Jul 29, 2014
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Herman Melville: Lost and Found in South Orange

The writer's connections to South Orange last into the present with a found manuscript

Herman Melville: Lost and Found in South Orange

Lost: one sculpture of the young Greek, Antinous. Found: one manuscript, possibly written by Herman Melville. Both items were last seen in South Orange.

Jo Ann Middleton, Drew University professor, spoke at the South Orange Public Library on Thursday about Herman Melville’s ties to South Orange.

While the author, best known for Moby Dick, is associated with the high seas and lower Manhattan, where he spent his adult life, Melville spent considerable time in the Oranges. Middleton described the connections, introducing her talk as “a good, old-fashioned gossip” about the Melville family.

 Briefly, Herman Melville came to Oranges because his daughter Frances lived first at 28 Clinton Street in East Orange, then at 63 Montrose Avenue in South Orange. Known as “Fanny,” Frances Melville married Henry Thomas; together they moved to the East Orange house in 1880.

 Middleton noted that the trip from Manhattan, where Fanny Melville Thomas’s parents and sister lived, was not the easy commute locals know today.  She read aloud excerpts from a letter written by Fanny’s aunt, who described her “safe passage” out to “the Jerseys.”

Nonetheless, Melville rode the Erie-Lackawanna railroad to South Orange, the station closest to his daughter’s home, drawn by the prospect of seeing his grandchildren, including Eleanor, the eldest.

By 1890, the Thomas family moved into South Orange, where their new house on Montrose Avenue stood ready. Melville visited before he died in 1891.

When Melville’s widow and his younger daughter broke up housekeeping in the early part of the twentieth century, many of the Melville family belongings arrived in South Orange. Fanny Thomas’s large home became a repository of everything from books, to furniture, to a “breadbox” full of manuscripts that was stored in the attic. At that time, the Melville – Thomas family donated two vases and a statue of Antinous to the South Orange Public Library. They were reported missing just years later.

The Thomas daughters attended a private school for girls in South Orange, possibly one on Warwick Avenue, . Eleanor Thomas, who became Eleanor Metcalf at her marriage, was unofficial keeper of her grandfather’s belongings, including the breadbox and his desk. She donated the box and its manuscripts to Harvard University; one of the journals turned out to contain Melville’s masterpiece Billy Budd, published posthumously in 1924.

That was many years after the Thomas family inherited Melville’s belongings. Middleton explained that the family “gave things away” to neighbors, friends, and family members who needed furniture.  Some of Melville’s books were given away to someone who had a new set of shelves and simply needed to fill them.

“Check your attics,” said Middleton laughingly. “A manuscript turned up here in South Orange.” She explained that a manuscript possibly written by Herman Melville came to light locally; it’s in the process of being verified. “You heard it here first,” she said.

“It’s everyone’s dream,” said Middleton, to discover a writer’s lost manuscript in that hard-to-reach crawl space under the stairs, or behind that sealed panel in the kitchen.  If a sheaf of papers turns up in South Orange, and it’s signed Herman Melville, it just might be a dream come true. 

What interesting things have you found in your home? Tell us in the comments.

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