Generous excerpts are given in Parker's Herman Melville: A Biography Volume 1, 1819-1851 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996) on pages 840 and 867. However, a complete transcription has not been published before now.
Dave Laczak, senior technician with the Local History Department of the Berkshire Athenaeum, helpfully directed me to the present location of Augusta's letter. At the Berkshire County Historical Society at Herman Melville's Arrowhead, assistance with obtaining scanned images was kindly provided by Lesley Herzberg, Executive Director; and Erin Hunt, Curator. I am sincerely grateful for their guidance. Mistakes are all mine.
|Van Rensselaer Manor-House|
via NYPL Digital Collections
May 16th 1851
My dearest brother,
The letter you promised, has not yet made its appearance — & here I have been a long fortnight. But it is not too late yet, do not imagine that I have given up now all thoughts of receiving it, by no manner of means. I shall continue to expect it by each morning's mail, just as I have been doing ever since I came. I have only heard from home once, but I hope to have a letter tomorrow. They are all so busy there, that I suppose they dont feel as if they could spare the time to write often. The whole place will have been so much improved by the time of my return, that I expect hardly to recognize it. No doubt you have had letters since the date of mine & know just how far they have progressed. How I long to have everything in beautiful order, & you & Sophia & the children there enjoying the country air. Give my very warmest love to Sophia, & try to impress upon her mind the fact, that the receipt of a few lines from her, would afford me the highest satisfaction. I hope to hear that she feels stronger, & is no longer troubled with that wearisome pain in the back. Those arms, I trust, measure a little more in circumference, & those poor wrists are not quite so thin. I can imagine what a delicately slender appearance they present draped in the fashionable undersleeve. How much I should like to see that little Florence, & my darling little Maria. They will have grown almost out of my remembrance. Kisses by the dozen for them both; & a speedy transportation of them to Arrowhead.
And now I must try to gather all the Albany news for you, & tell you something of my visit thus far. The first week I was here, the weather was exceedingly unpleasant. Nothing but a succession of violent showers, so we were kept almost prisoners, I believe I was only out of the house twice. For the past six or seven days, however, it has been very delightful, just cool enough to be pleasant with the exception of one sultry day, when the thermometer stood at 80. We have been out driving a good deal, & had a good deal of company to dinner. I have only passed one day out, and that was at Aunt Susan's, yesterday. They are all very polite there — Uncle, excessively so. What will you say to his calling to see me with Aunt Susan last week, & then to his inviting me to drive with him to Troy to call upon General & Mrs Wool, to whom, it would give him much pleasure to introduce me! —he said.
|General John Ellis Wool|
Photo portrait by Matthew Brady via Library of Congress
land for the Reservoirs, the city have paid him 150 000 dollars. That has enabled him to pay up those heavy debts, & remove many of his anxieties arising from the anti-rent troubles. Then too, he has been engaged for some time in filling up the his low lands bordering on the river & converting them into lumber yards & docks — which rent to such advantage, that this past year, they brought him in $30,000. All these little particulars, I have treasured up in my memory, thinking they might interest you. Such things generally pass immediately out of my mind. They are making preparations to alter the patroon's bridge, so as to place it more on a direct line with the Troy road.—
|Albany Evening Journal - May 7, 1851|
via Genealogy Bank
has almost entirely lost the use of her right hand (I never knew that,) & is very much depressed. You must go there very soon then & let us know how she is. Uncle Peter, did not even know that she had been ill, until the day I passed there. Henry & Kitty have both grown very much — Henry wants only an inch or two of Uncle's heighth. By the way, they have lost one of their neighbors—Judge Bronson who has removed to New York. Mr Thayer has just been passing a couple of days with us, he brought me an invitation to return with him to Boston, & make Cornelia a visit — but I shall defer that to some other time. We are expecting Justine home from Baltimore this afternoon. Her father went for her on Monday. She has been suffering from a most alarming cough, & the physicians recommended her taking a little trip to the South — so she availed herself of that opportunity to visit Margaret in her new home. Bayard returns from Scotland some time next month. He has finished at the University, & is now to go in business. They speak of putting him with Mr Thayer.
|Detail, page 4 of 4. Augusta Melville, letter to Allan Melville, 16 May 1851.|
Courtesy of the Berkshire County Historical Society, Pittsfield, MA
My love to Mrs Thurston & every member of the family. Remember me to both of the Elizas. Has Sophia, read "Jane Bouverie" — It is beautifully written. Miss Sinclair is the author. Remember me kindly to Mr & Mrs Duyckinck. Mr J. R. wanted me to go with him to Baltimore. How pleasant it must be in New York now. Tell Sophia Mrs Bigelow (Miss Poultney) has a little son, a month old. But perhaps she knows it. Now I believe I have told you everything that I can think of. Cousin Maggie Wynkoop sent her love. The Taylors asked about you all.
- General and gentle readers
- Mid-to-late May maybe
- Robert Craighead's third-story rooms on Fulton street