Herman Melville: A Biography.


Volume I: p. 231: The Charles and Henry also offered stimulus for his mind from books. On the real Lucy Ann the real John Troy, Melville says in the partly fictional Omoo, possessed books, but “a damp, musty volume, entitled ‘A History of the most atrocious and Bloody Piracies’ ” may be an imaginary composite of real titles such as The History of the Lives and Bloody Exploits of the Most Noted Pirates (Hartford, 1835). After being taken off the Lucy Ann Melville had spent weeks in Tahiti and Eimeo outdoors all the time, “an utter savage” (in the phrasing he used of himself in 1852, after spending weeks out of doors), reading nothing so far as we know. Once he got aboard the Charles and Henry and settled into the routine of sailing without sighting whales or at least without capturing whales, he had time to catch up on his reading. The wealthy Nantucket owners of the ship had supplied their craft remarkably well in every regard, not omitting the ship’s library. Thanks to the surviving bill for $16.24 that the Nantucket Coffins paid on 5 April 1841, we have a good idea of what Melville could have laid his hands on—the first books we have much reason to think he read since, by his own account, he read Owen Chase’s Narrative in his early months in the Pacific. The surviving list of the books purchased (all new, apparently) often gives only short titles and no authors; from the list Wilson Heflin identified likely editions of the books named. Following Heflin’s identifications, here I sort the ship’s library into rough categories. Like Heflin, I assume that most of the books shipped at the end of 1840 were still aboard after less than two years; vandalism or even careless handling would not likely be tolerated in a well-run ship, despite the perhaps fictional bibliographical mutilation Melville describes (Omoo, ch. 20) as taking place on a poorly captained Australian whaler. In addition, individual sailors brought some books aboard, which in due course might have found their way into the community book-chest.