The ‘Scottishness’ of Herman Melville

Was Herman Melville Scottish? Well, possibly, but not sufficiently to qualify for Scotland i.e. his grandfather was American – very American, since he was a leading participant in the Boston Tea Party.
“On his father’s side he is of Scottish extraction, and is descended in the fourth degree from Thomas Melville, minister of Scoonie parish, Leven, Fife…” (could there be a connection here with RLS?)
Thomas Melville’s seventh child Alan Melville (b. 7 Dec 1727) went to America in 1748. He died in Boston, Mass on 2nd January 1760, leaving a son, Thomas Melville, the author’s grandfather. Thomas Melvill[e] (1751-1832) visited his relatives in Scotland in 1772, and was presented with the freedom of [?] Leven. The author’s father, Alan Melvill[e], married a Dutchwoman, and may also have visited Scotland. HM travelled to Scotland in 1856, visiting Abbotsford, Perth and Stirling (a serious omission from my  Literary Landmarks of Stirling and Clackmannan). He inquired about Scoonie, but could not find out much about it. In any case he had damaged the bridge of his nose and was not inclined to look anyone up because he looked like a prize-fighter. Melville’s father died young (when HM was 12), so he had a ‘Dutch’ upbringing, although his grandfather was appointed his guardian.
The Melvilles of Raith were the relatives visited by Thomas Melville. It is through this family that HM is sometimes connected with the court of Mary, Queen of Scots.

3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Tom Hubbard said,

    Good to know that someone else is interested in the Herman Melville Scottish connection! He mentions Fife a number of times in Moby Dick, and there’s the incident between John Paul Jones and a Kirkcaldy minister in another Melville novel, Israel Potter. The late Duncan Glen and I included the relevant extracts in our Fife anthology FRINGE OF GOLD (Birlinn, 2008). I recall that, back in the 80s, my wife and I used to take our kids to Letham Glen, a beautiful park and woodland near Scoonie. At the time I was getting into American literature but had no idea then of any local connection with HM. I only discovered it later, quite unsystematically, while browsing in a biography of Melville in an American university library.
    MacDiarmid claims Melville as a Scot in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, but that’s essentially a wind-up: MacDiarmid at his mischievous best. More to the point is that he also refers there to Dostoyevsky, in the context of Melivlle and Dostoyevsky being writers who took the novel into a prophetic, visionary dimension.
    There’s an early letter of RLS where he mentions a lane and a mill outside Leven. I suspect this may be the present-day Letham Glen, but I’m not sure. RLS claimed to be an admirer of Melville but I would doubt he’d be aware of any local connection.
    Tom Hubbard

  2. 2

    R Forsyth said,

    In “Hellfire and Herring” the autobiography of Christopher Rush, on page 172, there is reference to his great grand father meeting Melville around 1890 and him being told that Melville’s relatives lay in Carnbee graveyard.

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