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The Short, Sad Story of Stanwix Melville

Piecing back together the forgotten history of Herman Melville's second son.

I was teaching “Bartleby, the Scrivener” to a dozen undergraduates on a cold November morning, all of us a little haggard after an unexpected Halloween snowstorm. Distractedly, I glanced across the page to the editor’s headnote, and settled on these words: “Their second son, Stanwix… was found dead in a San Francisco hotel in 1886.” I found myself thinking what a strange name Stanwix was, more like a commercial brand than a given name. Stanwix: When Kleenex Isn’t Enough. And what, I wondered, was Stanwix found dead of? Did he blow his brains out, or was that another of Melville’s star-crossed sons? During the days that followed, I began to assemble a few stray notes on Stanwix. I was following a thread, as I imagined it. And yet, the thread didn’t seem to lead out of a maze, like Ariadne’s, but farther into it.

I assumed that Stanwix—one of those “lesser lives” that, as Diane Johnson has pointed out, don’t feel any less to those living them—had been accorded a very small place in Herman Melville’s biography, which turned out to be true. But I wanted to stave off this kind of limitation in my own thinking. For this reason, the book I most consulted, or rather wandered around inside, was Jay Leyda’s The Melville Log (1951).