Then a sailor, now H. M. author

From the cover of Herman Melville’s 1849 travel journal
Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge

On 11th October 1849, two years before the publication of his opus, Moby-Dick, American novelist Herman Melville boarded a liner in New York and headed for London where he was to live for a few months while finding a publisher for his next book, White-Jacket. He wrote this journal entry the day before arriving in Dover, ten years since he had last seen English shores whilst working on a merchant ship. Melville returned to the U.S. early the next year and, freshly inspired by his trip to Europe, began work on the novel for which he is now best known.

The Diary Entry

Sunday, Nov 4

Looked out of my window first thing upon rising & saw the Isle of Wight again – very near – ploughed fields &c. Light head wind – expected to be in a little after breakfast time. About 10 A.M. rounded the Eastern end of the Isle, when it fell flat calm. The town in sight by telescope. Were becalmed about three or four hours. Foggy, drizzly; long faces at dinner – no porter bottles. Wind came from the West at last. Squared the yards & struck away for Dover – distant 60 miles. At 6 o’clock (evening) passed Dungeness – then saw the Beachy Head light. Close reefed the topsails so as not to run too fast. Expect now to go ashore tomorrow morning early at Dover – & get to London via Canterbury Cathedral. Mysterious hint dropped me about my green coat. Talked with the Pilot about the perils of the Channel. He told a story of running down a brig in a steamer &c. It is now eight o’clock in the evening. I am alone in my stateroom – lamp in tumbler. Spite of past disappointments I feel that this is my last night aboard the Southampton. This time tomorrow I shall be on land, & press English earth after the lapse of ten years – then a sailor, now H. M. author of “Peedee,” “Hullabaloo” & “Pog-Dog” [“Typee,” “Omoo” and “Mardi,” his earlier works]. For the last time I lay aside my “log,” to add a line or two to Lizzie’s letter – the last I shall write aboard. (“Where dat old man?” – “Where books?”) [phrases regularly uttered by his young boy].

Further Reading

Herman Melville’s papers live at Houghton Library, who have made this particular journal viewable online. In 1948 it was published by Harvard University Press with the title Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent, 1849-1850, edited by his granddaughter, Eleanor Melville Metcalf. That book can also be read online at the Internet Archive.


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