Moby Dick: Herman Melville’s Epic Journey Began on Gansevoort Street

Image courtesy of Northwestern.

On November 14, 1851, Herman Melville’s magnum opus, Moby-Dick, was published.  Unlike the search for a white whale, it isn’t difficult to find Melville’s deep connection to the Village, as his grandfather is the namesake of Gansevoort Market.

Melville was born in New York City, the third child of a merchant in French dry goods. His formal education ended abruptly after his father died in 1832, leaving the family in financial straits. He briefly became a schoolteacher before he took to sea in 1839 as a sailor on a merchant ship. Throughout the 1840’s, Melville would go on to work aboard a variety of ships, experiences that influenced his writing throughout the period.  His novel Moby-Dick, which would go on to be his most famous work, was poorly received at the time of its publication, but would go on to be celebrated as a quintessential American novel by the 20th Century.

Herman Melville. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Melville’s grandfather, Peter Gansevoort, was a colonel in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.  He is best known for leading the resistance to Barry St. Leger’s Siege of Fort Stanwix in 1777.  The original Gansevoort Market took its name from its location on Gansevoort Street. Originally an Indian trail leading to the Hudson River, later called the Great Kill or Old Kill Road, the street was renamed in 1837 for Fort Gansevoort, which had been hastily built in anticipation of the War of 1812 with Great Britain. The fort in turn had been named for Peter Gansevoort.

Peter Gansevoort. Image courtesy of Fine Art America.

Coincidentally, Melville, spent the years from 1866 to 1885 working as a Customs inspector for the Department of Docks in a long-since vanished building on the wharf at the foot of the street named for his grandfather.  In 2003, GVSHP secured landmark designation of the Gansevoort Market Historic District, and in 2007 GVSHP had the entire neighborhood added to the National Register of Historic Places; in both cases we cited the Melville/Moby Dick connection as part of the argument for the area’s historic significance.  From wars to whales, Gansevoort Market’s historic associations with these two figures is another great example of how the Village has been a place where both the literary and the revolutionary have crossed paths and found surprising connections.

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Matthew Morowitz