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Extra info for A companion to Herman Melville
He was reading James Fenimore Cooper’s The Red Rover, whose pirate protagonist appealed to the rebellious young man, and Richard Henry Dana’s bestseller Two Years Before the Mast, a book that stirred the salt water in his blood. He could not have been A Traveling Life 9 trying terribly hard to get a job, because he let his hair and beard grow until his ‘‘savage’’ appearance became ‘‘a great source of anxiety’’ to his brother Gansevoort, who urged Herman to get ‘‘his hair sheared & whiskers shaved’’ before going home again.
He worked on this masterpiece until a few months before his death, focusing first on the innocent Billy, then on the malevolent Claggart, and finally on the rationalizing, murderous Captain Vere until he created a tragic portrait of the modern world at war that ceased to resemble its putative source, the 1842 mutiny aboard the brig Somers. Although to Lizzie and the children, Melville could seem heartless when his demons possessed him, in the end, he stood for the heart, condemning Captain Vere’s Caesar-like dismissal of ‘‘the feminine in man’’ (BB 111).
To escape, he spent several summers working on his Uncle Thomas’s Berkshire farm. Like Major Melvill, Thomas Melvill, Jr. was a colorful character. Having lived in Paris for a number of years with a French wife, he fancied himself something of a boulevardier. He wore his Sunday clothes and took pinches of snuff while raking hay in the fields. Herman enjoyed both his uncle’s foppish affectations and the rustic manners of his country cousins, especially Julia Maria, a bright girl who seems to have been a close friend.