Entry begun on US Airways flight 4469 from Albany to Philadelphia, Tuesday, August 4, 11:55 am
Monday morning was another perfect day in the Berkshires. Claire and I had made an appointment to spend the morning at the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, examining the extraordinary collection of prints from Melville’s personal collection of art in their Melville Reading Room.
Kathy Reilly, head of the Local History department, was there to introduce Claire to the print collection. After showing us the album books with reproductions of the 270-plus images, she brought out a selection of original prints for Claire to examine directly. The first group of original prints included the French edition of John Flaxman’s drawings of Dante’s Purgatoire engraved by Étienne Achille Revéil in Paris in 1833. Kathy brought out two little metallic “fingers” for help in turning the pages which Claire handled expertly. It was wonderful to see her keen admiration for Flaxman’s drawings, not only for the human expression of the figures themselves, but also for the pictorial power of the way he deployed them in space, opening up a sense of cosmic drama and abstract thought rarely seen in the work of Flaxman’s artistic contemporaries.
Claire was also very interested in Melville’ s full set of the twelve drawings that Clarkson Stanfield created for Frederick Marryat’s adventure novel The Pirate, published in 1836. This pictorial narrative follows the wreck of The Circassian, a ship carrying cotton from New York City to Liverpool as part of the slave trade, whose survivors end up on the coast of Africa before being carried across the Atlantic to the plantations of South America. Stanfield’s spirited drawings for this story were engraved by a number of English engravers celebrated today for their renderings of seascapes by J. M. W. Turner: R Brandard, J. Cousin, S. Fisher, J. B. Allen. J. C. Edwards, J. T. Willmore, and T, Jeavons.
Betsy, Claire’s mother, in addition to examining some of the prints with Claire, took a tour of various images and artifacts throughout the Melville Room. Among the artifacts, she had been particularly struck by the appearance of Melville’s passport for his 1856-57 trip to the Mediterranean, which she said looked exactly like that of her own grandfather’s passport later in the same century.
Claire had to be out at Arrowhead in the early afternoon to make sure the images on her laptop could be connected to the projection equipment in Melville’s barn. And I had to be back at the Athenaeum for a meeting at 1:10. So Claire and Betsy and I left the Melville Room at 11:30 and walked over to Otto’s, a café on the other side of a very busy street. This turned out to be perfect. We all ordered tuna sandwiches, to keep it simple, and the service was excellent. When the food arrived, Claire or her mother, I can’t remember which, said, “You Americans really know how to make sandwiches!”
Betsy and Claire were both impressed when a lady who had been at an adjacent table stopped by before leaving the restaurant to ask if they were from France and to welcome them to Pittsfield. They both said this would not have happened in Paris. Equally unlikely, they said, was what happened when I went to the men’s room before we left the restaurant. A man, who from behind looked like a street person, was bending over and holding Betsy’s hand. From a more distant table, he had come over to ask Betsy if Claire was her daughter. When she said yes, he complimented her, without speaking to Claire, on her daughter’s beauty. As we walked to the car, they were both taken aback by this spontaneous, unexpected tribute.
Melville’s Arrowhead is on Holmes Road, only a few minutes from the Athenaeum. You see it soon after passing Miss Hall’s School, where many of the young musicians from Tanglewood were staying for the summer. We were met at the barn by Peter Bergman and Will Garrison, who were coordinating Claire’s afternoon presentation. Her talk was scheduled at 4, so she and her mother would have plenty of time to see the house after the projection connections were tested. My meeting at the Athenaeum was with Kathy Reilly, Ron Latham, director of the Athenaeum, and John Bryant, director of the Melville Electronic Library. John had driven up from Lake George to meet with Ron and Kathy to discuss an agreement by which the prints from Melville’s collection now at the Berskshire Athenaeum could be posted on the evolving MEL website and thus be made accessible for scholars worldwide. Kathy and I were both delighted to be part of this discussion because we both recalled the days in the mid-1980s when she, as a librarian, and I, as an outside scholar, were among the first to discover these treasures, then unexamined, in their collection.
A good crowd had already assembled for Claire’s lecture in the Arrowhead barn when I returned from the Athenaeum at 3:30. Frank and Rhonda Gelbwasser were already here, and so were John and Cran Campbell, along with a number of Berkshire locals I had never seen. After checking with Claire to confirm that the projection equipment was in order, I had time to make a quick trip to Melville’s study on the second floor of the house, directly above the piazza. There was the desk on which he had written Moby-Dick, still looking directly out on an unobstructed vista of Mount Greylock, evoking the inspiration that vista had given him no matter what the season.
Melville had moved his family here from New York City in September 1850, soon after a literary excursion to nearby Monument Mountain on which he had met Nathaniel Hawthorne, then living in a cottage at Tanglewood in nearly Lenox. From the fall of 1850 through the winter and on into the next spring, Melville had written out his manuscript of Moby-Dick as the seasons changed, still adding some “shanties of chapters and essays” in June before returning to the “brick-kiln” of New York City to “drive” the book through the press” for its London publication in October, and its New York publication, in November, 1851 (June 29 letter to Hawthorne).
After visiting the second floor study, I spent a few minutes on a bench outside on the piazza, jotting down a few notes with which to introduce Claire to her audience, having just learned that I would be following Peter Bergman and Arrowhead director Betsy Sherman in introducing the afternoon lecture.
