Although not a native son, he spent his teenage years in Albany, so we claim him as ours.
His mother, Maria Gansevoort, was the daughter of Peter Gansevoort (“the hero of Ft. Stanwix”) and member of the Albany elite. General Gansevoort defeated forces of British Officer Barry St. Leger during the Battle of Oriskany in August 1777, preventing St. Leger from aiding General Burgoyne, a major factor in the American ability to win the Battles of Saratoga later that fall. His father, Allan Melville, was the son of Thomas Melville, member of the Boston Tea Party and a ranking American officer in the Revolutionary War.
When Allan was in his early 20’s he started a fancy goods import business in NYC that became very successful. He sailed to Europe many times to source products; his journal indicates he traveled over 48,000 miles in 22 years (that wanderlust proved to be genetic).
Allen and Maria married in 1814 in the Dutch Reformed Church in Albany on the corner of N. Pearl and Orange streets (the same building you see today, erected in 1798) and the church attended by Alexander Hamilton when he was in Albany with his wife, Eliza. Allen moved the business to Albany, but it didn’t thrive. Maria was reluctant to go to NYC, and they moved to Boston, but business competition was fierce. Finally in 1818, Maria agreed to move to New York, where Herman was born in 1819.
Both Allan and Maria were, to put it bluntly, snobs. They never felt they were able to assume the position in society in New York to which they both felt they were entitled. (She was descended from a long line of Dutch aristocracy and they were both descendants of Revolutionary War heroes.) This sentiment, coupled with disastrous investments by Allan and a nationwide economic downturn, forced their return to Albany in 1830.
The family lived in several houses on Broadway between 1830 and 1833, including an upscale house on the corner of Broadway and Steuben. Allan went to work for his brother-in-law Peter. Chafing under Peter’s control, yet still struggling under great debt, he borrowed money and established a fur and cap store on Broadway.
Herman seems to have thrived in Albany; he continued his education at the Albany Academy (located in the Joseph Henry Building that houses the City School district offices today), roamed the countryside, watched the ships ply the Albany Basin and the Erie Canal lock, and spent time with his Melville and Gansevoort cousins in the Albany area and in the Berkshires.
Yet Allan’s business limped along during the Depression of 1832. On his return from an unsuccessful trip to secure merchandise on credit from NYC merchants, Allan fell ill and died.
The family was almost penniless and besieged by creditors. They moved to a smaller house at 3 Clinton Square. What then followed for Herman was a 6 year cycle of intermittent enrollment at the Albany Classical Institute on N. Pearl St. and the Albany Academy and work – as a clerk for the State Bank (his uncle Peter was a Trustee), for the family business and later as a school teacher.
Herman’s older brother, Gansevoort took over the family fur business after their father’s death; Herman went to work for him. Then in 1834 the factory that supplied the business, located near Beaver Creek in what is now Lincoln Park, was destroyed by fire. Gansevoort re-built and for a short time all was well and Herman re-enrolled in the Albany Academy. But again, the economy collapsed in the Panic of 1837. The family business went bankrupt and Herman, now 16, went to teach school in Lenox, Mass.
His sojourn in the Berkshires lasted only months and he returned to his mother’s house in Clinton Square. In 1838, his mother moved to Lansingburgh and Herman enrolled in the Lansingburgh Academy, earning a certificate as surveyor. He searched for permanent work, but was unsuccessful. He spent more time by the docks, and finally in June 1839, sailed as a cabin boy on ship setting off for Liverpool.
In 1841 he signed on to his first whaling ship, the Achusnet, and journeyed to the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. He sailed and roamed the South Seas for about 4 years, came home and started writing.
His greatest novel “Moby Dick” was written in 1851. And without it we would not have the ubiquitous string of coffee houses, named after the Chief Mate, Starbuck, from ” Moby Dick” (the name was selected by the founders- a history teacher, an English teacher and a writer).
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor