Home from the Sea

Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick while living on a farm in Western Massachusetts in a household run by strong-willed women. Jill Lepore describes his domestic arrangements in a recent issue of The New Yorker, noting that while Melville was recalling the drama of his years at sea — concentrating on vengeful sperm whales and deadly harpoons — he was landlocked in the moody Berkshire hills. struggling to support his wife and children and four unmarried sisters.

Yet this location would prove inspiring. From his study, the novelist had a view of Mount Greylock which,  he said, reminded him of the back of a whale.

Illustration from Moby Dick, Charles Scribner’s Sons, Wikimedia Commons

While gazing out his window, Melville imagined the society of men at sea. “All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever present perils of life,” he wrote in Chapter LX of Moby Dick.

Reading an early, jam packed version of this adventure story, Nathanial Hawthorne advised Melville to slow the action and take time to ruminate on the flaws in human nature.  Melville took this to heart and over time, his story deepened into what is now regarded as a masterpiece of Romantic literature and a psychological study of obsession.

Yet the first reviews were cruel, and Melville largely depended on the women in his household—his wife Elizabeth, daughter of the chief justice of Massachusetts, and his sensible sister Augusta to keep his spirits up.

W.H. Auden described Melville’s domestic life as a safe harbor in a sea of literary turmoil. A place where he could escape the critics and his own dark musings on the ravaged soul.

Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary
And anchored in his home and reached his wife
And rode within the harbour of her hand,
And went across each morning to an office
As though his occupation were another island.

The writer’s life is often fashioned from such contrasts — the death-defying journey and the hushed sanctuary of the family home.

Read Jill Lepore’s illuminating article. And dip into Melville’s Letters to his friend Hawthorne or access all of Melville’s correspondence here.   


“Do you want to know how I pass my time? — I rise at eight — thereabouts — & go to my barn — say good-morning to the horse, & give him his breakfast. (It goes to my heart to give him a cold one, but it can’t be helped) Then, pay a visit to my cow — cut up a pumpkin or two for her, & stand by to see her eat it — for its a pleasant sight to see a cow move her jaws — she does it so mildly & with such a sanctity. — My own breakfast over, I go to my work-room & light my fire — then spread my M.S.S. [manuscripts] on the table — take one business squint at it, & fall to with a will. At 2-½ P.M. I hear a preconcerted knock at my door, which (by request) continues till I rise & go to the door, which serves to wean me effectively from my writing, however interested I may be. My friends the horse & cow now demand their dinner — & I go & give it them. My own dinner over, I rig my sleigh & with my mother or sisters start off for the village — & if it be a Literary World day, great is the satisfaction thereof. — My evenings I spend in a sort of mesmeric state in my room — not being able to read — only now & then skimming over some large-printed book.”

Arrowhead, Melville’s home at Pittsfield MA, in the 1930s, Library of Congress,
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