This article accompanies the fable
This led some to think maybe it was an accident but that's unlikely. Unfortunately there was something of a tradition of suicides in the declining elites of old Boston and New York and Melville's family was no different. The younger son, Stanwix, left home after this and never returned, dying in San Francisco in 1886 at the age of 35, probably of TB. If Malcolm stayed close to his family, then Stanwix never did. Women held the old families together while the men self-destructed. Melville and his wife also had two daughters, Elizabeth and Frances, and they chiefly distinguished themselves by resenting Melville's sternness.
The Historians see in this a decline in the status of the old revolutionary era families that drove the sons to suicide and out to sea, and which drove Melville to sublimate his rage in writing characters like Ahab and Pierre. A changing America. The Psychologists emphasize that he terrified his wife and children with his rages. The Cultural Studies types prefer tortured sexual explanations - perhaps I can accept Stanwix may have been gay but not the idea that Billy Budd displays an erotic fantasy of a gay father's love for his son. And they get worse... Melville is truly a Rorschach Test.
Ignore all that. Melville biographies - all of them - are nothing less than character assassinations and autobiographical projections. Don't read them. Taxidermy and dried butterflies. Sometimes raising sons or daughters just doesn't work out...
To read Twain's or Chaplin's autobiographies (to pick but two), the saddest chapters by far in the lives of these consummate comedians deal with the loss of their children, dying before they did. They bring to mind Goethe's statement on losing his wayward son, "I was not unaware that I had begotten a mortal." This too is what Melville must have felt. To blame Melville for his sons' deaths betrays no understanding of parenting. Billy Budd, in my view, was his attempt to think all this through, in a fictional context of course, especially in relation to Malcolm, where Fate destroys those not suitably equipped to stand up to life's whims and its brutalities.
And so Melville took solace in his rose garden and his grandchildren...