Call Him Ishmael

In a recent Substack post, I asked subscribers which book resonated with them. Dennis Merritt wrote a favorite is Moby-Dick, which inspired me to publish this piece.

Of course, I’m playing with the opening line to that great American novel, Moby-Dick. I was inspired by a visit to Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s home in Pittsfield where the author was his most productive. Melville wrote there for 13 years, including his most famous book, Moby-Dick.

I have a penchant for visiting the homes of famous creative people — homes such as Arrowhead, which was bought by the Berkshire Historical Society in 1975 — that are open to the public.

I want to see where these creative souls worked and lived. I want to feel their energy.

Arrowhead was definitely on my list. The photo above belongs to the Berkshire Historical Society.

First, a little background is in order. I’m originally from Fairhaven, Mass., which is steeped in whaling history along with its neighboring city, New Bedford. Every January, the New Bedford Whaling Museum holds a marathon reading of Moby-Dick, which takes 25 hours.

Growing up, I was immersed in whaling history. In fifth grade, I wrote a paper about the Essex, the whaling ship that sank and stranded 20 men in the South Pacific. Crew members survived by cannibalism. Their story is supposed to have inspired Melville.

I also read Moby-Dick as a high school sophomore, a bit of heavy reading for someone that age.

But back to Melville, he was 21 when he set sail on the whaler, Acushnet, based in Fairhaven, in January 1841. He lasted 18 months before jumping ship in the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific. He called that voyage his college education. When he eventually returned to the U.S., he drew on his experiences to write his first five books.

Melville is also supposed to have read an article about “Mocha Dick: The White Whale of the Pacific.” When that white whale was eventually killed, the crew found 20 harpoons stuck to its body from other attempts to kill the animal.

My theory: Good writers take what they know and have their way with it. I believe Melville did the same.

Certainly, there’s enough written about Melville and Moby-Dick that I don’t have to repeat it here. I do find it interesting, however, an author of his stature was unable to profit from his writing. Reviews at the time of Moby-Dick’spublication in 1851 were iffy, even negative.

In debt, Melville sold off about 80 acres. Later, he sold Arrowhead to his brother and returned with his family to New York, where he was a customs clerk for 20 years. He had a desk job, working six days a week for $4 a day.

There is certainly a lesson here for writers, like myself, who are frustrated by the writing business.

A few years ago, Hank and I toured the rooms in Arrowhead that were open to visitors. He admired the workmanship of the home built in the 1790s. I was most interested in the room on the second floor where Melville wrote.

Here Melville sat at a table facing a window that gave him a long view of Mount Greylock in the horizon. The story has it that the mountain’s shape in winter reminded him of a white whale.

The original table is at the Berkshire Athenaeum, but as I sat in that room I got it. Through the wavy old glass and the overcast sky, Greylock indeed resembled a whale. Call me nuts, but I could feel the creative energy in that room.

That night we watched the vintage movie Moby Dick, which was a bit dated. Gregory Peck plays the vengeful Capt. Ahab. The next day, I headed to the library to order a copy of the novel through the inter-library loan system.

Didn’t I tell you I was inspired?

For more on historic site, visit


D.H. Lawrence Remains

I so enjoy visiting the places where famous creatives once lived and worked. I got a healthy helping of that when I lived in New Mexico. Writers. Artists. Today, I will focus on D.H. Lawrence. Yes, he lived there.

I was inspired after Poetic Outlaws shared Lawrence’s poem, On That Day. I shall put roses on roses, and cover your grave/ With multitude of white roses: and since you were braveOne bright red ray. 

The poem brought me back to the several visits I made to Lawrence’s grave in San Cristobal, an unincorporated area north of Taos with less than 300 people. The 160-acre D.H. Lawrence Ranch includes two modest cabins and a chapel-like memorial for Lawrence, in which his ashes are mixed in a block of cement or so the legend goes.

Lawrence and his wife Frieda first visited New Mexico in September 1922, when they were invited by Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy patron of the arts who settled in Taos. (Luhan brought other luminaries of the day such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, and Aldous Huxley.) The Lawrences came three times— staying a total of 11 months. On the second visit, Luhan gifted the ranch to Lawrence and Frieda, who gave her the original manuscript for Sons and Lovers.

