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Shaggy Allies

American Folk Art Museum

Ammi Phillips: Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, 1830–1835

American Folk Art Museum

Ammi Phillips: Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, 1830–1835

On the last weekend of spring, we drove out to Herman Melville’s house in the Berkshires. The three of us, my wife and I and our older son, visiting from England, were wading in grief and in dire need of distraction. Everything at home—a water bowl in the back room, a chew toy by the TV—reminded us of our beloved Miniature Australian Shepherd, Allie, a rescue dog from Alabama (her full name) whom we’d lost after twelve years together.   

Melville wrote Moby-Dick at Arrowhead, a labyrinthine farmhouse named for the Indian artifacts found in the surrounding fields. In 1850 he had transplanted his family from New York City to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where his uncle had owned a farm. Melville was at a perilous point in his career—short of money, supporting an extended family in cramped quarters in Manhattan—and finding relief from his habitual rage and depression in the exaltation of writing a visionary, ever-expanding novel. Pittsfield, where the Melvilles lived for thirteen years, offered cheap property and a convenient train ride (easier than today’s) to New York. According to the Times, Pittsfield has recently become, for similar reasons, a trending alternative for urban exiles exhausted by Covid and mushrooming rents.

The weather turned chilly with a threat of rain as the GPS guided us along winding back roads to Arrowhead. I was struck, as I often am, by the loneliness of so many of our American writers—Melville, Dickinson, Thoreau—each so isolated in their strange digs. “Isolatoes” was how Melville described the diverse crew of the Pequod, “not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own.” It’s good to know that Melville, according to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son, Julian, had the company of “a black Newfoundland dog, shaggy like himself, good natured and simple.” (“My shaggy ally” was how Dickinson referred to her own Newfie, Carlo.) Readers of Moby-Dick may remember that after Ishmael wakes up in Queequeg’s arms in the Spouter-Inn, and complains of the “unbecomingness of his hugging a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of style,” Queequeg “shook himself all over like a Newfoundland dog just from the water.”

But Melville’s closest companion at Arrowhead, by his own account, was its enormous central chimney, the first thing you see when you step into the cramped entryway. The imposing brick pile, twelve feet square in the cellar, is immortalized in the 1856 story “I and My Chimney.” The narrator’s wife, eager to demolish the chimney in order to have a proper entry hall, hires a shifty architect named Mr. Scribe to justify the renovation. The husband, who, like his beloved chimney, spends his time smoking and settling in place, resists.

The story resembles, in tone and a few particulars, the far more famous “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” also written at Arrowhead. Again, a stationary figure refuses to be budged and a scrivener or “scribe” is a hindrance to the narrator. All sorts of allegories have been proposed for what the chimney “really” means—“a phallic symbol of male independence,” John Updike predictably suggested—so I’ll add another. I think it’s Melville’s great whale of a book threatening to overwhelm the domestic and imaginative space of the house. Describing the chimney’s tapering shape as it rises through the house, he notes that “it breaks water from the ridge-pole of the roof, like an anvil-headed whale, through the crest of a billow.”

The window over Melville’s upstairs writing desk has a stunning view of the two-humped Mount Greylock on the horizon, the very profile of a spouting whale. After the disappointing reception of Moby-Dick, dedicated to Hawthorne, who lived in nearby Lenox, Melville dedicated his next novel, Pierre—an unmitigated disaster with critics and readers—to Greylock, “the one grand dedicatee of the earliest rays of all the Berkshire mornings.”

Arrowhead doubles as a display space for the Berkshire County Historical Society, with Melville’s possessions interspersed with others from the society’s collection. In a corner of the master bedroom is the childhood chair of the great African-American intellectual and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who lived in nearby Great Barrington. In the living room are two portraits by the American itinerant painter Ammi Phillips (1788–1865), best known for his marvelously suggestive paintings of children. Our guide mentioned that some art historians on an earlier tour were excited about the paintings, and I wondered why. What struck me was that despite some superficial gender markers (a book in his hand, flowers in hers) husband and wife looked exactly alike—the shape and angle of the face, the hair tucked behind the ear with a switch jutting out behind, the downturned lips and raised eyebrow—as though Phillips had used the same template.

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Phillips has been in the news lately, first in January, when his ravishing Woman with Pink Ribbons sold at Christie’s for a record price of $3,870,000, and then again on June 20, the day after our visit to Arrowhead, when the Times announced the recovery of two Phillips paintings that had vanished from public view fifty years ago. In February 1972, while police officers were distracted by a fire in New Paltz, New York, someone stole the portraits of a husband and wife (not unlike the ones we saw at Arrowhead) from the wall of a historical society in town. A local librarian and a curator at the historical society who had done research on the portrayed couple, slaveholders from New Paltz, eventually cracked the case when they discovered that Sotheby’s had sold the paintings in 2005. The buyer was notified and returned the portraits.

I looked up Phillips’s best-known painting on my iPhone. I shouldn’t have. It shows a little girl in a stylized off-the-shoulder red dress holding a white cat in her oddly parallel arms. From under one corner of the dress a little dog peeks out. It’s a beagle with—I noticed with a gulp—a spoon-shaped patch on its forehead, just like Allie had. This is the painting that catches Teju Cole’s attention—he mentions the girl’s “starchy red dress” and the dog under her chair—in his novel Open City, when Julius ducks out of the rain and enters the American Folk Art Museum. Of artists like Phillips, Cole remarks, “They lacked formal training, but their work had soul.”

“Nature is a Haunted House—,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “but Art—a House that tries to be haunted.” The houses of famous writers often try—sometimes a little too hard—to be haunted. I didn’t feel this way about Melville’s house, which had a casual, openminded feel to it, allowing visitors to summon their own images from these relics of the past. From Arrowhead, we took a meandering, rainswept route along the Housatonic and back to our home, which felt more haunted than ever, the memories flooding back.

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