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Herman Melville as Print Collector

Collecting Prints in his Home

Collections are sets of objects . . . and they are an act of the imagination.

Susan M. Pearce, On Collecting

Merton Sealts is mistaken about my having found someone to index the paintings and the prints. We have simply discussed the subject. My idea would be not only an index, but an article on Melville's interest in art, and its influence on him.

Eleanor Melville Metcalf to Jay Leyda, 1948

The scholar in search of answers is a hunter . . .  satisfying his private rage for order. In reporting his findings he ought to be opening an intercourse with the world as Hawthorne did, or writing to the world a letter like Emily Dickinson . . . ; he should communicate not only his solutions but a feeling of what their pursuit is worth in itself.

Merton M. Sealts, Jr., Pursuing Melville, 1982

Herman Melville lived for seventy-two years, from August 1, 1819, to September 28, 1891. During at least twenty-two of those years, from May 1869 until the day he died, he curated a private print collection in his home at 204 East 26th Street in New York City. Approximately 420 of the prints he collected survive in public and private collections today. At the heart of Melville’s own collection were prints after paintings by European Old Masters of the various national schools of the kind that the aspiring Metropolitan Museum of Art was then hoping to acquire. The Met held its first exhibition at its first Fifth Avenue home at 53rd Street in 1872.

As Herman was building his personal art collection, he and his wife Elizabeth were mourning the death of their first child, Malcolm, who had been born in February 1849, one month before Melville published Mardi (and nine months before the young father sailed to England and saw original artworks by the great European masters for the first time). In September 1867 young Malcolm, only eighteen years old, died of a self-inflicted gunshot in the family home. Nineteen years after that, in 1886, Malcolm’s younger brother Stanwix, long a wanderer in search of security or stability, died in San Francisco. His death left Herman and Elizabeth with their daughters Elizabeth and Frances (born in 1853 and 1855) as the surviving nuclear family while the house in which they lived continued to fill up with art. Herman preserved most of the prints he collected in portfolios in his study, but a number of his framed engravings were displayed with other artworks in the rest of the house for the pleasure of select friends and extended family.

Herman and Elizabeth had moved their family of four children from their Arrowhead home in Pittsfield to their new home in New York City in October 1863. In December 1866, three months after publishing Battle-Pieces, his book of Civil War poetry, Melville was hired as a Customs Inspector for the Port of New York, a job he from which he retired in December 1885. At age sixty-six, Herman could afford to retire because in 1885 his wife Elizabeth had received a legacy from her Shaw relatives in Massachusetts that relieved their immediate financial stress enough that she was able to “put twenty-five dollars into her husband’s pocket every month with the unspoken understanding that it was his to spend freely on books and prints” (Parker, “The Melville House,” 40). Although Melville left no written record of how many prints he collected or when he collected them, it seems likely that he acquired many of his prints during the last six years of his life when he no longer had a day job and was finally free to indulge his passion for collecting without endangering the economic security of his family. The prints he is known to have collected by the time he died are the subject of this online site. What they might have meant to Melville himself and to his immediate family—as well as to those direct descendants and public collections that are still preserving them one hundred and thirty years after his death—is the subject of this introductory essay to the pictorial Catalog of his personal collection.

After more than three decades of trying to reconstruct Melville’s original collection, and publishing separate essays about those collections in which his prints are currently being preserved, I am delighted to be able to display and interpret his entire collection on this digital platform. That the whole is more than the sum of its parts will be self-evident in each “chapter” of this site even before the viewer begins to activate the hyperlinked metadata that connect each print with any other from his collection that shares the same engraver, artist, subject, locale, literary association, or engraving technique. The totality of digital, visual, and imaginative connections that can be made among all the individual prints on the site comprise what we are calling, in the subtitle of this project, “A Pictorial Fusion of Melville’s Mind and Vision.” Collecting the prints he assembled in the privacy of his New York City home during the last two decades of his life was the imaginative equivalent of writing a novel or an epic poem.

The primary purpose of this site is to enable the viewer to see Melville’s print collection whole. A related goal is to see Melville himself whole. For far too long, his relatively long life was seen as a fractured failure, the precocious brilliance and extraordinary range of the ten books of fiction he published between 1846 and 1857 giving way to decades of relative obscurity in which he worked in the New York Customs House and published poetry primarily of interest to himself. The familiar tale is quickly told. Exhausted from all the fiction he had written, Herman made a nine-month voyage to the Mediterranean in 1856-57. After failing as a lecturer for three years on the Lyceum circuit, he moved his family in 1863 from their farm in Pittsfield to the house in New York. The poetry he published in Battle-Pieces in 1866 received little positive notice. The extremely ambitious epic poem about the Holy Land he published as Clarel in 1876 was so unsuccessful he soon ordered its unsold copies to be pulped. The two slim volumes of poetry he published shortly before his death, John Marr and Timoleon, were vanity affairs that he paid for with his own funds, printed in editions of only twenty-five each. He had lived in such obscurity on East 26th Street that many who heard news of his death in 1891 were surprised he was still alive.

