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The Project and the Site

Robert K. Wallace, Samuel Otter, and Clementine Farrell, co-creators

There are only three pleasures in life pure and lasting,

and all are derived from inanimate objects—

books, pictures, and the face of nature.

Passage Herman Melville marked in copy of
William Hazlitt’s
Criticisms on Art he acquired in 1870

The goal of this project is to allow viewers to see, search, and savor the visual and intellectual value of 420 prints and engravings that Herman Melville acquired and preserved in his East 26th Street home in New York City between the late 1860s and his death in 1891. We can enjoy these prints today because they were preserved by his widow Elizabeth Shaw Melville until her death in 1906, and then by their daughters Elizabeth and Frances, and then by their granddaughters Eleanor, Frances, Katharine, and Jeannette far into the 20th century, when these same prints were then preserved by direct descendants of those granddaughters and by various institutions who continue to care for them today.

This project began for me in the Reading Room of the Houghton Library at Harvard University in 1984 when I had some extra time on a rainy afternoon after examining the art books from Herman Melville’s library that are preserved there. I called up the “Miscellaneous Box of Melville Materials” I had seen listed in the card catalog and was surprised to see, as I slowly thumbed through it, a memorandum indicating that Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Herman’s granddaughter, had donated three portfolios of engravings from his personal collection of art to the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1952. Scholars had known that Melville had collected prints, but until then no actual prints had surfaced. In 1986 I published an inventory and overview of the 278 prints that had been preserved in storage at the Berkshire Athenaeum. Since then, with the help of many Melville scholars, Melville descendants, and institutional archivists, I have been able to discover another 150 prints Melville is known to have collected, most of which are still being preserved in private and public collections whose contents I have inventoried and interpreted in a sequence of essays about the separate collections.

This online site will enable viewers to see all the prints Melville is known to have collected, to appreciate the passion with which he acquired them, and to recognize the illumination they bring to his life, his writing, and his living legacy as an interdisciplinary intellect and global citizen. I am grateful to all the individuals and institutions who have given me access to the prints themselves and permission to reproduce them on this site; to those journals that have published my sequence of essays on the separate collections; to the successive generations of Melville scholars who have made archival retrieval of this kind possible and personally encouraged my own work; and especially to those individuals and institutions who have helped this project evolve from what I once thought would result in an expensive book for quite a limited audience into an online resource open to all.

After publishing the essay on the prints at the Berkshire Athenaeum in Essays in Arts and Sciences in 1986, I learned about the 44 prints from a private collector that Harrison Hayford and William Reese had rescued from the wastebasket at an estate sale, leading to the essay on the Reese Collection published in the Harvard Library Bulletin in 1993. This essay was followed in the same journal by those on the Ambrose Group (1995), David Metcalf’s Prints and tile (1997), and the Melville Chapin Collection (2000), all of these made possible by Hershel Parker’s having mentioned to me that Priscilla Ambrose, a direct descendent of Herman Melville living in Virginia, had some prints from her great-grandfather she might be willing to let me see. That original trip to Virginia led to trips to examine prints being preserved by other Melville descendants in Maine, Massachusetts, Texas, and Ohio, the sequence of essays in Harvard Library Bulletin being supplemented by those in Leviathan (2000, 2013, 2018).

As I continued to research and write various essays I had always hoped to bring them together in a book displaying all of Melville’s prints—which by the year 2000 had numbered more than 400. But scholarly books, especially heavily illustrated ones, were getting more and more expensive to publish. And I had become deeply involved in sequence of other multiyear projects devoted to Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick series, Melville and Frederick Douglass, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick opera, Moby-Dick and Emily Dickinson artworks created by my students, art acquisitions by the Melville Society Archive in New Bedford, and the untold story of Frederick Douglass and Cincinnati antislavery. During the summer of 2020 my work on the latter project paused long enough for me to think seriously about how to convert the half-written book on Melville’s print collection I had put on hold after seeing Heggie and Scheer’s opera in 2010 into a Digital Humanities project. Fortunately, my two co-creators of this site were willing and able to join me.

Clementine Farrell is a Computer Science major who was an outstanding student in my Honors class on Moby-Dick and the Arts at Northern Kentucky University during the 2020 Spring Semester. Our class had to move online after the pandemic shut down the campus during Spring Break, but Clementine and her classmates presented very impressive final projects at the end of the semester, hers being six separate paintings inspired by Moby-Dick itself. Here was a Computer Science major and Honors minor, about to become a junior, who would be a perfect partner in developing a Digital Humanities project in which literature, visual art, and computer science were equally essential. Among my many colleagues who for thirty-five years have shared and enriched my interest in Melville and visual art, Sam Otter has had the keenest interest and expertise in the prints from Melville’s collection. In July 2020 he had recently completed a six-year tenure as editor of Leviathan and was therefore free to say yes when I asked if he would like to join Clementine and me as co-creators of the project we are calling Melville’s Print Collection Online.

Our top priority in creating this site has been to convey the pictorial and imaginative essence of Melville's collection in the most accessible and expansive way. In addition to seeing, searching, and savoring the print collection that gave Melville himself so much pleasure in a way one could not do in a published book, this digital site will enable the viewer to immediately compare any individual print with others having the same engraver, artist, subject, place of publication, date, genre, collector, or engraving technique. The pictorial gallery at the top of this page presents a sample image for each of our 8 chapters. (Click on each image for Print Identification.)

Seeing all the prints from Melville’s collection will also enable the viewer to see his whole life whole. These prints help us to see that love of the visual arts was a continuous thread connecting the precocious, adventurous young man who published ten books of fiction between 1846 and 1857 with the more reclusive older author who published four books of poetry between 1866 and 1891. The nine-month voyage during which he explored Near Eastern cultures and Western European galleries in 1856-57 provided connections and associations between his fiction and his poetry, his travels and his home, and the printed page and the graphic image that enriched his imaginative life in a way that can continue to enrich our own today.

We were happy to be publishing the first chapter of MPCO in August 2021. Now, as we are completing Chapter 3 and enhancing the entire site in February 2023, Clementine Farrell is about to graduate and Emily Godfrey, a freshman major in Library Informatics, is replacing her as our webmaster. As subsequent chapters are completed, they will be added to the banner at the top of this page, where visitors are now able to “Browse by Melville’s Writings.” 

Robert K. Wallace, Northern Kentucky University

Samuel Otter, University of California - Berkeley

Clementine Farrell, Northern Kentucky University