Finding Aids

Melville, Herman - Osborne Collection

Manuscript Collection Number:
(On Loan)
Herman Melville and descendants
The Osborne Collection of Herman Melville Materials
Data Span:
n.d., 1799-1972
65 items

  • Of Herman Melville’s four children, only his daughter Frances was married. Frances and her husband Henry B. Thomas had four daughters, of whom one, Frances Cuthbert Thomas, married Abeel Osborne. Frances Osborne had a strong interest in her grandfather, and drew up early recollections of him which are contained in the Osborne Collection. Frances sister, Eleanor Melville Metcalf, received the bulk of Melville’s literary remains, including the manuscript of Billy Budd, which Melville left unfinished at the time of his death.

    Frances Osborne, however, bequeathed family memorabilia to her son Walter, items that were inherited in turn by his children and assembled by his son, Duncan Elliott Osborne. These items include materials relating to Herman Melville, and also to the family of his illustrious father-in-law, Judge Lemuel Shaw.

    It is noteworthy that mementos of Herman Melville’s grandfathers are preserved here. Major Thomas Melville and General Peter Gansevoort were heroes of the American Revolution, and their reputations continued into the early 19th century.

    In all, the Osborne Collection embraces mementos reaching across seven generations of an American family.

  • The Duncan E. Osborne Collection of papers and memorabilia pertaining to his great-great-grandfather, Herman Melville, came to Southwestern University as a loan in 1984. The University is indebted to Mr. Osborne, of Austin, Texas, for allowing the documents and mementos in the collection to be housed in the Special Collections department of the University’s A. Frank Smith, Jr. Library Center. 

    Among the items in the Osborne Collection, of particular note is a letter from Melville to his aunt Lucy Melville, written in 1828 when he was 9 years old, as well as prints and a pocket compass that were among his personal possessions. The collection also includes manuscripts, published materials, and other items bearing on the life and work of Melville and his father-in-law Lemuel Shaw. The entire collection is described in the accompanying inventory.

    Thanks are also due to Professor Robert K. Wallace, Northern Kentucky University, for identifying a number of Herman Melville’s prints.

      The Osborne Collection by T. Walter Herbert, Jr.

    Written for an exhibition of the collection at Southwestern University,
    February-March 1985

    The letter from Herman Melville to his Aunt Lucy Melville was written when he was a boy of nine, and it may well be the first letter he ever wrote. Harvard University possesses a letter to his Grandmother Catherine Gansevoort which Herman refers to as his “third.” It is written, like this one, after his return to school in the fall of 1828; it is also quite brief, and describes his courses of study in very similar terms. Yet it contains fewer of the schoolboy errors that we find here.

    The resemblance of these two letters, and the implied existence of at least one more, strongly suggests that young Herman was given the task of writing letters to several of his kinfolk. It appears that he wrote essentially the same letter to each of them, and that his spelling and punctuation improved a bit as he went along.

    This letter brings Melville before us as a boy fearful that he doesn’t “write” very well, which certainly gives it a special charm.

    The letter also puts us in touch with issues that carry deep into Melville’s life and work. If writing this letter was indeed a literary exercise required by his mother or father, or by the exclusive private school where he was enrolled, it was part of the training to polite society that Melville received. Melville was reared to be a gentleman; and his parents, like Herman himself, had every reason to expect that he would live out his life in circumstances of privilege. When Melville was a boy of nine, his family was quite well-to-do and took pride in very distinguished relations.

    For example, Herman speaks in this letter of his vacation at Bristol, Rhode Island, the previous summer. There he had stayed with his uncle, Captain John D’Wolf, who was a wealthy sea-faring merchant and adventurer. D’Wolf was a close friend of the distinguished Russian naturalist G.H. von Langsdorff, who had traveled through Polynesia on Krusenstern’s famous voyage of exploration in 1804. D’Wolf’s tales of far-flung adventure strengthened the impulse Melville eventually followed, to seek adventures of his own.

