Naptime with Mrs. Melville


Arts & Culture


A portrait of Maria Gansevoort Melville by Ezra Ames, ca. 1815.

Yesterday we posted Rick Moody’s introduction to Genoa: A Telling of Wonders, a searching 1965 novel by Paul Metcalf in which he grapples with the influence of his great-grandfather, who so happened to be Herman Melville.

Metcalf makes liberal use of Melville throughout the novel, often quoting his work for paragraphs or pages at a stretch. He also inserts his own asides, and one of these in particular I’ve found striking. “I think, for a moment,” he writes,

of Maria Melville, Herman Melville’s mother, who, it is reliably reported, would require her eight children to sit on little stools around her bed, motionless, while she took her daily nap, that she might keep track of them.

I just about fell out of my chair when I read this. Think, if it’s true, of the remarkable fortitude required of both parties: of Maria, who cut such an imposing matriarchal figure that she was able to coerce eight children into doing her bidding even when she was asleep, and of the kids, who were able to sit together with enough stillness and silence that their mother never woke from her slumber. Whether these were twenty-minute forerunners of the power nap or long, REM-laden getaways remains to be seen. Either way, I’m impressed.

I’m also skeptical. I haven’t been able to verify the story anywhere, not even with several minutes of sustained Googling. Genoa appears to be its only source. You could shrug it off, easily enough, as apocrypha—but Metcalf went out of his way to insert that “it is reliably reported,” a frustratingly passive construction. Yes, as a direct descendent of Melville, he’s credible, and his account, in its specificity, feels believable, too, right down to the detail of the “little stools.” (Were these on hand for just this occasion?) But we’re too late for any lapel grabbing or information pumping: Metcalf died in 1999.

Melville scholars seem to agree that Maria was something of a martinet. Edwin Haviland Miller described her as “imprisoned in her egomaniacal world”; Clare Spark wrote that “she was the voice of authority, she held the rod, she relentlessly criticized her children”; and Paul McCarthy calls her “quietly aggressive and purposeful … As a mother, Maria was devoted and caring, but she was also strict and sometimes coercive.” He cites the napping scheme, unattributed, as evidence of her iron fist. It was especially cruel, he adds, because the Melvilles kept a maid who could easily have cared for the children during naptime.

“She was certainly, in a guileless way, ambitious socially” Newton Arvin writes in his Herman Melville:

She does not fail to note in a letter that they have moved to the “Fashionable side” of Broadway, or in another letter that some oysters she has pickled are not only excellent in flavor but “the same which some of our Stylish Neighbors in Bond Street gave at a large party of Fashionables.” Life in Albany in her girlhood had accustomed Maria Melville to taking for granted the most distinguished associations within reach, and the more metropolitan, more cosmopolitan New York of the ‘twenties may have caused her some throes of disappointment, even of hurt pride. “Fashionables I am affraid [sic] have no hearts,” she remarks … In the long run the ambitious and commanding side of Maria Melville’s nature was to gain the upper hand.

Much of this squares with the image of a woman who would have her children gather punctiliously at her bedside every day—especially when Arvin adds that the siblings’ affection for one another “ran too deep and [was], if anything, too intense.”

Melville is supposed to have based the haughty, icy Mrs. Glendinning, from his novel Pierre, on his mother; tellingly, the word Glendinning most affiliates with her son is docile. When he defies her, as Joseph Adamson explains in Melville, Shame, and the Evil Eye, “in a fit of frustration and rage … she flings her fork, which accidentally pierces her portrait, so that the tines ‘caught in the painted bosom, vibrantly rankled in the wound.’ ”

This is getting pretty Freudian—but it’s all support for the cause. I urge anyone with knowledge of Maria Melville’s child-rearing strategies to be in touch. Whether it’s true or not, there’s something indelibly tragicomic about Metcalf’s image. If young Herman really was made to spend a not insignificant portion of his childhood watching his mom sleep, it goes some way toward explaining his problematic relationship with her, especially after his father died. “There grew up between the two,” Arvin writes, “an intense and contrarious relationship, and a far from fortunate one … His mother could not or would not shower upon him the affection he craved, and the sense of orphanhood began to grow upon him.”

And so goodnight.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.