November 1, 2019

Herman, this isn’t Polynesia; there are rules

by were stunned over here on John Street to learn that our namesake and inspiration Herman Melville enjoyed … bowling? It’s somewhat hard for us to picture our austere and bewhiskered inspiration in full-on polyester, knocking back a few pins—and brews!—down the alley, but it’s not an unpleasant vision. According to a fascinating NYRB essay by Christopher Benfey, a professor at Mount Holyoke, there is evidence that Melville did indeed roll ’em from time to time.

We are not ourselves avid bowlers, or even bowlers of any kind—we tend to prefer a different sort of leisure activity—and we were startled to find that bowling had such deep historical roots! The Oxford Dictionary of Sports confirms that the ten-pins was “played informally on the east coast of the country in the early 19th century.” Who knew? Well, Washington Irving, for one … Prof. Benfey reminds us that “Rip Van Winkle” contains copious allusions to bowling.

The social element of the game was apparently well in place even in these early days. According to Prof. Benfey, “after consulting with a literary agent named David Davidson about the prospects for White-Jacket,” Melville “walked with Davidson to American Bowling Saloon, as he noted in his journal” on November 21, 1849, where he “rolled one game & beat him.” How marvelous! Somehow we don’t think that today’s literary agents go bowling with their authors; the ones I know would never been seen in such plebeian surroundings, and the whole thing seems a bit bouleverse… There is also no word on whether Melville and his agent were the kind of people who scrupulously observed the rules.

Prof. Benfey goes on to cite a Melville expert named Hershel Parker, who maintains that Melville worked in Honolulu as a “pin-boy”—one of the young men whose job it was to scuttle out into the alley and manually reset the pins after every frame. Sounds tedious! The notoriously impoverished Melville wrote very famously about dead-end work, of which being a pin-boy was a prime example. Could we argue that Melville… anticipated the so-called gig economy? We would prefer not to!



Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.