200 years ago today, the great American author Herman Melville was born in New York City. Though his masterpiece, Moby Dick, eventually became beloved and described as “the most ambitious book ever conceived by an American writer,” the novel was a huge flop and Melville was labeled a madman—much like the painter van Gogh, whose art was never understood or appreciated until after his death.
Because employment was scarce during the Great Depression, the 22-year-old Melville signed up in Massachusetts to work on a whaling ship, which planted the seeds for his first novels. After a year of adventure at sea, he and another sailer jumped ship and lived among the Polynesians for a month, an experience that he based his first two books on— Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, and the sequel Omoo—both of which were exciting successes.
LEARN MORE BELOW, and find out how you can VISIT his farmhouse and local library to geek out over the Melville collections there… (1847)
After extensive personal research into sperm whales, he wrote the dense, Shakespearean adventure-tragedy Moby-Dick, based on an actual whale that had capsized an American ship while he was a boy. Its iconic opening line, “Call me Ishmael”, is among literature’s most famous. After a string of literary failures he took a job as a Customs Inspector and turned to writing poetry. He held the post for 19 years and won the reputation of being the only honest employee there. Melville devoted years to “his autumnal masterpiece,” an 18,000-line epic poem entitled Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage, inspired by his 1856 trip to the Holy Land. Some call it the longest single poem in American literature. The title character is a young American student of divinity who travels to Jerusalem to renew his faith.
Upon retirement, his gaze returned once more to the sea. The novella Billy Budd was left unfinished at his death but was published posthumously in 1924, after interest in the centennial of his birth spurred the “Melville Revival” with critics rediscovering his works, which were finally recognized as world classics.
In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, this week celebrating the bicentennial of Melville’s birth you can visit the Berkshire Athenaeum, the public library that features a robust collection of the author’s personal memorabilia, manuscripts, and photos—including carved wooden canoe paddles that he collected in Polynesia, his walking stick, and favorite inkstand and quills.
Meanwhile, at the historically preserved farmhouse he called Arrowhead—where he lived with his growing family and wrote his most famous novels and short stories—a giant inflatable whale will be erected, amid demonstrations about whales and seamanship.
Thursday is ‘Old Salt’s Day’ at Arrowhead, whereby Marines, Merchant Marines, sailors, and other sea-related professionals can tour the home for free. On Friday, Aug. 2, a marathon Moby-Dick reading will begin. Those interested can call ahead to reserve a 10-minute reading slot or just drop by Arrowhead during the day.
“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure….. Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle , and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick
MORE Good News on this Day:
- Slavery was abolished in the British Empire (1834)
- The first Jeep was produced, a 4-wheel drive vehicle born of wartime necessity that over the decades became a beloved mode of transportation for outdoor recreation lovers, indelibly linked to freedom and fun (1941)
- The Fulbright Program was signed into law, named for its advocate, Sen. J. William Fulbright, who wanted to provide scholarships to increase mutual understanding between the peoples of the United States and 144 other countries– and the program produces more Nobel Prize winners than any other academic program. (1946)
- MTV began broadcasting in the United States airing its first video, “Video Killed The Radio Star” by the Buggles (1981)
And on this day in 1971, the groundbreaking Concert For Bangladesh was held at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Organized by George Harrison to aid victims of famine and war, the concert, which may have been the first all-star charity rock show, featured Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, and Ravi Shankar.
The triple album release hit No.1 in the UK and No.2 in the US and received the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. The concert raised $243,418, which was given to UNICEF and by 1985, nearly $12 million had been raised from album sales–with proceeds from DVDs and CDs today continuing to benefit the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF.
Also, on this day in 1942, Jerry Garcia, the founder of the Grateful Dead, was born in San Francisco. A son of musician parents, his distinctive guitar playing, unique for the fact that he lost his right middle finger as a child, earned Garcia the ranking of #13 in Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” Also an artist, the nature-loving counter-culture leader was plagued by drug addiction and diabetes, and died at the age of 53 of a heart attack.
Besides the wildly popular Grateful Dead music, he played on over 50 studio albums the styles of which were eclectic and varied, including bluegrass, rock, folk, blues, country, jazz, electronic music, gospel, funk, and reggae. In 2015, Jerry Garcia’s wife, Manasha Garcia and their daughter, Keelin Garcia launched The Jerry Garcia Foundation, a nonprofit charity that supports for artistic, environmental, and humanitarian causes that were so dear to him.
And, on this day in 1873, the first cable streetcar in San Francisco was tested on Clay Street hill. Instigated by Andrew Hallidie, the cable cars went on to become a beloved modern day feature—and are currently the world’s last manually operated cable car system.
Legend says that Hallidie was inspired to reduce the suffering of the horses that hauled streetcars up the notably steep inclines—and when the first gripman hired to operate the car looked down Clay Street, he refused to carry on, so Hallidie took the grip himself and ran the car down the hill and up again without any problems. WATCH a video explaining the ingenious, yet simple, system…
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