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The Osborne Collection of Herman Melville Materials

Identifier: MSS-0000

Scope and Contents

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.


  • Majority of material found in n.d., 1799-1972

Biographical / Historical

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.


65 items

Language of Materials


Physical Location

On loan

Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script

Repository Details

Part of the SU Special Collections & Archives Repository

1001 East University Avenue
Georgetown TX 78626 United States