Skip to main content

Preferring This to That

Building a collection is all about making selections. Faced with a limited set of options, the collector prefers to add this to the existing set of objects and not that. This principle can extend to the collector’s life choices.

Melville late in life still tends to be viewed today as a bitter man cruelly neglected by his fellow New Yorkers. Arthur Stedman saw it somewhat differently. In the 1891 “Funeral” tribute he declared that “so far from being forgotten,” Melville “was among the very first to be invited to join the Author’s Club at its founding in 1882. His declination of this offer, as well as his general refusal to enter into social life, are said to have been chiefly due to natural disposition.” Stedman elaborated in the New York World on October 11, 1891. The “few friends” who “felt at liberty to visit the recluse” in Melville’s own home “were kindly welcomed, but he himself sought no one. His favorite companions were his grandchildren, with whom he delighted to pass his time, and his wife, who was a constant assistant and advisor in his work. . . . Otherwise he occupied himself with his fine collection of engravings and etchings, with books on philosophy and the fine arts, or with walks abroad, as long as they were possible” (Sealts, Early Lives, 110). Stedman’s words show that Hazlitt’s “books, pictures, and the face of nature” remained lasting pleasures for Melville to the very end. They also call to mind another “recluse,” Emily Dickinson, who had died five years earlier, who similarly preferred living in the privacy of her own home, surrounded by books, pictures, and the seasonal birds in her garden, all of which helped to inspire her growing accumulation of unpublished poems.

The reclusive man to the public was sociable with his granddaughters. Eleanor treasured a book he gave her for her ninth birthday in February 1891: Landseer’s Dogs, with “Six Chromographs after Paintings by Sir Edwin Landseer.” She relished the times he would invite her to sit on his knee and “put my hands in his thick beard and squeeze it hard. It was no soft silken beard, but tight curled like the horse hair breaking out of old upholstered chairs, fine and wiry to the grasp, and squarely chopped” (Metcalf, 281-83; FIG 7: Melville in 1885).

Frances, who was about five when she first visited her grandfather, also remembered that “amazing beard." That and his “deep voice alone might well have frightened me . . . but I was never the victim of his moods and occasional uncertain tempers.” She had warm memories of their trips to Central Park to “see the animals” and ride a “swan boat” and to Eden Musée to see the “wax figures” there. “I am sure that he took great comfort and pleasure in his grandchildren, and he showed a side of his nature that no one else knew he possessed.” On the “rare occasions” she was “allowed into grandpa’s study,” he let her “play with anything” she liked. “Sometimes I piled books into houses on the floor. A set of Schopenhauer pleased me most—they were not too heavy to handle and of a nice pleasing blue color. I was not concerned with the contents” (Osborne 180-84).

For Eleanor the intimacy continued after her grandfather’s death when visiting the library that her grandmother had furnished with his former belongings in the apartment house on East 18th Street. She felt especially close to him when attempting “to make ambitious pencil copies of Elihu Vedder’s illustrations of The Rubáiyát of Omar Kháyyám, using for drawing board the great desk whose glass shelves have been removed and now held old china instead of the leather-bound books I remembered casually noticing as a child at Twenty-Sixth Street” (Metcalf 289). After her grandmother died and her grandfather’s personal belongings came to the house in New Jersey, young Eleanor Melville Thomas became not only the custodian of the desk but the keeper of the flame that lit the Melville revival. In the photograph in which she is standing by the base of that desk, she is imagining the Melville revival before she helped it to happen (FIG 8: Eleanor Melville Thomas at her Grandfather’s Writing Desk). This photograph was shown to me in 1994 by her son David Metcalf, who was born in 1914. He thinks his mother was “in her twenties” when the photo was taken, so it was probably fairly soon after Melville’s former belongings had been transferred to the house in New Jersey. 

The photo of Eleanor and the desk illustrates Pearce’s definition of a collection as “the deliberate attempt to create” a set of revered objects “to be lifted out of the common purposes of daily life” (23). Eleanor has “lifted” her grandfather’s desk “out of the common purposes of daily life” by placing it directly in front of the door of a closet, to which any access is blocked. According to Pearce, such revered objects must also “be appropriate to carry a significant investment of thought and feeling, and so also of time, trouble, and resource” (23). Eleanor, throughout her adult life, invested a tremendous amount of thought and feeling, not to mention time, trouble, and resource, into collecting and preserving the desk, books, prints, manuscripts, and other material objects that she had gathered from her grandfather’s life—and then to disseminating them, both physically and mentally, to a wider world. In the process, she became the living equivalent of the “winged Angél” she had seen in her grandfather’s copy of Vedder’s Rubáiyát (see MBB 1.4).

