Struggling New York writer Herman Melville

New York artists and writers who fear their work will never be recognized should know the story of city native Herman Melville.

Born in 1819 on Pearl Street, Melville is now considered one of the greatest American authors.

But after some early critical success, his later works, like Moby-Dick, bombed.

So he returned in defeat. In 1863, he moved from New England to 104 East 26th Street, where he lived the rest of his life. A street sign designates the corner at Park Avenue South as “Herman Melville Square.” 

To support his family, Melville was forced to take a desk job.

For years he worked as a customs inspector in an office at West and Gansevoort Streets—fitting, since his mother’s relatives were the original Gansevoorts.

He would have no idea that after his death in 1891, his work would achieve great acclaim.

Melville had a way with words about his home city. Early in Moby-Dick, he describes Manhattan like this:

“There now is your insular city of Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward.

“It’s extreme down-town is the Battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight by land. Look at the crowd of water-gazers there.”

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8 Responses to “Struggling New York writer Herman Melville”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    There’s a building on Whitehall Street which carries a plaque with his name on it. I saw it over 25-30 years ago, don’t know if it still exists. It’s off to the side, delivery entrance. When he worked in Lower NY used to walk back and forth every day from 26th Street, about 2-3 miles. At least he was in shape.

  2. Joe R Says:

    I passed by the 26th Street addressed you mentioned. There is a tiny little plaque by the freight entrance of the building that now occupies the space where his home was. (It’s right adjacent to the Armory building.)

  3. Aaron Says:

    And Front Street has a lovely passage from Moby Dick (about NYC) inscribed in stone on the side of one of its buildings:

  4. A popular 1840s literary salon on Waverly Place « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Waldo Emerson (below), Herman Melville, and Horace Greeley were also among the frequent […]

  5. fhsi Says:

    The Forgotten History of Staten Island has a chapter on how Melville’s struggles led him to stay with his brother Thomas at the old sailor’s home at Snug Harbor, and how that stay inspired Moby Dick.

  6. Herman Melville imagines the brutal Draft Riots | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] A city native born on Pearl Street, he returned to the metropolis from Massachusetts that same year, moving with his family to a farmhouse on East 26th Street. […]

  7. A grisly murder and a city society scion in 1841 | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] to Colt was such a topic of discussion, it’s even referenced in Bartleby the Scrivener, New York native Herman Melville’s 1853 short story about a Wall Street clerk who “who would prefer not […]

  8. A famous poet forced to work in the NYC subway | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] was following in the 19th century footsteps of Herman Melville, also born wealthy but took a job as a customs inspector to support […]

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