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It should not be surprising that Herman. Melville has an important message for students of the legal system, when one reflects for a moment on his biography and the subject matter of his writings. Melville had an intimate exposure to various legal systems ranging from the very crude to the more sophisticated, due in part at least to close personal ties with people who. were themselves connected with the law in one way or another. When Melville was thirteen years old his father declared himself bankrupt, then went mad and died. Melville's cousin had presided over a widely publicized and criticized court-martial aboard a naval vessel in 1842, in which three sailors, one of whom was the son of the Secretary of War, John C. Spenser, were convicted and hanged for mutiny. Melville's older brother, Gansevoort, had studied law, and .his next younger brother, Allan, practiced law on Wall Street. For several years, in fact, brothers Herman and Allan and their respective families shared a home in New York City, during which time Melville transformed and refined his artistic skills with the writing of Mardi, Redburn, and White Jacket. Finally, the author had close personal ties with Lemuel Shaw, at that time the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, who was a close friend of Melville's father, a source of comfort and guidance for the Melville family after the father's death, and a generous and attentive father-in-law to Melville. Judge Shaw's presence and influence should not be underestimated; in 1852 he even arranged for Melville to vacation with him in Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard when, after the poor reception that greeted the publication of Moby Dick and Pierre, Or the Ambiguities, Melville's family decided that the struggling writer might be revitalized by some new contacts with seaports and their inhabitants.


Admiralty | Law | Legal Biography