“Bon voyage,” my husband said last night as he turned out his light.
It’s something he says to me, an edict inside a valediction.
“I wish you luck,” he says, and said last night, I think.
Earlier he said, “Is it recycling night?”
“It is, isn’t it?” he said.
“Shit,” he said.
“You know how to do this,” he told our younger daughter as they sat in the kitchen at what he calls the island, though it is in fact a peninsula.
(He’s generally so careful with his words.)
“Combine your like terms,” he said to her, I remember.
He asked our dog, rhetorically, if she were hungry.
He asked me, rhetorically, how much longer we would be disinfecting boxes of frozen waffles.
He said SCUBA is an acronym, and RADAR, too.
When I found him at a window and asked him what he was looking at, he said, “A big groundhog.”
Even a quiet person says a lot in a day, almost all of which is forgotten.
Not forgotten, I suppose, but unremembered.
Some mornings I revisit a 2015 blog post titled “Words Herman Melville is Reported to have Spoken.”
The list is long, and surprisingly short.
Melville said, “I do” at his wedding, reportedly.
He asked a barmaid in Liverpool, “How much?”
“Man overboard!” he shouted in 1849 on a packet ship, the Southampton.
This morning I see that Melville nearly missed his voyage on the Southampton, having waited so long to apply for his passport.
And that seven years later he nearly missed his voyage on the Glasgow for the same reason.
(Melville’s older brother, Gansevoort, once lamented Herman’s habit of procrastination, “that disinclination to perform the special duty of the hour.”)
Curiously, Melville’s delinquent passport applications indicate that he shrunk nearly an inch and a half in seven years—
He was 5' 10 ⅛" at age thirty, but 5' 8 ¾" at age thirty-seven.
According to ships’ crew lists, he was 5' 8 ½" at age nineteen, but 5' 9 ½" at age twenty-one.
If you had less evidence, my husband said, you’d know how tall Herman Melville was.
Or if I had more, I said.
My husband says that I seem to have contracted Melville, and it’s true that some mornings we find one of my crumpled sticky notes in the sheets like a used tissue.
This blue one says, “tall and imposing,” quoting Melville’s granddaughter Frances.
And this green one, quoting Frances’s sister, says, “Many who knew him would have said he was six feet tall, whereas he was two to three inches short of that.”
Melville scholars offer commonsense explanations for the discrepancies in his recorded height—errors in measurement, exaggerations in self-reporting—but a medical doctor suggests that Melville’s apparent loss of height may have coincided with a loss of lumbar lordosis caused by ankylosing spondylitis, an autoimmune disease.
That doesn’t make sense, my husband said—
He said lordosis is curvature of the spine, so a loss of lordosis would have made Melville taller, not shorter.
It’s true that Melville’s acquaintances noted his erect bearing, I conceded.
That sounds right, said my husband, whose knowledge of the spine, it turns out, derives from a poster in his physical therapist’s office.
This morning I see that John J. Ross, MD, hypothesizes that Melville’s loss of lordosis was likely accompanied by compensatory hip flexion contractures, which when chronic lead to height loss.
Through my office window I see my husband reading in the backyard, and elect not to send the text I’ve written about Melville’s hip flexion.
Dr. Ross’s larger point in “The many ailments of Herman Melville (1819-91)” is that ankylosing spondylitis offers an “attractive unifying diagnosis” for Melville’s numerous maladies, which included not only loss of lordosis, but rheumatism, sciatica, arthritis, and persistent eye pain.
[T]ender as young sparrows, Melville described his eyes at age twenty-nine.
Which Charles Olson in his book Call Me Ishmael misquoted, perhaps mistranscribed, as “tender as young sperms.”
John J. Ross claims Melville described his eyes as “tender as pigeon’s eggs,” but his source provides no source.
Nor, this morning, can I find one.
[B]ut like an owl I steal abroad by twilight, Melville wrote at age thirty-one, owing to the twilight of my eyes.
Those eyes were small and blue and, according to Sophia Hawthorne, “quite undistinguished in any way,” though she found his gaze powerful.
How he could see so keenly without keen eyes she could not comprehend.
His glance, she wrote to her mother, “does not seem to penetrate through you, but to take you into himself.”
Kind of like a tractor beam, said my husband, who with his eyes attempted—unsuccessfully, I think—to take me and then the dog into himself.
Stop doing that, our daughter said.
Sophia’s impressionistic paragraph about Melville’s appearance and affect is, incidentally, “by all odds the fullest such description of Melville known to exist,” according to one biographer.
According to another, Melville is “so murky” that a recently discovered photograph of a bearded man on a Staten Island pier caused excitement among Melvilleans, “even though the photo shows little more than a featureless silhouette.”
“Melville didn’t want to be known,” according to a third, “he is one who treasures, insists on anonymity.”
He was born Herman Melvill in 1819.
And eulogized as “Hiram Melville” in the New York Times after his death in 1891.
And registered as “Norman Melville” on a transcribed crew list at age nineteen.
