Melville in San Francisco
Herman Melville spent eight days in San Francisco, 12 October to 20 October 1860. He was 41 years old, in low spirits and poor health, and was on his way to China, sailing with his younger brother Tom, a ship captain. A few months before leaving, Melville wrote in a letter:
I anticipate as much pleasure as, at the age of forty, one temperately can, in the voyage I am going. I go under very happy auspices so far as ship and captain is concerned. A noble ship and a nobler captain — and he my brother. we have the breadth of both tropics before us, to sail over twice; and shall round the world. Our first port is San Francisco, which we shall probably make in 110 days from Boston. Thence we go to Manila — and thence, I hardly know where. (28 May 1860)
It took 135 days to sail from Boston to San Francisco. (The Panama Canal, of course, wouldn’t exist for another fifty years, so they had to sail all the way around South America and the Straits of Magellan.) When they finally reached the Bay Area, they were stuck off the coast of Point Reyes for four days. He wrote a letter to his son Malcolm describing a sailor having recently fallen from the mast and died.
When the ship finally docked, Melville’s arrival made the local newspapers:
Coming.— Herman Melville, author of “Typee,” ” Omoo,” and other works, has arrived in San Francisco by the Meteor. (Sacramento Daily Union, 15 October 1860)
Herman Melville. — This well known author arrived here on board the ship Meteor, a few days since, from New York, and, as we learn, intends to return by the next steamer to New York. He is the author of several interesting novels — chiefly descriptive of sea life, and has long; since made his mark in the world of letters. Like Dana, he is on a tour of observation, and has made the trip around Cape Horn to benefit his health. Perhaps some of the literary institutions might prevail on him to favor us with a lecture or two before his departure. (Daily Alta California, 18 October 1860)
Like so many events in Melville’s life, we don’t know for certain what happened while he was here that he changed his mind about continuing across the Pacific and instead decided to return home. One likely explanation comes from Hershel Parker, who suggests a confluence of unhappy news: upon arrival in the city, the brothers received the letters awaiting each of them, in which Herman learned his manuscript of poems had been rejected by its prospective publisher, and Tom’s orders had him no longer sailing to Manila and Calcutta, but delivering cargo to England. Herman, devastated, made hasty plans to return home. And he was evidently in some rush — this time he sailed thirteen days to Panama, went overland by railroad across the isthmus, and then a (relatively speedy) ten days to New York City. (You can read more about Melville’s trip to San Francisco in Parker’s biography, as well as here, in a Historical Note by Howard C. Horsford.)
But before we let the brothers take their leave of San Francisco, there’s one interesting episode we’ll take a moment to discuss here. On the evening of 19 October, the night before he was due to depart, he paid a visit to Jessie Benton Fremont, who hosted a literary salon at her house on Black Point, on the water overlooking the bay and the Marin Headlands.
Ms. Fremont’s husband, John C. Fremont was a crucial figure in the establishment of the state of California: a famous explorer and military figure during the Mexican-American War, he was known as The Pathfinder of the West, or The Great Pathfinder. He later became one of the California’s first two senators, the very first Presidential candidate from the new anti-slavery Republican party, and the namesake of a certain city in the East Bay. (He was also the guy who named the Golden Gate.)
A few years after Melville’s visit, Black Point was taken over by the federal government and reinstated its original name, Point San Jose. We now know it as Fort Mason, located just west of the Maritime National Historical Park and Hyde Street Pier.
As for Melville’s visit to the Fremont house, once again, very little is known. Perhaps he took some time to explore the area around Black Point, or at least spent a moment gazing out at Alcatraz Island, its lighthouse blinking a mere mile off shore. In any case, this happy coincidence makes Fort Mason the perfect location for this event honoring his greatest work.