Melville's Last, Grave Joke?

Article excerpt

When Herman Melville died in 1891, he was buffed in a plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York, next to the spot where his son Malcolm had been buffed following his suicide in 1867 at the age of 18. Melville's wife, Elizabeth Shaw Melville, joined them upon her death in 1906. But Melville's grave has left afficionados puzzled at least since the Melville revival of the 20s and 30s. Why did the family choose Woodlawn in the Bronx when they lived in Manhattan? Why the oddity of Melville's marker itself?. The former query seems to have a dear, logical explanation, given a bit of history; the latter is not so easily answered and seems to elicit as many differing responses as Ahab's doubloon.

The family's choice of Woodlawn was made, of course, not near the turn of the century when Melville himself died, but upon the untimely death of Malcolm, known to the family as Macky, just after the Civil War. Gravesites of family members were important to the Melvilles. Melville's Gansevoort relations had been buffed in the Albany Rural Cemetery in Albany, New York. Melville's uncle, Peter Gansevoort was the trustee for the cemetery from 1865-67, and both Augusta, Melville's sister, and Kate, his cousin, restored the family monuments there in 1867, shortly after Macky's death. Kate wrote to a family member that several of her cousins had been in town and paid visits to the graveyard. At this time the bodies of Melville's father and his older brother, originally buffed in the Dutch Church section of the cemetery? were moved for reinternment, monuments were cleaned and refurbished, and some new inscriptions were added. (2)

The Melvilles did not lay Malcolm to rest in Albany with the Gansevoorts and Melvilles or in the more established Greenwood, but in the Bronx's Woodlawn. The family undoubtedly chose Woodlawn for three excellent reasons: reputation, beauty, and location. Of all the cemeteries in New York, Woodlawn, chartered in 1863 and opened in 1865, less than two years prior to Malcolm's death, was the newest and was considered "America's most prestigious cemetery for men and women of accomplishment." A good share of the society 400 chose to be buried at Woodlawn. Known today for its millionaires and robber barons, (3) Woodlawn houses on its 313 acres the remains of Jay Gould, the "Mephistopheles of Wall Street," reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, journalist Nelly Bly, and Admiral David Farragut and other military heroes of the Civil War including Cornelius de LaMater, who designed and built the Merrimac. (4)

Not just Woodlawn's residents but its site, too, was reminiscent of military glory. In October of 1776, following his retreat from New York city and in order to delay the advancing British troops, George Washington ordered the construction of a redoubt at what is today Woodlawn's southeast corner. The principal street south of the cemetery bridging the river is still called Gun Hill Road. (5) This connection with the Revolutionary War would have appealed to Melville, since his grandfathers on both sides, Major Thomas Melvill of Boston and General Peter Gansevoort of Albany, were heroes of the Revolution. Major Melvill, friend of Samual Adams and other Sons of Liberty, had been a participant in the Boston Tea Party and several battles of the War for Independence, and General Gansevoort earned the title Hero of Fort Stanwix when he defended the beseiged fort, saving Albany and thus New York from the British. Melville's family naturally revered these patriots and their glorious exploits.

The Civil War, too, had great meaning for Melville, although he was beyond the age to go asoldiering himself since he was 41 in 1860. By the end of the war, he harbored hopes that Battle-Pieces, published in 1866, would make him the poet-prophet of a rededicated nation. Too young to volunteer during the Civil War, Melville's eldest son had still imbibed much of the family's patriotic talk about the glories of military service, and he joined the New York State National Guard when he turned 18. …