On his final sea voyage, at age sixty-nine, he was identified in the Bermuda Gazette as “A Melville.”
His “lifelong smoldering restlessness,” his “roving inclination.”
He sailed the Acushnet, the St. Lawrence, the Lucy Ann, the United States.
The Charles and Henry, the Cortes, the North Star, the Meteor.
He climbed riggings and mountains and trees.
Pyramids, minarets, campaniles.
He Rounded Cape Horn
He Toured the Holy Land
He Deserted Ship in the South Seas and Lived among Cannibals
Until he deserted the cannibals.
When bad weather prevented his daily walk, he paced his porch.
And Frances remembered the sound of him pacing his study—
“Sometimes I could hear him walking back and forth for a long time and I would think how much pleasanter it would be if he were walking in the park with me.”
With his son-in-law, Melville would ride the ferry “back and forth endlessly” across the Hudson River, just for the sake of it—
“[H]e never sat still in one seat for long, but moved about trying every place of vantage.”
Just as, years earlier, seated all day in his cold study, he sought every vantage of the whale:
Let us now with whatever levers and steam-engines we have at hand, cant over the sperm whale’s head, that it may lie bottom up; then, ascending by a ladder to the summit, have a peep down the mouth; and were it not that the body is now completely separated from it, with a lantern we might descend into the great Kentucky Mammoth Cave of his stomach.
And every vantage of language, history, time, civilization—
Until at an appointed hour came a knock on his door, ending his day’s work.
From one of the women—his wife, mother, unmarried sisters—with whom he lived in a farmhouse in Western Massachusetts from 1850 to 1863.
From 2004 to 2011, I lived in a farmhouse in Western Massachusetts—
Strictly speaking, more of a Cape Cod but with a view, from the kitchen windows, of a large hayfield.
The mown paths, the business of circumference—
Hayfield, I thought to call the book I planned to write.
“It is not true,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, “that it doesn’t matter where you live, that you are in Hartford or Dallas merely yourself.”
You, though, I might tell my husband some sleepless night, would somehow be in Hartford or Dallas merely yourself.
More likely I would tell him that Melville once made a list of grasses on the back flyleaf of his copy of A History of the County of Berkshire, Massachusetts.
“He never loved any place more, not even the sea,” according to the author of an article I surreptitiously ripped from a magazine at the Subaru dealership way out on Beechmont, folding it in half, then in fourths.
September 4, 2019, according to the service records in my glove box.
In September 1850, “nearly without notice and absolutely without cash,” Melville purchased his farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts—
Arrowhead, he named it.
He claimed the largest room in the crowded farmhouse for his study and, as the author of the article that I removed from the service lounge notes, installed a lock upon the door.
Or perhaps had it installed—
Many years later, when one of Melville’s daughters was asked if her father was “handy about the house,” she answered emphatically, “no!”
This morning I see that Melville possessed the only key to his large study at Arrowhead.
There’s a moment in Chapter V of his fourth book, Redburn, called HE PURCHASES HIS SEA-WARDROBE, AND ON A DISMAL RAINY DAY PICKS UP HIS BOARD AND LODGING ALONG THE WHARVES, when the eponymous narrator hangs a towel over the knob of his locked door—
so that no one could peep through the keyhole.
In the margin of her copy of Redburn, Herman Melville’s granddaughter Eleanor wrote that her mother told her that “H. M.” occasionally used a towel for just this purpose.
Eleanor’s mother, Herman Melville’s younger daughter, once consented to an interview on one condition: that her father’s name not be uttered aloud.
Her father, for example, woke her at 2 a.m. to read proof of his book-length poem Clarel.
My husband refuses clues and will never guess the longest poem in American literature—
It’s not “Song of Myself” or “Evangeline” or “That Really Long One by Hart Crane.”
Clarel, the longest poem in American literature, is eighteen thousand lines of iambic tetrameter.
Longer than the Iliad, longer by far than Paradise Lost.
And Melville’s daughter never forgave him.
His biographer did, however.
The most comprehensive of his numerous biographers, that is—
“legendary for his staggering precision and his devotion to his hero.”
His two volumes, nearly two thousand pages.
If Melville’s daughter were tired, having been awakened by her father at 2 a.m. to read proof of his epic poem, could she not, the Biographer reasoned, take a nap during the day?
And though Melville once ate a bag of oranges in front of his child, sharing none, might he not have felt himself coming down with a cold?
“This is someone who knew about scurvy from his time on ships,” explained the Biographer, someone with “a need to keep his health up.”
Someone with a renowned appetite.
Who, touring London in 1849, ate and drank so much he had to buy new pants.
And who, having received bad news from a publisher, wrote in his journal, I’m floored—appetite unimpaired however—
so down to the Edinburgh Castle & paid my compliments to a chop.
Of a baked potato feast, the subject of family legend, his granddaughter wrote, “I dare not even try to remember the number I once heard were consumed by the head of the house!”
Then again, he was known to skip meals while at work in his farmhouse study.