    But when Melville voyaged into the South Pacific, he was not a wealthy merchant, or a scholar. His father went bankrupt and died just five years after this boyhood letter was written, and the family fortune was completely destroyed in the Panic of 1837. Melville sailed as a common seaman on a whaling vessel, and suffered the cruelties that were routinely meted out to laborers in this harsh and violent industry. Whaling was a highly lucrative enterprise for those who invested in it. The Osborne Collection contains an account of the later life of Captain Valentine Pease, the very captain under whom young Melville toiled and whose mistreatment of the crew Melville describes in his novel Typee as “inhuman.” Captain Pease returned from that voyage with his fortune made; he never took another voyage, and through real estate investments became one of the wealthiest men of Edgartown, Massachusetts.

    By birth and training Melville belonged to the economic elite in which Captain Pease claimed membership, yet Melville was also a target of the exploitation by which that elite sustained its preeminence. Melville was both a patrician and a proletarian, and this ironic fate provoked meditations that inform his gigantic literary achievement. He came to see himself as a man without a place in his own society.

    “Call me Ishmael.” This famous opening sentence of Moby-Dick bespeaks the fate that Melville came to recognize as his own, of a man condemned to wander forever in the wilderness.

    In personal terms, the irony of his relation to Captain Pease was completed when his daughter discovered, after Melville’s death, that the summer house she and her husband had purchased in Edgartown was the very house that Pease had built with the proceeds of his whaling voyage. The newspaper accounts of this discovery are contained in the Osborne Papers.

    But this collection also bears witness to the deeper paradoxes of Melville’s destiny as an American Ishmael. We find here a record of the confused quarrel that sprang up on the occasion of Melville’s death concerning whether he had been “forgotten,” a quarrel that scholars have perpetuated into our own time. At stake in this quarrel is the touchy question of whether Melville’s career illuminates shameful features of American society that are still with us; and those who embrace Melville’s own criticisms of American life are disposed to see him as a martyr to the evils he condemned.

    It is certainly true that Melville himself was revolted by the fact that praise was heaped on his early novels of South Sea adventure, while the profundities of Moby-Dick, Pierre, and The Confidence Man met with disapproval and very poor sales. Melville’s characterization of his own time as a “blind, barren and bantering age” seems amply borne out by the obituary headline which reads, “He Was Held by Cannibals, but He Made it Lucrative.”

    The Osborne Collection permits us to appreciate the contrast between Melville’s obscurity and the immense distinction that was gained by his father-in-law Lemuel Shaw, who was Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court for thirty years. In 1915, fifty-five years after Shaw’s death, a public commemoration of his achievements took place; and a comparably noteworthy celebration was mounted in 1930 on the centenary of his becoming Chief Justice. Shaw’s increasing fame resulted in part because he was Chief Justice during a period from 1830 to 1860, when Massachusetts first confronted the problems of urbanization and industrialization, so that he was compelled to break new legal ground in a number of critical areas. He was hailed in 1930 as “the judicial Moses who led the common law of Massachusetts out of the wilderness.”

    Lemuel Shaw and Herman Melville invite comparisons that illuminate major issues of the American culture that was taking form in the 19th century, the period in which middle class life took the center of the stage. Shaw is featured in the comparison as Moses the lawgiver, whose words mark out the grand guidelines by which his people are to conduct themselves. Melville is the tormented outsider for whom there is no way out of the wilderness.

    One aspect of such a comparison is suggested by a letter from Judge Shaw to his son that was written in August of 1851, just as Melville was plunging on from the completion of Moby-Dick into the composition of Pierre. As Melville was ever more deeply convulsed by the enigmas that he encountered in the wilderness, Shaw was giving his son advice on how to obtain the maximum benefit from a trip to the West he was then making.

    Here is Shaw’s advice: “I think it very important, everywhere, but especially in a land of strangers, to take some pains to make and pursue agreeable acquaintances. Much depends in this respect, upon one’s self. You must have observed, what great difference there is in different persons, in respect to affability. I think it very easy, by a little attention, to find occasions, in some common subject of interest, or topic of conversation to open a communication, with fellow travelers, which may result in a very useful as well as agreeable acquaintance. But it requires some tact, to avoid any apparent rudeness in approaching others, or repelling with coldness what seems to be an honest and well meant advance from others.”

