A Herman Melville Summer Vacation

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For years I had wanted to visit the house where Herman Melville finished writing Moby-Dick. I knew it was in the Berkshires, and on a visit this summer to the area, I asked our hosts if Arrowhead (the name he gave the farm after finding some Native American stones) was nearby. The house, I learned, was in Pittsfield. I got the times of the scheduled tours and tried to drum up enthusiasm for a visit. A few around the breakfast table said “That could be interesting,” but with the same excitement that would greet a suggestion to tour a Polish salt mine. My wife, an English major, may have quoted Bartleby the Scrivener: “I’d prefer not to.” Everyone agreed to the excursion, no doubt to humor me because I had a summer cold, although I could sense that a few in our happy band thought that I was chasing white whales.

Melville moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1850. He had grown up in a prosperous family in New York, watched the fortune dissolve in the panics of the 1830s, and spent three years at sea, beginning in 1841. He had shipped out on a New Bedford whaler, Acushnet, rounded Cape Horn, and hunted the whaling grounds of the Pacific until he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands, near Tahiti. There, he dallied with nymphs, the result of which was his first and best-selling book, Typee. That book ensured Melville’s literary reputation as a man who had lived “among the cannibals.” He followed Typee with OmooRedburn, and White-Jacket, all sea stories that were published in the 1840s, although none were as successful as his first book. When he moved his family to the farm in Pittsfield, he had with him the unfinished manuscript of Moby-Dick, a fictional account of his time on whaling vessels.

Melville knew the Berkshires well. He had lived in Albany from age eleven, as his father’s businesses began to fail and the family left New York City. In 1850, the area had a prominence that today is difficult to recall. Hudson, New York, was a whaling port; President Martin van Buren (nicknamed Martin van Ruin for the panic of 1837) came from Kinderhook; and a number of American writers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, lived in the region. Melville’s hope was to dabble at farming and devote his energies to his books, for which there were few sales after the success of Typee and, to a less extent, Omoo. He also liked the idea of joining a community of serious writers.

Arrowhead was in the fields south of town. Today, the Pittsfield suburbs have encroached on the farm’s surroundings and a busy road runs near to the piazza that Melville praised for its tranquility. For the most part, though, the house is largely as it was when the Melvilles lived there. We parked, and I bought tickets in a small annex and gift shop near the house. Admission for four to Arrowhead was $48, and the woman at the cash register said that if we hurried, we could join the tour that was forming on the lawn near the backdoor. We caught up with the group in time to hear the Arrowhead rules and regulations: “Please stay together at all times . . . do not lean on any of the furniture . . . no pictures may be taken inside the house . . . no smoking or eating . . . do not touch the books on the shelves . . .” It was the same preamble given before many house tours, but the tone was that of a warrant officer. I wondered what Melville would think of his house-guests threatened with the lash. Didn’t he write White-Jacket to protest such pettiness?

 

Herman Melville found contentment in the beauty of the Berkshires, befriended the great and good Nathaniel Hawthorne, and then returned to New York with his literary reputation enhanced by the publication of Moby-Dick. However, much about Melville’s life in Pittsfield was dysfunctional: he felt suffocated by the overbearing presence of his wife and mother-in-law; his bromance for Hawthorne went largely unreciprocated after an initial period of emotional bonding; and New York publishers were indifferent to the many books that he wrote at Arrowhead between 1850 and 1862, even though it is one of the most fertile periods in the life of any American author.

When Melville left Arrowhead, it was to give up prose writing. Later, he did write several epic poems (about the Civil War and a trip to the Middle East) as well as Billy Budd, which was published after his death. But while in its first fifty years in print, Moby-Dick sold 9,300 copies and earned Melville $1,260, most of the other books lost money, which Melville then owed to his publishers. In 1866, his wife persuaded him to take a job in the New York Customs House, which paid $4 a day and gave him two weeks’ vacation every year. If only Melville had known he was Melville.

 

I stuck with the tour so I could get upstairs and see the room where Melville finished Moby-Dick. Melville’s actual writing table was a board or table-top propped up on wooden crates. He would work uninterrupted, in great bursts of energy, from early morning to mid-afternoon. Even his wife refused to interrupt him and left his lunch in a basket by the door, and he locked the door to the study. In the intervening years, the Melville historical society has upgraded his makeshift desk to a polished table, giving him the air of someone who might have signed the Declaration of Independence. (He did have ancestors who joined the Boston Tea Party and fought at Saratoga.)

