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Elizabeth Shaw was the wife of Herman Melville. Apart from raising a family together, Lizzie functioned as an editor and manager of writings while Herman was active creatively. Unsurprisingly, she seems to have lost impetus and sight of the value of the unpublished manuscript: Billy Budd, as did the rest of her family, until the work was discovered in tin 1918. A prophet is rarely recognised in his own land, let alone by his close family.



Elizabeth Shaw was born June 13, 1822 in Boston, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of Elizabeth Knapp Shaw and Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court and a long-time friend of the Melville family.


Everyone called Elizabeth, Lizzie. Her siblings were all boys, John Oakes, Lemuel and Samuel Savage Shaw.

Elizabeth Shaw Melville copied her husband’s works and edited his manuscripts, both before and after his death. She was devoted to the author, even when his behavior was erratic and abusive.

Divisions of bibliographic labor imprinted themselves on the life of Elizabeth Shaw Melville. She describes his literary production in a May 5, 1848 letter to her stepmother:

I should write you a longer letter but I am very busy today copying and cannot spare the time so you must excuse it and all mistakes. I tore my sheet in two by mistake thinking it was my copying (for we only write on one side of the page) and if there is no punctuation marks you must make them yourself for when I copy I do not punctuate at all but leave it for a final revision for Herman. I have got so used to write without I cannot always think of it. (quoted in Renker, 139-40)





Elizabeth was the first Melvillean. Beyond copying Herman’s work in his life, she maintained his literary reputation after his death. Her labor exhibited itself in the subtlest ways. On the back flyleaf of the Melville family’s copy of The Piazza Tales, someone (likely Elizabeth) wrote the original publication dates of all the stories collected in the book. This book by Herman, annotated by Elizabeth, illustrates the intertwined nature of their shared bibliographic production, and the importance of this shared labor in the reception and study of Herman Melville.


This book shows how Elizabeth’s labor exists in a tradition of note-taking and information management that bibliographic scholars like Ann Blair and Richard Yeo recognize as intellectual work in its own right. Considered within these histories, Elizabeth’s labor is a cumulative practice, in which textual copying establishes an expertise that she draws from to edit later editions of those texts.





While Elizabeth had no monographs, scholarly editions, or novels of her own, her labor made those that would come after her possible, as an editor and confidant.


Herman would tell stories of his adventures to his family and friends. At the urging of his sisters, Melville began to write down his stories. The result was five books all drawing on his experiences at sea.


In the summer of 1845, Melville completed his first novel Typee, which was based on his adventures on the Marquesas Islands. After some difficulty in finding a publisher, Typee was first published in 1846 in London, where it was very popular. A Boston publisher subsequently accepted the sequel: Omoo, sight unseen.

Herman Melville married Elizabeth Shaw on August 04, 1847.

Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts and a boyhood friend of Melville’s father, had remained loyal to the fatherless Melvilles. Herman dedicated Typee to Shaw, and fell in love with his daughter. Elizabeth Shaw married Herman Melville on August 4, 1847. The couple honeymooned in Canada.

With a $2,000 loan from his father-in-law to contribute toward purchase price, Melville and his brother Allan, also newly married, bought a house at 103 Fourth Avenue for joint occupancy and moved their mother, sisters and brother in with them and their brides.





The new Mrs. Herman Melville kept her stepmother in Boston informed of her daily life:

… but sometimes – dear me! we have to go and make calls! and then goodbye to everything else for that day! for upon my word, it takes the whole day – from 1 o’clock till four! and then perhaps we don’t accomplish more than two or three, if unluckily they chance to be in… and all Herman’s and Allan’s friends are so polite, to say nothing of Mrs. M’s old acquaintances, that I am fairly sick of returning calls…. Herman is not fond of parties, and I don’t care anything about them here.

Melville’s family life was punctuated with moments of joy and difficulties. His four children enjoyed life in Pittsfield, but Lizzie had difficulty with her hay fever and frequently took trips back home to Boston.


As much as Melville loved the Berkshires, he grew frustrated at the lack of success of his writing career and found his debts mounting.


In 1863 Herman traded Arrowhead for his brother Allan’s house at 104 East 26th Street in New York City to offset debt and mortgage payment arrears. Lizzie loathed winters in the country, and Herman needed the stimulation of an active community around him.


Fortune smiled on the Melville's with inheritances from both sides of the family, enabling them to pay off some debts, and they were pleased to return to city life. They lived off Lizzie’s inheritance after the death of her father. Melville continued to visit Arrowhead through the 1880s.


Herman took a position as a customs inspector on the New York docks in 1866 resulting from family pressure to find gainful employment. He held this job for twenty years, working six days a week with only two weeks of vacation a year. The man who had sailed the world and written great American literature now found himself working at a job that paid four dollars a day.

Herman and Lizzie outlived both of their sons. In 1867, their oldest son Malcolm shot himself after a quarrel with his father.


Nobody knows if the fatal shooting was intentional or accidental. Their son Stanwix went to sea in 1869. He died of tuberculosis in a San Francisco hospital in 1886. As for the Melville daughters, one was a spinster, and the other reportedly did not want to hear her father’s name, regarding him as a beast.

A small legacy from Lizzie’s relatives finally enabled Melville to retire from the Customs House in 1886. That year Herman presented Lizzie with a book of poetry entitled Weeds and Wildings, Chiefly, with a Rose or Two. Many of the poems were about their happy days at Arrowhead.

After retiring from the customs service, he returned to fiction to write the novella, Billy Budd. Begun in early 1886, Herman Melville worked on the project until his death of a heart attack at 72 on September 28, 1891. It would remain unknown to the world until the Melville Revival rediscovered him in the 1920s. Billy Budd, whose pages Lizzie had stored in a bread box, was published in 1924.

Elizabeth Shaw Melville died July 31, 1906 in New York City.


In August 1918, Raymond M. Weaver, a professor at Columbia University, doing research for what would become the first biography of Melville, paid a visit to Melville's granddaughter, Eleanor Melville Metcalf, at her South Orange, New Jersey home.


Eleanor gave him access to all the records of Herman Melville that survived in the family: manuscripts, letters, journals, annotated books, photographs, and a variety of other material.


Among these papers, Professor Weaver was astonished to find a substantial manuscript for an unknown prose work entitled Billy Budd.







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