The ranch’s cabins where the Lawrences and their artist friend, Lady Dorothy Brett, lived are made of Ponderosa pine logs cut in the 1880s and adobe plaster. The Lawrences lived in the three-room Homesteader’s Cabin, and Brett in the one-room cabin, dubbed the Dorothy Brett Cabin. Lawrence, who was on a self-imposed exile from England, wanted to start a utopian society and Brett was the only one to take him up on his idea.

The D.H. Lawrence Ranch is about 18 miles north of Taos, where I lived. I can only imagine what a rough journey that must have been when he stayed there. Even now the last leg is seven miles on a dirt forest service road. (Watch out for cows wandering along the road.)

Then there is the Lawrence tree. He wrote in long hand beneath this grand pine and O’Keeffe later memorialized it in her painting, The Lawrence Tree. While here Lawrence wrote a short novel, St. Mawr, a biblical drama, David, and parts of The Plumed Serpent.

Lawrence died in France in 1930. Five years later, Frieda had his remains exhumed then cremated. His ashes were brought to the ranch. 

After a dispute with Luhan and Brett over what to do with Lawrence’s remains, the story goes Frieda mixed his ashes with wet cement in a wheel barrow and used it for his memorial altar. The altar has his initials and above it a statue of his personal symbol, the phoenix. Visitors often leave mementos.

Frieda, who entrusted the property to the University of New Mexico, is buried outside.

During my visits, I reveled that a giant in the literary world would choose even for a short time to live in this primitive and remote spot. My first experience with Lawrence was reading his classics Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Sons and Lovers in a one-room cabin with no running water or electricity in New Hampshire. But that is another story.

Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter

Remembering Russell Banks

Russell Banks, who died Jan. 7 at age 82, is one of the authors who inspired me to read most of what he had written as well as write my own books. He is also the only famous author I’ve actually met thus far, certainly a more memorable experience for me than him I’m sure.

First, let me tell you some about Banks. He was the author of 14 novels, plus works of nonfiction, books of poetry and short stories. His writing typically reflects the working-class upbringing he had in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Often they involved tragedies and difficulties people face. Two novels were made into feature films, The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction. Two novels, Continental Drift and Cloudsplitter were nominated for Pulitzers. I have four in my possession, including my personal favorite, The Sweet Hereafter. And that book has a connection to meeting Banks.

Russell Banks’ photo on the back of The Sweet Hereafter.

In 2004, Banks was at the Brattleboro Literary Festival in Vermont to promote his latest, The Darling with a reading. I went specifically to hear him read. We were living in Worthington, Mass. then. I had an agent and two books written that he couldn’t sell. 

At last minute, I grabbed my copy of The Sweet Hereafter in case I could get him to sign it.

The Sweet Hereafter is a grim book about a school bus accident in which fourteen children die and how those living in a small town in Upstate New York respond. Banks was inspired by a similar accident in South Texas. 

The story is told by four characters: Dolores Driscoll, the woman who drove the bus and survived; Billy Ansel, who lost his two children in the accident; Mitchell Stephens, an ambulance-chasing lawyer; and Nichole Burnell, a teen who survives but can no longer walk. Banks did an expert job capturing small-town life complete with its dark secrets. Didn’t I say he inspired me?

That Saturday, Banks was on stage in an auditorium as he spoke and read from The Darling in an engaging way. The main character is a woman, a ’60s radical who flees to Africa.

After he was done, Banks left the stage and was immediately surrounded by people clutching books for him to sign. I held the first edition hard cover of The Sweet Hereafter I bought for ten bucks as I joined them.

I waited patiently, trying not to groan when one woman presented him with a stack of dog-eared paperbacks. Banks smiled and signed each book without complaint.

I was up next when an eager festival worker rushed down the auditorium’s aisle to inform Banks he was needed right away in the lobby to sign books. Well, there goes my chance I thought. Banks told the woman he would be right there but that I would accompany him. He gestured toward me, “She comes with me.” 

Touched by the moment, I followed Banks to the head of the line, where he crossed out his printed name on the title page of The Sweet Hereafter and signed below it. (You can see it in the photo above.)  I told him how much I loved the book and thanked him. 

I read that novel at least twice more after that, and during each one, I recall the brief moment I connected with the author. Thank you, Russell Banks.