All the seats were full when Peter gave a quick overview of the programming during a very busy Melville Birthday Weekend of which this was the concluding event. Betsy introduced me as a Melville scholar who had made previous visits to Arrowhead. And I, as a specialist in Melville and the Arts, emphasized what a pleasure it was to be able to work with living artists as well as those of Melville’s own day. I also mentioned some of the universities that have copies of Claire’s Whiteness book, including Yale and Columbia on the East Coast, NKU and Northwestern in the Mid-West; and Stanford and Berkeley on the West Coast. Two copies are in Massachusetts, both at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, one in the Elizabeth Schultz Collection, the other in the Melville Society Archive.
This was the third time I’d heard Claire speak about her Whiteness book, inspired by the chapter on “The Whiteness of the Whale.” I first heard her at NKU in February 2011, then in Rome in June 2013, and now in Melville’s Arrowhead barn. Her conceptual, technical, and aesthetic approach to the project is so rich that I again found myself taking three pages of notes as she spoke, Here are a few of the random formulations that caught my attention this time.
An artist book “is a support for thought.”
For an artist working on paper, “a white background precedes any trace of existence.”
“Whiteness is an unknown zone, loaded with everything I do not know yet.”
For this project, “let the white paper play the leading part.”
From Melville: “Every attempt you make to draw the whale will be a failure.”
Although some parts of this talk were similar to what I had heard before, this was the first one during which Claire had paused, looked back over her shoulder, and spoke as if she’d been startled by the ghost of Melville himself. In the course of her talk, she made some mention of how difficult it can be to make an artist book from the writings of a living artist if the living artist is unhappy, even extremely unhappy, at some of the choices one has made. One might think it would be easier with a writer long deceased, like Melville or Dickinson. But that is not necessarily the case. “You can hope you are doing some kind of justice” to their work. “But you never know. For they can never tell you. Yet they are always present as we work, an inspiration and an invisible eye.”
This barn is very hot when the temperature is in the eighties. But attention was keen throughout the talk and during a question and answer session that lasted at least half an hour. Since this was Claire’s first visit to Arrowhead, I asked what had most caught her attention apart from the ghost in the barn. She had one quick, clear answer. She had been moved by the desk at which Melville had written the novel, looking out at the distant vista of Mount Greylock. And she greatly admired the way in which the room was arranged, the desk alone in the center of the uncluttered room so you could feel as soon as you walked into the room the inspiration beyond.
After the talk and the questions, Claire presented Peter Bergman, as a gift to Arrowhead, an engraving entitled On the Verge of Whiteness. This artwork depicts random roadside vegetation such as Melville wrote about in the “Weeds and Wildings” he left unpublished at his death. Peter announced that, by coincidence, Arrowhead and the Berkshire Country Historical Society are in the process of preparing an edition of Weeds and Wildings for which this engraving might be the perfect frontispiece.
Several of us have already been thinking of Claire as the ideal illustrator for Weeds and Wildings. In fact, on the way to the Berkshire Athenaeum this morning I had stopped at the Lenox Post Office to mail to Sam Otter, who shares Herman Melville’s August 1 birth date, a print Claire had brought from Chérence as my present to Sam. This was the best way I had to reciprocate for the edition of Vedder’s Rubáiyát that Sam had presented to me at the NKU Symposium in April.
After the lecture, the questions, and the presentation, many lingered in the barn to take a look at the copy of the Whiteness book that Claire had brought with her; this is the only copy in the edition of 25 that has not been sold. Claire also brought a copy of Summer Boughs, her artist book inspired by the poems of Emily Dickinson she had premiered at NKU in February. This is always my favorite time with an artist book, when the artist is speaking in the direct presence of the book itself.
After the audience finally left the barn, we had a nice reception in the Welcome Room of the house. After thanking our hosts for a wonderful afternoon, our contingent from northern Kentucky assembled on Melville’s piazza for a group photo. This was same group from the dinner party last night: Frank and Rhonda Gelbwasser from Becket, Massachusetts; Betsy Jolas and Claire Illouz from Paris and Chérence in France; John and Cran Campbell from the Cincinnati side of the Ohio River. With the exception of Betsy, we had all been at the Emily Dickinson Tea Party on Valentine’s Day earlier this year, to which Ronda and John had contributed signature dishes after Claire had premiered her artist book Summer Boughs.
Frank and Rhonda had to leave for Becket, so Betsy and Claire and John and Cran and I asked Peter Bergman if he could recommend somewhere not too far for dinner. He immediately suggested Gateways in Lenox, a historic inn that offers excellent bar food as well as restaurant fare. We did not realize until we arrived there that this Lenox landmark had been the summer home of the Proctor family, of Cincinnati’s Procter and Gamble.
Now Claire could relax too. She and Betsy had brought to the Berkshires a most stimulating infusion of French culture—in each case her own take on a classic American author. With nothing to lose, nothing to worry about, this last meal unfolded as it should, each surprising conversational departure as rich as the rest until we had moved from wild college days at Bennington College in the 1940s, to suffocating mustard cures and unneeded tonsillectomies, to new adventures from the Adirondacks, to Japanese puppets and chiropractic cures, to moments with Messiaen and Milhaud, to Emily’s laptop and Herman’s piazza, to the all-female Moby-Dick exhibition in Cincinnati to which Claire will be contributing new work next spring.
The preparation, the anticipation, the enacting, and the rehashing—in all these ways the Amherst, Tanglewood, and Arrowhead trifecta had been a winner for all concerned.