On April 23, J. Peter Bergman, director of communications at Arrowhead, the home of Herman Melville, pulled back the curtain of time on both Melville and Edna St. Vincent Millay in his presentation at the Mattapoisett Free Public Library.
Bergman has been deeply immersed in the lives of both authors for decades, including his involvement with the Millay Society located at the writer’s homestead, Steepletop, in New York.
Bergman’s deep knowledge of both artists has inspired his unique perspective that Millay may just be Melville reincarnated.
During his hour-long presentation while sprinkling the talk with passages from works by both, he drew the audience into his rationale – for Bergman, the similarities in the two artists’ history and writing styles isn’t coincidence.
Melville was born in 1819 in New York City to a family that lived a comfortable lifestyle. But fate would see the family fall into poverty when his father died, forcing Melville to leave school to help support them.
Millay, born in 1892 in Rockland, Maine, would suffer a similar fate when her father and mother divorced. Millay became responsible for the care of her siblings.
In spite of their struggles, Bergman pointed to their early writing, brilliance, success, and critical flops.
Melville, whose well-known book Moby Dick, originally simply titled The Whale, was a complete disaster, one he would never recover from in life. Bergman placed the blame for Melville’s critical crucifixion on Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Melville’s admiration for Hawthorne was such that he dedicated Moby Dick to him. But Hawthorne, according to Bergman, had just published the successful Scarlet Letter and was working on The House of the Seven Gables when Moby Dick was published. Hawthorne wasn’t interested in sharing the limelight.
Bergman said that Hawthorne recognized Moby Dick’s brilliance. With a few well-placed words, he essentially sabotaged Melville’s creation, nay, his entire career. Moby Dick sank in a sea of bad reviews spearheaded by Hawthorne.
Millay suffered a similar fate when critics of her time lampooned her work, most notably by the scalpel wielded by T.S. Elliot. However, she did live long enough to enjoy renewed acclaim, not only among critics, but also among the reading public.
Bergman pointed to those early successes and later failures as similarities linking the two authors. Melville’s early work Pierre earned him great praise, while Millay’s Renascence, written when she was only 19 years of age, placed her high on the literary pedestal. And although Melville didn’t live to see his Moby Dick rise to the best-selling book of all time challenged only by the Bible, Millay received a Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her fourth book, The Ballad of the Harp Weaver.
Bergman noted that Melville and Millay had similar writing styles and during his presentation asked the audience to try and identify “who wrote what” as he read passages from their works. Millay’s “strong voice,” Bergman said, gave her writing a more masculine tone. This writing style, in Bergman’s mind, further solidified the creative conveyance of these literary greats.
Bergman also slipped in a bit about the private lives of his two favorite authors – their romantic lives that he claimed were similarly unlucky.
Melville, he said, “…may have fathered two children with his neighbor Sarah Moore.” In fact, Melville purchased the farm next door to Moore, “presumably so they could meet secretly in the woods,” Bergman surmised.
Millay, on the other hand, had hoped to marry a particular suitor but was spurned in love. Still, she maintained a lifelong friendship with both the gentleman and the woman he did marry.
Of Millay, Bergman shared this tidbit: “She loved to garden and swim in the nude … well, she did everything in the nude!”
“I think if Herman and Edna are not the same creative spirit, I don’t know how they are so alike,” Bergman stated. “They were both geniuses…”
And one last similarity Bergman pointed out was based in numerology in which he placed credence.
“Millay was born 117 days after Melville died,” he said. “Those digits add up to nine, an auspicious number.”
Melville’s farm Arrowhead is located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Visit www.mobydick.org for more information. Millay’s homestead, Steepletop, is located in Austerlitz, New York. Visit www.millay.org for details.
By Marilou Newell