Herman Melville was born on this day, August 1, in 1819, in a boarding house on the site of 6 Pearl Street, in the Financial District of lower Manhattan in New York City. I invite you to join me in a virtual pilgrimage to his birth place.
The boarding house where Melville was born is long gone. A 42 floor gleaming glass and metal skyscraper, 17 State Street, rises where the building once stood. One photographer referred to the building as a “great white whale.” Nevertheless, there is a plaque and bronze bust of Melville roughly on the site of the original structure.
The memorial is easy to miss, particularly on a busy Manhattan morning when the entire world seems to be rushing by on the sidewalks of one of the world’s great financial centers. One might think of this as sadly fitting. Melville was, after all, a failure in his own time. Each of his books had been out of print for thirty years before his death. So, one might be saddened that the memorial of his birth is in an out-of-the-way spot in the side of a just another glass-walled skyscraper.
But, before you find yourself growing “grim about the mouth” or sinking into “a damp, drizzly November of [the] soul,” turn around.
Across the street is a coffee shop, specifically a Starbucks, the company named after the mate of the whale ship, Pequod, from Melville’s greatest novel, Moby Dick. This is only one over 200 Starbucks in New York City and over 20,000 in 62 countries around the world. No doubt, most Starbuck patrons will not remember Melville’s birthday today. Nevertheless, I raise my cup of coffee to the immortal Herman Melville, the patron saint of failed writers, the author of Moby Dick, Billy Budd, White Jacket, Typee and Pierre, and as wholly integral to our culture as the first cup of coffee in the morning.