    Then as now, this is excellent advice for a young man seeking to make his way in America. It recommends the cultivation of skills, like those which Dale Carnegie teaches in How to Win Friends and Influence People, by which to form acquaintances that are “very useful as well as agreeable.”

    Melville found it impossible to follow such advice. He was haunted by an awareness of the deceit that is inherent in forming “very useful friendships,” the promise of personal loyalty and trust that turns out to be a device of self-seeking. In The Confidence Man Melville portrays the encounters of fellow travelers on a journey like that which Shaw’s son had undertaken; it is a book which demonstrates both the importance of such friendships to success in America, and the betrayals they bring with them. In The Confidence Man Melville presents an extraordinary range of characters: Some are very gracious and agreeable, easily gaining the confidence of their new acquaintances; some are resolutely bitter and suspicious; and others are in a dilemma of shyness, not knowing how to respond.

    Melville invites us to measure his characters exactly as Lemuel Shaw invites his son to measure his fellow travelers, in relation to their aptitude for easy interpersonal relations with strangers. In fact, there is a sentence in Shaw’s letter that might well be transferred verbatim into the novel, as one of Melville’s deadpan jokes: “You must have observed, what great difference there is in different persons, in respect to affability.”

    Melville was not an affable man, and the Osborne Collection contains reminders of the painful fact that his relations within his family were severely troubled, including his relation with his wife, who was Judge Shaw’s daughter. Thirty-seven years after Melville’s death, when his fame as a writer of paramount achievement was spreading more and more widely, there was a great deal of fresh curiosity about what he was like as a person. But his own daughter Frances steadfastly refused to talk about him, we learn from the Osborne Collection, because “her memories of him are not wholly happy ones.”

    It seems that in the last decades of his life, Melville led a markedly solitary life even in his family, going to his job with the customs service in the morning, coming home to dinner, and then secluding himself in his study, where “no one knew or dared to inquire” what occupied him.

    Some happy memories of Melville were recorded by his granddaughters. The Osborne Collection contains an early typescript of an article by Frances Thomas Osborne in which she describes playing with Melville in the sacrosanct study, building houses on the floor with volumes of Schopenhauer, patting his great beard, and listening to him tell stories. It seems apparent that Melville gained the affection of his granddaughters, certainly of Eleanor Melville Metcalf, who discovered in 1919 the manuscript of Billy Budd among the papers from Melville’s study that were packed away at the time of his death two decades before.

    The development of literary culture in America is indebted to Melville’s descendants, who have preserved documentary materials that illuminate his character and his achievement. The work of scholarship as well as the larger purposes of teaching will be served by having the Osborne Collection at Southwestern University. 

  • Box and Folder
    BOX 1
    Item 1: Pocket compass (belonged to Herman Melville). 

    Folder 1
    Item 2: Receipt for The Liberal Preacher, July 19, 1830, for Major Thomas Melville.
    Item 3: Receipt for The Columbian Centinel, June 1 December 1, 1830, for Major Thomas Melville.
    Item 4: Herman Melvill(e) to Miss Lucy Melvill, 1828.

    Folder 2
    Item 5: “Author Melville Gone: He was Held by Cannibals, but He Made it Lucrative,” The Morning Journal [New York City], September 29, 1891.
    Item 6: “Herman Melville’s Funeral,” New York Daily Tribune, October 1, 1891.
    Item 7: “Herman Melville,” The New York Times, October 2, 1891.
    Item 8: “The Late Hiram Melville” (a letter from O.G.H.), The New York Times, October 6, 1891.
    Item 9: “The News This Morning” (item replying to New York Times article), New York Daily Tribune, October 3, 1891. 

