“A new map of the City of New York,” 1831 via New York Public Library Map Division
Though most people’s association with legendary writer Herman Melville may be of sailing the high seas in search of the “White Whale”, the Moby Dick author was actually quite the urbanite, spending the majority of his life living in what he refers to as “the insular city of the Manhattoes” (an extinct term referring to Manhattan’s native American inhabitants). Melville’s connection with New York City is so strong in fact that we’ve compiled a list to show how the inspiration of some of his greatest works can be found right here on the streets we walk today. Remarkably though, almost every landmark on this list has completely vanished and has since been replaced by a commercial retail space of some sort. With that, read on to learn more about the vanished locations that inspired some of the finest works of literature in the American canon. This list was also aided in no small part by Poets.org‘s brilliant Herman Melville walking tour, which can be seen here.
1. Coenties Slip (Current Financial District)
Only a single row of 19th century buildings still exist from Melville’s time but it’s not hard to picture how this old loading dock may have sparked the young author’s imagination. It was here that he found the inspiration for a passage from Redburn, which describes the dock area as being surrounded by “grim-looking warehouses, with rusty iron doors and shutters, and tiled roofs; and old anchors and chain-cables piled on the walk.” The warehouses in question should undoubtedly include Warehouse No. 58 and 62, which still stand today. What really caught his attention about the bay though were not the warehouses but the “sun-burnt sea captains” who hung out the local coffeehouses while “talking about Havana, London, and Calcutta.”
2. The Law Office of Gansevoort and Allan Melville (16 Pine Street)
On the back side of Federal Hall (shown here at the front) was 16 Pine Street
The Melvilles were originally a well-established Boston family who went bankrupt after Herman’s father, Allan, tried to revive his failing fortunes from the mercantile business with a fur trade operation. The family was left penniless when Allan died after their bankruptcy, but thankfully, the brothers were able to restore their reputation as successful lawyers. Their office was on 16 Pine Street in the current financial district, and it was here that Gansevoort refined the legal chops that helped him negotiate the deal of Herman Melville’s first success, Typee.
3. 10 Wall Street
Wall Street, photo via Library of Congress
Wall Street was a very influential force in the creative life of Herman Melville, and it also served as the vehicle in which Herman’s brothers tried to reclaim the family fortune lost by their father’s fur trading debacle. After Gansevoort helped each brother get started, Allan eventually found his first success on his own at 10 Wall Street. This is important because this address is where Allan became Herman’s literary agent and brought him his earliest success as a bestselling author by helping to get Typee published on both sides of the Atlantic. Wall Street must have also undoubtedly served as the inspiration for a certain forlorn scrivener named Bartleby of “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” whose tendency to “prefer not to” in fulfilling his tedious office job was indicative of Melville’s own first-hand observations.
4. American Art Union (Franklin Street on Broadway)
Melville enjoyed spending his free time walking around his home in lower Manhattan and attending art galleries. Located on Franklin Street, Melville once attended the opening of the American Art Union where he had seen “few paintings” but had also met many of the city’s literati. Among the attendees was the iconic Walt Whitman, who was then a young editor reviewing the event. Although Whitman’s “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry” indicates that both authors had probably spent equal amounts of time at South Street Seaport’s waterfront, the two authors strangely never crossed paths.
5. Gowan’s Antiquarian Bookstore (97 Nassau Street)
Edgar Allan Poe. Photo in Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Edgar Allan Poe was a contemporary and friend of Melville’s — they were introduced by a mutual editor. The place they had met was Gowan’s Antiquarian Bookstore, a now defunct dealer of “Historical Americana”. In a strange turn of events, Melville had supposedly once bought an edition of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy that had once belonged to his father’s library.
6. The Literary World (109 Wall Street)
Piers at the end of Wall Street, not far from 109 Wall Street. Photo via Library of Congress
This publication was once one of Herman Melville’s strongest literary supporters, defending his work by praising him as part of “a clique of literary nationalists.” Although a trace of condescension underlies their insistence that “Mr. Melville is a sailor, and he talks, acts and writes like a sailor,” Melville had remained close friends with editor Duyckink even after the editor had publicly criticized his later, more difficult works. In addition to taking up Typee as publisher’s editor, Duyckink also allowed Melville to write a famous, anonymous essay praising the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
7. Fictional Church of the Apostles from Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (82 Nassau)
Though there is no actual church to be seen at 82 Nassau, Melville did re-imagine this address as the location for Pierre‘s fictional Church of the Apostles. Five buildings down from Fulton Street and on the right of Nassau, this church was supposedly desecrated in 1848 to make way for commercial spaces including law offices and vacant living chambers for “painters, poets, and fugitive French Politicians.” This quasi-autobiographical story describes Pierre as having occupied one of the rooms in this church to work on a book.
8. The Home of Young Mr. and Mrs. Melville (103 Fourth Ave.)
Grace Church. Photo via Library of Congress
Mr. and Mrs. Melville’s first home as a married couple, on 4th Avenue behind Grace Church, was purchased in part with money from Herman’s father-in-law and was also occupied by his newly married brother. In many letters written at this time to her step-mother, Mrs. Melville confirms many of Herman’s personal habits and daily routines, saying that “before dinner he goes down for a walk, looks at the papers,” and that he was also fond of taking them to visit the art galleries in the area.
9. Clinton Hall (Nassau on the corner of Beekman Street)
Clinton Hall was one of Melville’s oft-attended haunts on his walks through the neighborhood. In addition, it was also the inspiration for a memorable segment of Moby Dick. Clinton Hall was home to the Phrenological Cabinet, an intriguing showcase for the plaster casts and charts of famous men’s heads. These casts and charts were believed to reveal certain things about the person’s mind. This practice was eventually satirized in a passage that describes the phrenology of “the Leviathan” as a “delusional” practice, “for his true brain, you can see no indications of it, nor feel any. The whale, like all things that are mighty, wears a false brow to the common world .”
10. Putnam’s Monthly (10 Park Row)
View of Park Row from a distance from Vesey Street Image via Library of Congress
At the rather hopeless end of Melville’s career, after Pierre had garnered strong criticism from the public and put him at a financial standstill, he reluctantly took a position at Putnam’s Monthly on Park Row. It was here that Melville got his first taste of obscurity, though his position as an editor did give him a chance to produce some of his greatest short prose including the Piazza Tales and Israel Potter.
If you liked this story, you may enjoy reading about this recent book about authors who chose to leave New York and why. In addition, this article featuring vintage photos of South Street Seaport may also pique your interest.Get in touch with the author @DouglasCapraro.