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Saved by his Granddaughters

Frances Melville was the last born of Herman and Elizabeth’s four children. Malcolm in 1849 had been followed by Stanwix in 1851 and Elizabeth (Bessie) in 1853. Frances was born in 1855, the year of Benito Cereno. She was about six years old when pictured with her siblings the photo taken by R. H. Dewey around 1861 (FIG 2: Four Melville Siblings, 1861). Frances turned eleven years old during the year in which her father published Battle-Pieces, twenty-one in the year of Clarel. She turned twenty-five years old in 1880, the year she married Henry B. Thomas. Between 1882 and 1892 she gave birth to four daughters, the only grandchildren her Melville parents knew or had. 

When Bessie Melville died in 1908, two years after their mother Elizabeth, Frances was the only Melville child who was still alive (Stanwix had died in San Francisco in 1886). She and Henry Thomas raised their four daughters in East Orange, New Jersey. From there, their daughters Eleanor and Frances made visits to their grandfather in New York they would never forget. Although Katharine and Jeannette Thomas were born too young to remember their grandfather in person, they joined Eleanor and Frances, after the death of their mother in 1938, in the collaborative act of homage that has made this book possible: they combined to preserve nearly all of the 420 prints that are reproduced on this site.    

After Herman’s death those prints had first been preserved by his widow Elizabeth (FIG 3: Elizabeth Melville, 1885). After the sale of the house on 26th Street, she and her daughter Bessie moved to the Florence, an apartment house at 105 East 18th Street. Granddaughter Eleanor recalled it as “an old-fashioned, high-studded apartment house with a spacious, darkly wooded, black-marble-pillared, crimson-carpeted dining room.” She remembered sitting with her grandmother in “the library, surrounded by the remaining books of Melville” and with the portrait by J. O. Eaton staring down upon them. There her grandmother began to “induct” Eleanor “into the service of him she had served so faithfully.” One way of doing this was to pull out “Billy Budd” and “other “fugitive, discarded, or rewritten” works from “the precious box of manuscripts” she kept on “the same table where he used to write.” Another was to show Eleanor the “gilt-framed engravings” that hung in the library, the parlor, and “the hallway of my grandmother’s apartment.” Along with “some fine French mahogany furniture . . . they gave an august and classical atmosphere to the high-ceiled rooms” (Metcalf, Herman Melville, 288-90).

Frances Thomas was not as enamored of her father as her daughter Eleanor turned out to be. She more than once told her daughters that her father had spent money on engravings that would better have gone to feed his children. Herman had sometimes been gruff when Henry Thomas came to court Frances in her parents’ home; once he sent him home when he thought he was staying too late by asking him what he wanted for breakfast in the morning. Eleanor recalled another of her mother’s complaints in the form of this rhetorical question: “Would a daughter in her twenties not resent being roused from sleep at two in the morning to read proof with her father of a long poem on the Holy Land?” (Metcalf, Herman Melville, 215-16).  

Young Frances Melville Thomas could never imagine her father as a great American author. But when her mother Elizabeth and her sister Bessie died in succession in 1906 and 1908, she “nevertheless had a clear sense of the rightness of her guardianship of his literary remains.” So the “remaining belongings of Herman Melville” did come to the home of the Thomas family in New Jersey. Eleanor recalled that “my mother gave me his desk, and various other objects and pictures of his because I asked for them. Most of the rest were distributed throughout the house” (292-93). After Frances Thomas died in 1938, her four daughters continued in her “guardianship” of his remains, pictorial as well as literary. From his four Thomas granddaughters more than three hundred of Melville’s prints were eventually given to institutional collections for archival preservation. More than a hundred others still remain in the hands of direct descendants of their own, a remarkable act of cultural and archival preservation.

One of the great pleasures of my work on various aspects of this project ever since 1984 was to be sent in October 2007 a never-before-published photograph of the four familial heroines of this book, Melville’s four granddaughters, taken around 1905 (FIG 4: Four Thomas Daughters, 1905). It was sent to me by a grandson of Katharine Gansevoort Thomas, on the far right of the photo, who would have been about fifteen years old at the time it was taken. At the far left is Frances Cuthbert Thomas, then about twenty-two. In between them is Jeannette Odgen Thomas, about thirteen, and Eleanor Melville Thomas, about twenty-three. If the picture does date from 1905, Melville’s print collection would still have been in the hands of their grandmother Elizabeth before passing into the hands of their aunt Bessie, then their mother Frances, and eventually into their own. 

Eleanor, the oldest, was to give nearly 300 of her grandfather’s prints to the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1952. Jeanette, the youngest, was to follow Eleanor in donating six more prints to the Berkshire Athenaeum in 1960. Jeanette’s initials “J. O. T.” can also be seen penciled on the back of some of the prints Eleanor had donated. So can “K. G. T.,” the initials of their sister Katharine. Her daughter Katharine has loaned the photo for reproduction here, with the assistance of her son James Melville Whittemore. In 1985 Duncan Osborne, grandson of Frances Cuthbert Thomas (on the far left of photo taken eighty years earlier), included nine of Melville’s prints among the Osborne Collection of Melville Materials that he established at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.

Without going through all of the other direct descendants of Melville and his granddaughters who were preserving prints from his collection in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Virginia, Ohio, and England during the years in which I was writing essays about their collections, it is clear that Melville’s legacy as a collector of prints has remained important to members of his immediate family line now for more than a century after his death. Students of the domestic dynamics by which Melville turned out ten volumes of fiction as a young man between the ages of 27 and 38 are now appreciating more than ever the extent to which his sisters Helen and Augusta and his wife Elizabeth enabled that enormous productivity by their tireless efforts as his copyists. Similarly, the surviving manuscripts of his late volumes of poetry show us the extreme care with which his wife Elizabeth facilitated that work by writing out fair copies of his complicated, handwritten drafts that she then preserved in that “precious box” whose treasures she shared with Eleanor. The loving work that Melville’s granddaughters and their descendants have done in preserving so many of the prints he had collected is in this sense an extension of the work that his sisters, his wife, and one reluctant daughter had done in enabling him to produce, edit, and preserve the fiction and poetry he wrote.