Friday, August 2, 2019

Friend of Bessie remembers Herman Melville, his "dignified" figure and "wonderful library"

William Lyon Phelps
via NYPL Digital Collections

Books to the right of you, books to the left of you, books all above you.... 
The June 1929 issue of Scribner's Magazine with the second installment of Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" also contains a rare reminiscence of Herman Melville, attributed to an unnamed, presumably female friend of Melville's daughter Elizabeth "Bessie" Melville (1853-1908). The "personal recollection" by Bessie Melville's "most intimate friend" was provided, apparently in writing, to Yale professor of English William Lyon Phelps who quoted it in his monthly column, "As I Like It":
Happening to mention the name of Herman Melville in a lecture in Brooklyn, a member of the audience gave me this personal recollection, which seems to me of general interest.
The mention of his name revived memories. His daughter, Elizabeth Melville, was my most intimate friend during my school days and until her death, several years ago, I was a frequent guest in the home. Although a little in awe of his dignified presence, I found him always kindly and most cordial. Bessie so often referred to their ancestral home at Pittsfield, Mass., where the children were born. The home "Arrow Head" is still in possession of some of the family, I think the daughter of Capt. Thomas Melville, who was a well-known Captain, living at Governor's Island, or at Staten Island, in the early seventies. I visited "Arrow Head" a few summers ago and saw with deep interest Herman Melville's library, and his old desk, with books everywhere. His city home, then in 26th St., near Fourth Ave., contained a wonderful library, at which I gazed with wonder and respect. Books to the right of you, books to the left of you, books all above you, and on the long table. I can see him now, in memory's picture, sitting in his big arm chair, a fine specimen of manhood. He was quite a well-known figure on the avenue, as he walked to and fro from business, cane in hand, withal tall, stately, and dignified. My father who admired Mr. Melville greatly, often spoke of "Omoo," and "Moby Dick." At that time Mr. Melville's books were appreciated in England-- "A prophet is not without honor." 
His contemporaries, extending over some years, Hawthorne, Holmes, Longfellow, Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, were often topics of conversation in his home to which I enjoyed listening, for in our studies at school we were studying the same in literature. 
--Scribner's Magazine Vol. 85 No. 6 (June 1929), page 711.
On April 28, 1929, Phelps lectured for the Brooklyn Institute on "Contemporary Books Worth Reading," including the new biography of Herman Melville by Lewis Mumford. Possibly the friend of Elizabeth "Bessie" Melville heard Professor Phelps and his mention of Melville then.

Letter to "Aunt Augusta" from "Bessie" Melville, May 26, 1862. Page 2.
Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library
The New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1862 - 1863.
More than twenty years before, in November 1906, Herman Melville's daughter Elizabeth had solicited personal "letters and reminiscences" for a "memoir" or "biography" of her father that never materialized. The project was announced in the New York Evening Post on November 12, 1906

New York Evening Post - November 12, 1906
via Fulton History
The family of the late Herman Melville, author of "Typee," "Moby Dick," etc., are collecting materials for a memoir and would be grateful if any persons having letters by him would lend them to Miss Elizabeth Melville, "The Florence," Fourth Avenue and Eighteenth Street, New York. Such letters will be carefully kept and promptly copied and returned.
 and the Springfield Republican on November 19, 1906:
Herman Melville, the original of all romancers of the South seas,--none of whom, Loti, Stevenson, Becke, each in his several fashion, have equaled him,--is to have a biography at last. He was emphatically a man; and his writings are of a merit so extraordinary that it seems amazing that little stories, without a bit of life or character in them, can be sold by hundred thousand, while "Typee," "Omoo" and the great "Moby Dick" are passed by when some editor and publisher undertakes to present them once more to the public. Any one who has material in the shape of letters or reminiscences is asked to lend the letters or write out the reminiscences, for Miss Elizabeth Melville, the Florence, Fourth avenue and Eighteenth street, New York city. 
Also The Dial, December 16, 1906, reported by George Monteiro in "Herman Melville: Fugitive References (1845-1922)," Resources for American Literary Study Vol. 33 (2008; AMS Press, 2010), pages 19-93 at 77;

the New York Herald on December 8, 1906; and the Boston Herald on December 22, 1906:

"Week-End Book Notes" - Boston Herald - December 22, 1906
via GenealogyBank
"Elizabeth Melville, the daughter of Herman Melville, is preparing a biography of her father, and asks for the use of letters and reminiscences. As the friend of Hawthorne, and the best of the South sea romancers, Melville deserves such a memorial as his daughter contemplates."
Elizabeth "Bessie" Melville died on May 26, 1908. In the 1929 text presented by Phelps, her friend's expression "cane in hand" verbally echoes the longer reminiscence by Melville's granddaughter Eleanor Melville Metcalf, as quoted by Raymond Weaver in Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic.

Arrowhead remained in the family of Herman's brother Allan Melville (not Tom, Third Governor of Sailors' Snug Harbor) until 1927. Allan's surviving daughters Mrs. Maria G. Morewood and Katherine G. Melville sold the home to paper company executive Robert E. Kimball. Bessie's friend associated Arrowhead with the wrong younger brother. But she was evidently right about the books of his there (as well as that "wonderful library" in Melville's home on E. 26th Street in New York City). The change of ownership in the summer of 1927 occasioned an estate sale at Arrowhead that offered books purportedly from the library of Herman Melville.

From The Berkshire Eagle, Friday, July 29, 1927:


other household furniture, glass, china, and books from Herman Melville library, now being sold at "Arrowhead," the Morewood place on Holmes road. (1/4 mile below Miss Hall's school). Sale to continue Saturday and Monday. 
Also as advertised in the Berkshire Eagle, the last day of the sale took place on Monday, August 1, 1927. Coincidentally, Herman Melville's 108th birthday.

Sat, Jul 30, 1927 – 5 · The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts) ·
"Arrowhead" the Morewood Place
on Holmes Road 
Antiques, other furniture and books from
Herman Melville library. 
--Sale conducted by Miss O'Herron-- 


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you!!! I'm checking my mailbox every day for the new Library of America edition of Melville's Complete Poems.