    Folder 3
    Item 10: “Herman Melville” (notice of a new edition of Moby-Dick, Typee, Omoo, White-Jacket), The Literary World, December 1, 1900.
    Item 11: Obituary of Mrs. Herman Melville, Pittsfield Times, August 9, 1906. 
    Item 12: Discussion of Moby-Dick in brief notice of Dr. Douglas Lithgow, Nantucket, A History, New York Times Book Review, July 12, 1914.
    Item 13: “Appomattox” (quotes from Melville’s “The Surrender at Appomattox”). No journal title, no date [circa 1915].
    Item 14: “Moby-Dick, The Unforgotten,” New York Sun, July 15, 1916.
    Item 15: “Herman Melville,” a poem by Warren H. Cudworth (a centennial tribute for a New York paper). No journal title, no date [August 1, 1919, centennial of Melville’s birth?].
    Item 16: “Current interest in the Hawaiian Islands has helped (‘remind us of the almost forgotten’) Melville.” “His death comparatively recent.” [Apparently refers to the annexation controversy, which was alive as early as 1893 and culminated July 7, 1898, with President McKinley’s signing of the resolution.] No title, no date.
    Item 17: A fragment concerning “classic art.” No mention of Melville. New York T[imes?]. No title, no date. 

    Folder 4
    Item 18: Receipt for contribution to the Boston Dispensary, 1845. Received from Mr. Chief Justice Shaw.
    Item 19: Lemuel Shaw to “Dear Mamma,” c/o Rev. Oakes Shaw, November 1799.
    Item 20: Lemuel Shaw to “My dear Lemuel” (Lemuel Shaw, Jr.), Boston, August 12, 1851.
    Item 21: Josephine MacC. Shaw to Frances T. Osborne, August 27, 1922, Edgartown, Mass. 

    Folder 5
    Item 22: Obituary of Samuel Savage Shaw (youngest son of Lemuel Shaw), September 24, 1915.
    Item 23: “S.S. Shaw’s Will Divides Relics: Relatives to Receive Priceless Collection of Furniture and Autographs.” No journal title, no date.
    Item 24: The Proceedings at the Meeting of the Bar at the Birthplace of CHIEF JUSTICE SHAW. (The Honorable Richard Olney was master of ceremonies at an occasion where addresses were given by Governor McCall, Chief Justice Rugg, A. Lawrence Lowell, President of Harvard University, and a letter was received from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.) West Barnstable, Mass., August 4, 1916.
    Item 25: “Samuel Savage Shaw Dead” “Old Boston lawyer… ” No publication (newspaper) info, no date. 

    Folder 6
    Item 26: Family Correspondence of Herman Melville 1830-1904, in the Gansevoort-Lansing Collection, ed. Victor Hugo Palsits, New York, 1929. Includes family photographs. 

    Folder 7
    Item 27: “Niece of Herman Melville; She Revived Author’s Fame,” New York Herald Tribune, April 25 (?), 1963 or 1964 (?). An obituary of Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Melville’s granddaughter.
    Item 28: “Wrote of Melville: Mrs. Metcalf, Granddaughter of Author of Moby-Dick, Dies at 82.” No journal title, no date. Published at Martha’s Vineyard, 1963 or 1964 (?).
    Item 29: Poems by Eleanor Melville Metcalf (privately printed). Read at Woodlawn Cemetery, April 29, 1964 [on the occasion of Mrs. Metcalf’s burial?].*
    Item 30: Dukes County Intelligencer, August 1964. Contains articles about whaling.*
    Item 31: The Lookout. February March 1964. Publication of Seaman’s Church Institute of New York. Issue devoted to Melville. (2 copies, 1 found in separate file with no record).*
    Item 32: “The Van Schaick Mansion,” Truth, no date. Mention of General Peter Gansevoort.
    Item 33: Three first-date-of-issue stamped envelopes, Herman Melville Commemorative, 1970. (* With manila envelope)

    Folder 8
    Item 34: [Willard Thorpe?] to Mrs. (Eleanor Melville) Metcalf, November 24, 1941.
    Item 35: Notice of death of Henry B. Thomas (Melville’s son-in-law), August 7, 1934. No journal title.
    Item 36: Newspaper clipping concerning transfer of Arrowhead (the house in Pittsfield where Melville wrote Moby-Dick) to J. Dwight Francis in 1937. No title, no date.
    Item 37: “Melville Books Acquired by Princeton,” New York Herald Tribune, January 13, 1938.
    Item 38: Letter of Frances C. Osborne (Mrs. Abeel Osborne), December 11, 1941, concerning loan of books Melville owned to Princeton and list of books (in pencil).
    Item 38a: Envelope (sealed in mylar) to Mrs. Frances Osborne from Bank, December 3, 1946.
    Item 39: Typescript of recollections of Melville by Frances Cuthbert Thomas Osborne (Mrs. Abeel Osborne). Shorter than the version in Merton M. Sealts, Jr., Early Lives of Melville, p. 179, which reprints Bulletin of the New York Public Library 69 (December 1965), 655-660.