Eleanor's first contribution to the world of scholarship was to show the manuscript of “Billy Budd” to Raymond Weaver of Columbia University, who then introduced it to the reading public in the 1920s. In 1942 she donated the books she had preserved from Melville’s library (including the copy of Vedder’s Rubáiyát whose drawings she had copied) to the Harvard College Library. In 1948 she published her edition of the journal of Melville’s 1849-50 voyage to London and the Continent. In 1952 she donated the three portfolios of engravings to the Berkshire Athenaeum and in 1953 she published the biography entitled Herman Melville: Cycle and Epicycle. Since her death in 1964 many individuals and institutions alike have kept the flame she lit alive.

In the 1953 biography, Eleanor Metcalf writes as tenderly of the books and pictures in her grandfather’s home and library as the fictional Redburn does in telling us of the books, pictures, and portfolios of prints his deceased father had preserved from his trips across the Atlantic Ocean. One of the most evocative objects for Eleanor was “a printed slip of paper” he had “pasted” to the side of the bookcase, “well out of sight.” It “read simply, ‘Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.’” This motto, she surmises, “grew out of the deepest needs of the whole man,” including “a desire to nourish the roots of life” (Metcalf 284). The books Melville had kept in the glassed-in upper shelves of that desk had certainly served this need. So had the portfolios of prints he kept in its lower drawers or elsewhere in the study. Together they helped him to write, on the surface of that desk, not only the prose of Billy Budd but the poetry of Timoleon and of many other poems left unpublished. All of these elements, the books and prints he had collected as well as the prose and the poetry he wrote, enabled him to nourish those dreams of his youth, to span the gap of space and time. 

The poem “Art” that Melville published in Timoleon in 1891 can be seen as his ultimate statement on the art he collected as well as the books he wrote. Certainly art and poetry are two of the “unlike things” he managed to fruitfully “meet and mate” in the closing decades of his life.  Yet the unlike things actually named in the poem are not contrasting artistic media but rather contrasting emotional or psychological states:

A Flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity and reverence. These must mate . . .

As my commentary in the cumulative catalog entries will show, the prints that Melville collected are themselves repositories of such contrasting emotions and states—sometimes in the subject or action of the image itself, sometimes in the known or unknown lives of the artists who created them, sometimes in the combined “audacity and reverence” with which a Turner will take on a Claude. Melville learned from his collecting activity as well as from his own writing that the meeting and mating of the unlike things is only the beginning. They must then “fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart, / To wrestle with the angel—Art” (NN PP 280).

Melville’s print collection, lovingly assembled between the time of his 1869 letter to Dexter and his death in 1891, and then lovingly preserved by his widow, daughter, granddaughters, and their own descendants and beneficiaries into this third decade of the twenty-first century, illuminates for us the broadest questions of cultural creation, consolidation, and exchange. This same collection illuminates some of the most intimate dimensions of individual preference, agency, and legacy. On the one hand, the prints that Melville collected represented the same kind of cultural capital—validated within a family, nation, or civilization—as the prints that Goethe gave to the city of Weimar or the paintings that celebrated donors were eventually to give to the Metropolitan Museum or the Frick Collection. On the other hand, Melville’s private act of collecting helped him to create his own personal locus of meaning, physically restricted to the rooms and walls of his house on East 26th Street, but imaginatively taking “the dreams of his youth” back toward the origins of civilization itself (to the extent that the inchoate impulses of something so grand can be conveyed in ink laid on paper by a printmaker’s hand). 

Taken as a whole, Melville’s imaginative act of collecting speaks to the broadest dimensions Pearce offers for the “poetics” of collecting in general. “Like the use of language in fiction,” she declares, “objects in a collection can be used in a range of poetics . . . according to the view and capacity of the collecting individual, who is using objects, like language, to create and project an image of himself and of how he sees the world” (“On Collecting,” 32).