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Melville’s Study

Even though I’ve built more than 200 miniatures, I’ve made only three in the last ten years, and all have to do with Melville. Reading Moby-Dick, I recreated the Spouter Inn facade, and the room where Ishmael and Queequeg stayed. Moby-Dick contains 135 short chapters, each like a miniature narrative, and so visually vivid, that it wasn’t hard to construct bits of the text in three dimensions. The façade of the Spouter Inn comes from Ch. 2, The Carpet Bag. Ishmael says:

“Moving on, I at last came to a dim sort of light not far from the docks, and heard a forlorn creaking in the air; and looking up, saw a swinging sign over the door with a white painting upon it, faintly representing a tall straight jet of misty spray, and these words underneath—‘The Spouter Inn:—Peter Coffin.’–Coffin?—Spouter?—Rather ominous in that particular connexion, thought I.… As the light looked so dim, and the place… looked quiet enough, and the dilapidated little wooden house itself looked as if it might have been carted here from the ruins of some burnt district, and as the swinging sign had a poverty-stricken sort of creak to it, I thought that here was the very spot for cheap lodgings, and the best of pea coffee.–It was a queer sort of place—a gable-ended old house, one side palsied as it were, and leaning over sadly. It stood on a sharp bleak corner, where that tempestuous wind Euroclydon kept up a worse howling than ever it did about poor Paul’s tossed craft.…But no more of this blubbering now, we are going a-whaling, and there is plenty of that yet to come. Let us scrape the ice from our frosted feet, and see what sort of a place this ‘Spouter’ may be.”

The text on which the interior is based comes from Ch. 3, The Spouter Inn

“…I was ushered into a small room, cold as a clam, and furnished, sure enough, with a prodigious bed, almost big enough indeed for any four harpooneers to sleep abreast. – ‘There,’ said the landlord, placing the candle on a crazy old sea chest that did double duty as a wash-stand and centre table; ‘there, make yourself comfortable now, and good night to ye.’ I turned round from eyeing the bed, but he had disappeared….. I then glanced round the room; and besides the bedstead and centre table, could see no other furniture belonging to the place, but a rude shelf, the four walls, and a papered fireboard representing a man striking a whale. Of things not properly belonging to the room, there was a hammock lashed up, and thrown upon the floor in one corner; also a large seaman’s bag, containing the harpooneer’s wardrobe, no doubt in lieu of a land trunk. Likewise, there was a parcel of outlandish bone fish hooks on the shelf over the fireplace, and a tall harpoon standing at the head of the bed.”

After I made these dioramas, I thought: that’s it for three dimensions; I’m going back to two.  I gave away my supplies, and turned my workshop back to its original function as a painting studio. However, last month, the director of the Melville Museum at Arrowhead, in Pittsfield, Mass, asked if I’d replicate the room in which Melville wrote Moby-Dick, to show at Arrowhead this summer. At first I said I couldn’t, since I no longer had the proper equipment to build a miniature. But a few days later, I called her back and said I’d give it a try.

Reproducing an existing place is very different from making one up out of your head, even with a descriptive text to go by. I’ve never been to Arrowhead, and had only some photos to refer to: The left wall, the back wall, the right wall.

This is the actual room at Arrowhead. Hawthorne describes Melville as he sits alone in his study, “shaping out the gigantic conception of his white whale, while the gigantic shape of Greylock looms upon him from his study window.”… A biographer wrote, “The second-floor study was Melville’s sanctuary; a bright corner room filled with morning light streaming through its eastern window and affording a view of Mt. Greylock framed in a…window that looked north over an expanse of fields.”

In the miniature, I added a few things not in the photos, such as a bit of ambergris, which is sperm-whale vomit, used paradoxically to make perfume. I looked at pictures of whale puke, and wondered how to conjure something that could pass (no pun intended) as ambergris. In the end, I concocted  a minuscule batch of the stuff out of well-masticated chewing gum.

There’s only one dollhouse store left in Manhattan, as far as I know. It’s a wee shop that sells everything imaginable and unimaginable, in one-inch scale. In a large bin is a huge assortment of tiny, leather-bound books: Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Gulliver’s Travels, etc. I asked: “Do you by chance have anything by Hawthorne?” at the same time plunging a hand into the bin, which was so deep you couldn’t see the bottom, and pulling up a book — it was Our Old Home, by Hawthorne.  That’s auspicious, I thought, and said, “What about Melville? Anything by him?” I dove in again, fished out another book at random, and up surfaced Redburn. Since Melville had published Redburn in 1850, just before he finished Moby-Dick, it seemed feasible to include it in the miniature.

As with a theater set, in making a diorama, you must choose one wall to eliminate as the “fourth wall,” the viewer’s vantage point. I chose to remove the wall with the window-view out to Mt. Graylock. So, from Herman’s point of view, as he sits writing Moby-Dick, we stand in for Greylock, and become his object of inspiration. He is writing about us, even as we imagine him spooling out his masterpiece of the human condition. But where is he, you might ask. He’s not actually in that little chair, is he? You’re right. He’s just stepped out to his fields, for a moment,  to do a little farm work, and contemplate what will happen next in his timeless, universal tale of the sea.

2 Responses

  1. Claudia says:

    Jane, Herman would be so pleased with this rendition of his writing space–I was there and it is eerily alike! Thank-you for letting us know why he isn’t busy at his writing desk. I loved the extras(ambergris)and wondering if it will be hard to find if I get there this summer. Signed, Waldo

  2. Claudia says:

    J, Having been to Arrowhead and Melville’s study, I was particularly interested in your rendition of his space. Absolutely wonderful–hope I can swing a trip by this summer to see it in person! Loved the ambergris thrown in, and thank-you for letting us know why we would be missing Melville at his desk. Happy you came around, and I’m sure Herman would be, too.