Nothing in the room captures the frenzy in which Melville wrote his books. He said to a friend: “I go to my workroom & light my fire—then spread my M.S.S. on the table—take one business squint at it, & fall to with a will.” One of his biographers, Laurie Robertson-Lorant, describes how he approached his craft: “By writing, Melville could fill the white spaces with his own meanings. He could recapture and communicate his moments of great insight, happiness, and fear: daydreaming and pondering the mysteries of the universe from a perch high in the rigging, listening to songs and stories with companions of his watch, dallying in the shade of a breadfruit tree with a beautiful native girl, seeing blood spurt cut from the welts in the backs of fellow sailors by the vicious ‘cat,’ and sighing with relief that, once more, he had managed to escape the lash.”

In this room, Melville finished Moby-Dick, and then wrote PierreMardiBartleby the Scrivener, and Benito Cereno. These later books explore the internal oceans of psychological tension, but what his readers were hoping for was another yarn of the South Seas. A few reviewers even speculated that Melville was losing his mind. One review had the headline: “Herman Melville Crazy.” Not until the 1920s was Melville universally acclaimed in the United States, although throughout the nineteenth century his books always had a small, but devoted, following in England.

By some accounts, the first draft of Moby-Dick was a conventional sea story. Hawthorne encouraged him to develop such transcendent themes as obsession, anger, revenge, and lust. “Ah, God!” Melville writes in Moby-Dick, “What trances of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire. He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.” Presumably such passages were missing from the first draft, which was heavy with chapters that read like a textbook on cetology or a history of the whaling industry. The critic Leon Howard has written that the “excitement and enthusiasm aroused in him by Hawthorne belonged entirely to the period in which he was reworking Moby-Dick.” Hawthorne’s influence, late in the book, may also explain why the novel has the feel of two books in one: the conventional passages about the whaling industry, and the psychological drama of Ahab’s self-destruction.

Ahab’s obsessions must have been conjured in Melville’s Arrowhead writing room. That legacy led me to the most perplexing aspect of the house tour: how Melville, so far from the sea, was able to imagine and write Moby-Dick in a room that looks out on Mount Greylock, the tallest peak in the Berkshires. It would be as if his contemporary, Honoré de Balzac, had written about Paris from a South Sea island. One explanation can be found in one of Melville’s letters to an editor friend, Evert Duyckinck: “I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is all covered with snow. I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole in a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the winds shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, & I had better go on the roof & rig in the chimney.”

From a house that is miles from the coast, this evocation is just what reviewers (Duyckinck was one) would want to hear from the author of best-selling sea adventures. Still, I find it a feat of imagination for Melville to have written as clearly and prolifically as he did about the sea in a landlocked room. Robertson-Lorant writes that from his window Mount Greylock was “looming on the horizon like a whale.” Possibly that was the case, although I stood for a long time at Melville’s window (“Please don’t touch the woodwork. . .”) and all I saw was a craggy New England mountain.

 

Most of my Melville reading corresponded with a period of my life when I was traveling for work to Australia and New Zealand. It was the era before jumbo jets could leap the Pacific in a single bound. Because I was interested in the Pacific, I would break the journeys (usually just for a night) on one of the enchanted islands. Over the years I changed planes in Hawaii, Tahiti, the Solomons, and Fiji. I was drawn to their history and fractured politics more than the natural beauty. The only companions that I had along were my books, and usually I had one by or about Herman Melville.

On a United Airlines flight that in July 1989 went from San Francisco to Auckland, I read Gavan Daws’s A Dream of Islands. It is a collection of brief lives about the literary and artistic figures, including Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Gauguin, and Melville, that helped to shape the impressions that we have about the Pacific. Especially on such a long trip to the ends of earth, I appreciated Daws’s recollection: “The world, Melville once wrote, is a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete. In his own life he was never assured of a desired destination, or of a safe homecoming.”

Daws gets closer than the house tour in explaining how Melville could so well imagine the sea after he moved to Arrowhead: “Meditation and water, he wrote in his opening pages, are wedded forever. And now Melville, the great incorporator, was admitting the Pacific to himself as he done Hawthorne. His words made the ocean and his mind one: ‘this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath. . . . And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide-rolling watery prairies and Potters’ Fields of all four continents, the waves should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly. . .’”

Melville is not easy reading, although I look at my marked up copies of Typee and Omooand see that I read them on the go in Sydney, overlooking the harbor bridge, and in Perth, on the edge of the Indian Ocean. The appeal of Typee was that it was a first-hand account of his sybaritic life in Polynesia, although another reason for the book’s success is its subtle indictment of Christian missionaries, for whom the Pacific was a growing market. Melville writes that “four or five Marquesan Islanders sent to the United States as Missionaries might be quite as useful as an equal number of Americans despatched to the Islands in a similar capacity.”

Omoo fed off the success of Typee and continued the theme of Melville as libertine beachcomber. In Typee (it’s the name of his valley), Melville gives the reader the impression that he might never come back, and will spend the rest of his days lounging around with nymphs near an island spring. In Omoo (a beachcomber), despite his frolic across Polynesia, his persona has hints of an American looking for a passage home.