    Folder 9
    Item 40: Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 55 (July 1951) and 69 (December 1965) (found in separate folders). 

    Folder 10
    Item 41: Mrs. A.D. Osborne (Frances Thomas Osborne), Edgartown, Mass., to Mrs. Duncan Elliott Osborne (Elizabeth Bachman Osborne), Menlo Park, California, January 31, 1966.
    Item 42: Mrs. A.D. Osborne (Frances Thomas Osborne), Hackettstown, New Jersey, to Mr. Duncan Elliott Osborne, Austin, Texas, February 1, 1971.
    Item 43: Mrs. A.D. Osborne to Mrs. Anne B. Osborne, Anson, Texas, December 9, 1966.
    Item 44: Mrs. A.D. Osborne, Edgartown, Mass., to Mrs. Anne B. Osborne, Anson, Texas, December 2, 1966.

    Folder 11
    Item 45: Photograph of painting of Herman Melville by J.O. Eaton, New York, 1870. Original belonged to Eleanor Melville Metcalf. Now at the Houghton Library, Harvard University.
    Item 46a: Photograph of painting of General Peter Gansevoort, Melville’s grandfather.(See Folder 13 for 46b.)
    Item 47: One-page folio sale listing in newspaper clipping.

    Folder 12
    Item 48/49: Miscellaneous items: Letter to Professor Walt Herbert and letter to Betty [Osborne?].

    Folder 13 (Original frames, mats, misc.)
    Item 46b: Original frame
    Item 50: Original frame/mat
    Item 51: Reproduction of Farrer print used for collection catalog cover

    Item 52: Print of engraving by J.M.W. Turner entitled “Abingdon, Berkshire,” engraved by C. Cousen. “From the picture in the National Gallery” (matted).
    Item 53: Print of engraving (?) by J.M.W. Turner entitled Brighton Chain Pier, engraved by R. Wallis. “From the picture in the possession of Lord Leconfield of Petworth” (matted).
    Item 54: Print of engraving by J. B. Allen after J.M.W. Turner entitled Decline of Carthage.
    Item 55: Print of engraving by J. Cousen after J.M.W. Turner entitled Fishing Boats A Coast Scene.
    Item 56: Print of etching after a drawing by Jacob van Ruisdael. Trees at the Edge of a River, with Two Men in a Rowboat.
    Item 57:Print of engraving by E. Goodall after J.M.W. Turner entitled Florence.
    Item 58: Etching by Claude Lorrain. Le Port de la Mer a la Grosse Tour (Harbour with a Large Tower).
    Item 59: Engraving by H[enry] Farrer, On the East River, 1879.
    Item 60: Engraving by Joseph Longhi, Bust of Napoleon, 1806. 

    Item 61: Six articles concerning Judge Shaw and a portrait. The Boston Herald, August 5, 1916.
    Item 62: “Edgartown Finds New Link with Melville,” The Evening Standard (New Bedford, Mass.), August 11, 1929. (Entire section preserved in 3 mylar sheets only one page re Melville.)
    Item 63: “Chief Justice Shaw,” The Sunday Herald, Boston, Mass., September 26, 1915. Criticizes death notices referring to Samuel Shaws father as “a lawyer.”
    Item 64: “Supreme Court Pauses to do Honor to Chief Justice of Other Days,” The Pittsfield Eagle, September 16, 1930. Refers to Judge Shaw as “the judicial Moses who led the common law of Massachusetts out of the wilderness.”
    Item 65: Article on death of Walter D. Osborne, The New York Times, March 5, 1972.
    Item 66: “Melvilles Fans Trace His Footsteps,” The New York Times, December 29, 1972.
    Item 67: “Melville: Catholic View” and “Melville Taken Seriously.” Sheed and Ward’s Own Trumpet, February 1950.