Like Small Clams at the Bottom of their Chairs

I posted this a few years ago but given our humidity, I felt it appropriate to re-blog.

I came across this beautiful little line-up the other day when I went to drop off more of my books at Mitchell’s Book Corner for them to sell and a certain line immediately came into my head.      “ . . . . that to the very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.”

I am hoping that you will recognize that as the early part of the chapter on Nantucket in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.  And all the more appropriate because it was at the bookstore!  Yes, they are not clams but mushrooms but that is what I immediately thought of.  Perhaps there is another book out there that refers to mushrooms all in a row but I was taken by these when I saw them.  Proudly standing up along Orange and Main Street; squished between brick wall and sidewalk.

And I have recounted before the connections between Melville and Maria Mitchell.  And add to that  ̶  Mitchell’s Book Corner was founded by Henry Mitchell “Mitch” Havermeyer, the only grandson of Maria Mitchell’s youngest brother Henry Mitchell, in 1968.

JNLF

Like Small Clams at the Bottom of their Chairs

Mushrooms at Mitchell's

I came across this beautiful little line-up the other day when I went to drop off more of my books at Mitchell’s Book Corner for them to sell and a certain line immediately came into my head. “ . . . . that to the very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.” I am hoping that you will recognize that as the early part of the chapter on Nantucket in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. And all the more appropriate because it was at the bookstore! Yes, they are not clams but mushrooms but that is what I immediately thought of. Perhaps there is another book out there that refers to mushrooms all in a row but I was taken by these when I saw them. Proudly standing up along Orange and Main Street; squished between brick wall and sidewalk. And I have recounted before the connections between Melville and Maria Mitchell. And add to that too that Mitchell’s Book Corner was founded by Henry Mitchell “Mitch” Havemeyer, the only grandson of Maria Mitchell’s youngest brother Henry Mitchell, in 1968.
JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria MitchellMaria Mitchell began her travels through Europe as a young woman’s chaperone. Later, due to the bankruptcy of her father, the young woman was called home but Maria continued her trip through Europe, at one point traveling with Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family whom she had met with earlier in her trip. This entry in Maria Mitchell’s journal comes from her first meeting with Nathaniel Hawthorne. And it is dated just four days after her August 1st birthday, a day she shares with Hawthorne’s good friend, Herman Melville (1819 – 1891), whom she met on Nantucket in 1852. Happy 194th, Maria!

August 5, 1857

He was more chatty than I had expected, not any more diffident and not any less awkward. He remained about five minutes, during which time he took his hat from the table and put it back once a minute, brushing it each time. The engravings in the books are much like him. He is not handsome, but he looks as the author of his works should look; a little strange and odd, as if not quite of the earth. He has large bluish gray eyes; his hair stands out on each side, so much, that one’s thoughts naturally turn to combs and hair brushes and toilette ceremonies as one looks at him.

Herman Melville and Maria Mitchell

On January 21st, the Nantucket Atheneum hosted a twenty-four hour reading of Moby-Dick. Not only did it seem like a fun thing to participate in and show MMA support for our library, but for MMA it was a way to celebrate yet another connection between Maria Mitchell and some of the most well-known authors of her day. Thus, Andrew McKenna-Foster, Director of Natural Science Education and Programs; Janet Schulte, MMA’s Executive Director; and myself, the Curator of the Mitchell House, Archives and Special Collections, signed ourselves up to read consecutive chapters – Chapters 8-13 of Moby-Dick. While Janet was unable to make it, our Financial Administrator Joan Stockman ably stepped in. It was snowing – a lot – but we all made it to Town for the event!

You might wonder what or how Maria could be connected to Melville. Funnily, they share the same birthday – although Melville was born a year later on August 1, 1819. He did not travel to Nantucket until after he had written Moby-Dick (which was pretty much a publishing failure when it was first published in 1851). But when he did in the summer of 1852, he spent some time visiting the famous woman astronomer and her father and family at the Pacific National Bank where they were then living. I like to think that he sat in William’s armchair which we have, as it was the most comfortable seat in the house. Maria was renowned throughout the world as America’s first woman astronomer – her discovery of a telescopic comet in 1847 having solidified that position.

This meeting must have remained with Melville for in 1891, when Melville wrote his poem “After the Pleasure Party,” he included the character “Urania” which some scholars believe is modeled after Maria. Urania is an astronomer in the poem and she is torn between her passion for science and a man she saw in the Mediterranean. Ironically, or maybe not, Maria travelled through Italy in 1858 with Melville’s good friend, author Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family. Hawthorne must also have been influenced by Maria because she found her way into one of his works as well. There is an allusion to her in his The Marble Faun.

Now, one has to wonder if Maria did indeed befriend a gentleman along the Mediterranean – someone whom Hawthorne was aware of (himself? another?) and recounted this to Melville … Oh the possibilities that play in my head!