Like many of Melville’s works, both books are written with hints of sexual abandonment. Why else would someone jump ship in the Marquesas, an unknown world with attendant risks, if not to enjoy some of the island fruits that could not be tasted in New England society? (Ironically, the current trend in Melville scholarship is to explore the homosexual sub-currents in such novels as Pierre and Mardi; although the house tour did not include an inspection of the closets.) Melville feared that his obituary would only remember him as someone who had lived “among the cannibals,” but after he died in 1891, the apocryphal story circulated that, such was his anonymity, the New York Times had spelled his name as Henry Melville.

I have read Moby-Dick; or the Whale twice. Once after college, when I embarked on a voyage of American classics that I had missed at school. Later I listened to the book-on-tape. For almost three months, perhaps to keep the Pacific as a vivid memory, I listened to it on my drive to and from work. When I would hear a passage that I liked, I would mark the book that I kept on the front seat and that I highlighted at red lights. I also have several of the book’s notable editions, including one that Rockwell Kent illustrated and another that the University of California Press issued in limited numbers. The copy I marked on my commute is the Norton Critical Edition, with all those essays at the back on the “comic vision and technique of Moby-Dick.” Melville’s novel is about many things, but in my readings comedy isn’t one of them.

 

One of the books that I saw at Arrowhead was Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, the “true account” of the sinking of the whaleship Essex, one of the possible inspirations for the ending of Moby-Dick. In 1820, the Nantucket ship, while cruising the Pacific, was “stove in” by a vengeful sperm whale, which attacked while the men of the Essex were hunting a nearby whale. In a chapter entitled “The Affidavit,” Melville describes the strange encounter:

In the year 1820 the ship Essex, Captain Pollard, of Nantucket, was cruising in the Pacific Ocean. One day she saw spouts, lowered her boats, and gave chase to a shoal of sperm whales. Ere long, several of the whales were wounded; when, suddenly, a very large whale escaping from the boats, issued from the shoal, and bore directly down on the ship. Dashing his forehead against her, he stove her in, that in less than “ten minutes” she settled down and fell over. Not a surviving plank of her has been seen since. After the severest exposure, part of the crew reached the land in their boats. . . . I have seen Owen Chase, who was chief mate of the Essex at the time of tragedy; I have read his plain and faithful narrative; I have conversed with his son; and all this within a few miles of the scene of the catastrophe.

The story of the Essex was the stuff of legend, especially among New England whalers. (Melville sailed from New Bedford.) A year after the tragedy, Owen Chase (sometimes spelled Chace) had published his Narrative of the attack and the three months that he spent at sea in a jury-rigged lifeboat, trying to reach the coast of South America. The captain who discovered Chase’s boat adrift near the coast of Chile called the scene as “the most deplorable and affecting picture of suffering and misery.” Likewise, Captain Pollard, who survived in another boat (a third boat vanished), had told his story to other captains, who wrote down the account in letters home to Nantucket.

Like Moby-Dick itself, what made the Essex tale incomprehensible is the unimaginable scenario of a whale attacking a ship. Chase writes in the Narrative: “He [the whale] was enveloped in the foam of the sea, this his Continual and violent thrashing about in the water had created around him, and I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury. . . . I turned around, and saw him about one hundred rods directly ahead of us, coming down apparently with twice his ordinary speed, and to me at that moment, it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his respect.” Philbrick describes how Melville first heard the story of the Essex:

Also in the Pacific during this period was a young man whose whaling career was just beginning. Herman Melville first signed on in 1840 as a hand aboard the New Bedford whaleship Acushnet. During a gam in the Pacific, he met a Nantucketer by the name of William Henry Chase—Owen Chase’s teenage son. Melville had already heard stories about the Essex from the sailors aboard the Acushnet and closely questioned the boy about his father’s experiences. The next morning William pulled out a copy of Owen’sEssex narrative from his sea chest and loaned it to Melville.

After Melville moved to Arrowhead and spread out the M.S.S. of Moby-Dick on his writing table—in hopes of transforming the sea story into something more to Hawthorne’s liking—his father-in-law, Judge Lemuel Shaw, gave him a copy of Chase’s Narrative. No doubt the two of them had discussed the bizarre story and the Narrative that Melville had first encountered in 1841 at sea. Daws describes the gift:

In the early part of 1851 Melville’s father-in-law bought him a copy of Owen Chase’s narrative of the sinking of the Essex by a whale. Melville made notes in the little book, reminding himself of his own whaling cruise to the South Seas ten years before, recalling talk in the forecastle about the Essex, his meeting at sea with Chase’s son and the whaling captain he believed to be Chase himself. The story of the Essex stayed with him, and long after Moby-Dick was written he kept adding to his notes.

