At Melville’s Writing Desk

Herman Melville, 1861

What can you tell about a writer from the tools the writer uses or the places that he wrote? Probably not much, but as a writer I have a fascination with seeing the homes, rooms, desks and tools that writers use.

I have written about Melville before. Not my “favorite” author because I can’t pick a favorite, but he’s certainly on the list and Moby Dick is in my list of favorite novels. I know a lot of people can’t get through one reading of that leviathan of a novel, but I have reread it a number of times.

Melville never had great success in his lifetime. His masterpiece (and he knew it was one), Moby Dick, didn’t get good reviews and was rediscovered by critics and readers long after his death. At the end of his life life he was still writing but not for publication.

Melville followed the example of his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne and moved permanently to the Berkshires of Massachusetts (Pittsfield) for solitude in which to write. He bought a farm and named it Arrowhead after the native relics he discovered as he was plowing the fields. It was his home for 13 years and he wrote a lot of his best work there.

I’m not sure how quiet it ended up being with Herman, Lizzie, Malcolm, and three more children, all born at Arrowhead: Stanwix, Bessie, and Fanny. Plus Herman’s mother and sisters Augusta, Helen, and Fanny all moved to Arrowhead as well. Sister Kate and numerous other friends and relations would make their home there as well at various times.

Desk - Arrowhead, Herman Melville House, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, USA - Photo by Luxury Experience
Arrowhead – Writing Desk


His sanctuary seems to have been his second-floor library since he completed four novels, a collection of short stories, ten magazine pieces, and started a volume of poetry there. The work included Moby-Dick, The Confidence-Man, “The Piazza Tales,” “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

I have read several places that his view of Mount Greylock was the inspiration for the white whale, but there seems to be better evidence that it came from his own whaling days and the accounts of others.

I read in Nathaniel Philbrick’s book,  Why Read Moby-Dick?, that Melville had a quotation from Johann Friedrich von Schiller, the German poet, philosopher, historian, and playwright at his writing desk.  The quote was “Stay true to the dreams of thy youth.” (from Don Carlos). I wonder what that meant to Melville. Was it those dreams of going to sea and seeing the world?  Was the quote a bittersweet reminder of what he had lost or never really achieved? Schiller also wrote that “Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life.”

Last year there was an auction of Herman Melville’s travel desk. It is a mahogany lap-desk that opens to a hinged brown velvet-lined writing surface. It has a pen well and a place to store papers and even a few secret drawers. It was listed as having a snuff box, two small pen knives, tweezers, a glass intaglio seal and mother-of-pearl pen.

The lid has caricature prints, and small papers that say Our Box at the Post Office is 1162″ and “Herman Melville / 104 East 26th St / New York”

Herman Melville got this desk from Ellen Martha Marett Gifford (her name/initials are on the pen knife and some other desk items). She was Elizabeth Melville’s cousin, and in Herman’s later life, one of his benefactors. A gift from her in 1886 allowed Melville to retire from his position at the New York Custom-House.

In his final years, he privately published two volumes of poems (John Marr and Other Sailors and Timleon) and began Billy Budd which he worked on until his death. He lived on East 26th Street in New York City from 1863 until his death in 1891. It seems that he did get to travel a bit in those last years and I like to think that the little desk went along. Rather than the image I once had of the sad, old, forgotten writer in the city, I prefer seeing him on his trips to Bermuda, Florida, and Savannah sitting in a chair with the lap-desk staring at the ocean and writing.



In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt–a wind to freeze;
Sad patience–joyous energies;
Humility–yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity–reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel–Art.

Herman Melville

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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