By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York
Talented, well connected, intelligent, mild, affable, diligent, pious, and, above all—controversial. All these things could be said of the man whose order inspired Billy Budd, the dark, short masterpiece of American literary giant, Herman Melville. Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie was born in New York City and began his naval career before he was twelve years old. During the last eight years of his life, 1840-1848, he made his home at the northern limits of Sleepy Hollow. Today that place is called Rockwood Hall or Rockwood.
Mackenzie the Writer
Mackenzie was a productive writer and an accomplished naval officer. His literary friends included Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Fennimore Cooper (until Mackenzie and Cooper fell out). A few hundred yards to the south of Mackenzie’s Sleepy Hollow farm was the estate of the wealthy and influential newspaperman, James Watson Webb—a place that was once called Pokahoe, or later, the Fremont estate. Ocean-going writer, Richard Henry Dana, the author of Two Years Before the Mast, was another literary acquaintance of the commander. Mackenzie’s second in command at the most critical moment of his career was Guert Gansevoort—the cousin of American novelist Herman Melville—author of what many scholars believe to be the “Great American Novel,” Moby Dick.
It was in Spain between 1826 and 1827 that Mackenzie began close friendships with Washington Irving and American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. With Irving, Mackenzie discussed the notion of turning his personal journal of Spain into a first book. Irving endorsed the idea and the result was A Year in Spain (1829). Irving would generously assist the younger author in producing a successful London edition of the book. America’s leading author of that age actually took pen in hand to make stylistic improvements to Mackenzie’s manuscript. Irving wrote to his friend that these changes were “petty corrections which will be of service to you hereafter in point of style.” The unselfish Washington Irving, acting as a copy editor! But Irving had already garnered a service from his friend; Mackenzie, then a lieutenant in the U. S. Navy, had provided Irving with valuable nautical information to be used in an ambitious biography of Christopher Columbus.