The sinking of the Essex had a powerful grip on Melville. In the Penguin Classics edition ofThe Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, edited by Nathaniel Philbrick and his father, Thomas, Melville’s marginalia from the Narrative are preserved. He writes at length—if incorrectly—about his memories of Chase and the Essex whale:

Somewhere about the part of A.D. 1841, in this same ship the Acushnet, we spoke the “Wm Wirt” of Nantucket, & Owen Chace was the Captain, & so it came to pass that I saw him. He was a large, powerful well-made man; rather tall; to all appearances something past forty-five or so; with a handsome face for a Yankee, & expressive of great uprightness & calm unostentatious courage. His whole appearance impressed me. He was the most prepossessing-looking whale-hunter I think I ever saw.

Being a mear [sic] foremast-hand I had no opportunity of conversing with Owen (tho’ he was on board our ship for two hours at a time) nor have I ever seen him since.

But I should have before mentioned, that before seeing Chace’s ship, we spoke another Nantucket craft & gammed with her. In the forecastle I made the acquaintance of a fine lad of sixteen of thereabout, a son of Owen Chace. I questioned him concerning his father’s adventure; and when I left his ship to return again the next morning (for the two vessels were to sail in company for a few days) he went to his chest & handed me a complete copy (same edition as this one) of the Narrative. This was the first account of it I had ever seen, & the only copy of Chace’s Narrative (regular & authentic) except the present one. The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea, & close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect upon me.

In 1852, after the publication of Moby-Dick but still haunted by the story of the Essex, Melville made a trip to Nantucket together with his father-in-law and met Captain Pollard. Melville writes: “To the islanders he was nobody,—to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble, that I ever encountered.” Working then as a truant officer and watchman, Pollard was notorious on the island for the loss of the Essex and the cannibalism that followed (after a lottery draw in the lifeboat, he had shot his nephew, Owen Coffin, so that the others could feed off him). To Pollard is ascribed the following exchange, perhaps apocryphal, which Philbrick turned up in his research: according to Nantucket legend, the captain was asked later in his life if he had known Owen Coffin: “Knew him?” replies Pollard. “Why I et him!”

 

I left Arrowhead with the unsatisfied feeling that, to use P.T. Barnum’s expression, I had been “humbugged,” at least for the $48. I have been in the homes of other writers—for example, Emily Dickinson’s in Amherst, Massachusetts, or William Faulkner’s in Oxford, Mississippi—and come away with a key that has allowed me to read further in their writing or understand better what I had already read. The Melville of Arrowhead had more in common with Marley’s ghost than the author of Moby-Dick.

Yes, I had stood on the deck overlooking Mount Greylock that inspired the title of “The Piazza Tales,” and stared respectfully at the grand fireplace (“Please do not lean against it”), which appears in his domestic reverie, “I and My Chimney.” Repeatedly, the guide played up his historic friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne—to whom Moby-Dick is dedicated. The tour skipped over the fact that the older and more self-assured Hawthorne found Melville’s friendship to be suffocating, yet another critic who found Melville to be engaging but emotionally complicated.

At least at the house, it was easy for me to imagine Melville before his fireplace at Arrowhead in the early part of 1851, reading and rereading the Chase Narrative, finding in it the missing material for his more conventional story of whaling. It was then that Melville was under Hawthorne’s strong influence, and on a mission to find a “mystical depth of meaning” in his sea story. Without the backdrop of the Essex, Ahab is closer to a knight errant in search of the sperm oil that was turning the wheels of the American industrial revolution. Stove in by a whale, Ahab becomes as obsessed as Hamlet, which isn’t surprising, given that around that time Melville was also reading Shakespeare.

The last scenes of Moby-Dick, published in autumn 1851, echo the fate of the ship Essex. Chase writes in his Narrative: “The words were scarcely out of my mouth, before he came down upon us with full speed, and struck the ship with his head, just forward of the forechains; he gave us such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces.” In Moby-Dick, Melville writes of the whale’s attack: “Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could so, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled.”

A recurring theme in Moby-Dick is the juxtaposition of life and death, and how they can exchange places in an instant. In a passage that I can well imagine Melville developing as he sat in front of his Berkshire chimney, perhaps as he was rereading Chase, he writes:

All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.

I marked this passage one day on my way to work and believe it comes close to describing Melville’s fireside thinking at Arrowhead. Maybe, too, the snow from his window in Berkshires reminded him of his own “Nantucket sleigh rides” (once the harpoon was in), the outcome of which, according to a whaling adage, was either “a dead whale or a stove boat.”

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About Matthew Stevenson

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author, most recently, of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays, and Whistle-Stopping America. His next book, Reading the Rails, will be published in 2015. He lives in Switzerland.