Early in the 21st century, Melville’s reputation as a writer of fiction had begun to revive with the posthumous publication of Billy Budd in 1924. By the middle of the century, Melville was widely recognized as a great American writer whose Moby-Dick was the Great American Novel. Throughout the rest of that century and into our own, Melville’s position as a canonical American writer has continued to strengthen even as a succession of new critical approaches—including feminism, ethnic studies, Black studies, new historicism, deconstruction, post-modernism, post-colonialism, and ecocriticism—have dramatically decentered and expanded the American literary canon.

More dramatic than the continuing re-evaluation of the fiction has been the new appreciation of the poetry. Battle-Pieces and Clarel always had a few isolated advocates who saw them worthy of the kind of critical attention given to the novels. But appreciation of these and his later poetic works, both published and unpublished, dramatically increased after the publication of the Northwestern-Newberry editions of Clarel in 1991, Published Poems in 2009, and Billy Budd, Sailor, and Other Uncompleted Writings in 2017. This increased appreciation of Melville’s poetic achievement is developing our sense of the mental vitality and psychic strength in the life he lived on East 26th Street. Melville’s range and acuity as a collector of fine-art engravings provides additional evidence of the intellectual vitality and cultural capaciousness of his later years.

The prints from Melville’s collection displayed on this site help to connect the elderly man who wrote the poetry while working at the Customs House with the young man who had written the fiction while fathering four children. They show that his print collection was no casual undertaking. He had favorite artists such as Claude Lorrain and J. M. W. Turner whose work he collected in very impressive depth and breadth. He had some quirky tastes for the period in which he lived—such as a wonderful etched double portrait of a camel and a man by Stefano Della Bella, then unknown in New York collecting circles; or twenty-five tiny Old Testament woodcut images that were cut out of some unidentified Dutch-language book by a hand unknown (to us). One of the most impressive elements of Melville’s collection is his comprehensive attention to major painters and subjects from all the major European schools. He built up a collection of Old Master images from the Italian, French, Flemish, Dutch, German, and English schools with the kind of range that New Yorkers would begin to see in public museums only decades after his death (when the Metropolitan Museum received its Altman and Havemeyer bequests in 1913 and 1929 and when the Frick Collection opened in 1920).

Melville’s print collection is a personal achievement of a high order. The imagination and tenacity required to put it together—especially when also working full-time and writing ambitious poetry and having very little extra money to spend until his wife received her legacy—is most impressive. On this level alone, the actual prints he did collect do help to dispel the familiar image of a dispirited, aging man not knowing what do to with the artistic and intellectual powers his countrymen had so spectacularly failed to appreciate during and after that incredible eleven-year run as a young writer of fiction. Like the books he collected and the poetry he wrote, the prints Melville collected are a testament to his intellectual vitality during the last twenty-five years of his life. Beyond that, they show a finesse, a passion, and an expanding base of knowledge that reveal an entirely new side of his personality and imaginative range. They show Melville himself to have been the kind of “hunter” that Merton Sealts described in Pursuing Melville in 1982, the hunter / scholar who by satisfying his own “private rage for order” is also “opening up an intercourse with the world” (339, 343).

Although the array of “objects” gathered into an individual’s personal collection can be “socially meaningful,” Susan Pearce argues that their primary “meaning” is created by the collector in the process of “arranging them in sets, both mentally and physically” (Pearce, “On Collecting,” 14). This site is designed to explore both the physical and mental meaning Melville’s prints might have had for him. Various subsets within the collection would have spoken to him differently—and to different parts of his person. To Melville as a lover of art, the prints he collected were a pleasure to the eye and a stimulus to the mind. To him as an author, they were as important as the books in his library as a source of historical research and literary inspiration. To him as a traveler, they were poignant reminders of places he had seen—or would love to see. To Melville as a student of mankind, they embodied a living record of people and places long dead and gone, pictorial images created by the hearts and hands of living artists which had found their way into the hands of engravers who had then translated them into inked images on paper that could then be disseminated over space and time into unseen hands eager to treasure and savor them.

Melville’s print collection was an expansive avocation that richly supplemented his life as a reader, writer, traveler, and collector of books.  On a more intimate level I believe he also acquired these lasting objects as a necessary stay against the flux of time and emotion. The man who had written Moby-Dick for an age that had not begun to understand it, who had pulped his comparable poetic achievement in Clarel, and had outlived both of his sons, had special needs for such a stay. But so do we all—whether we are ambitious creators who have fallen short of our dreams or random victims of a hurricane, flood, or epidemic trying to salvage a photo or two from familial loss. The greatest writers and artists create from their own inner lives imperishable impressions for us to hold on to when all else fails. Melville did this in the prose and the poetry he wrote. Many of the most imperishable impressions he has left for us in words were deeply inspired by pictorial impressions he had imbibed from artworks he had seen or prints he had collected. 

Each image in the photo gallery at the top of this page is introduced as a numbered figure in a subsequent section of this essay.

All works in this essay are found in the General Works Cited, Abbreviations for Writings by Melville and Principal Secondary Sources, or Key to Primary Sources on Prints from Melville's Collection.

Collecting Prints in his Home