I have recently become the reverential custodian of a commode that belonged to Herman Melville. I achieved this honor through an unlikely sequence of events that began with a Facebook post about a cardboard cutout of Barbra Streisand acting as a seat-holder for virtual High Holidays services in Miami.
I would not have said that I had any special fetish for authors’ possessions or autographs before the unexpected series of encounters that led to my being given Melville’s commode, even though I am an English professor with major interest in this particular major author. But in its association with a man who wrote with voluptuous pleasure about human bodies and their emissions—yet maintained a contempt for the familiar domestic rituals of heterosexual married life—the commode invites a special kind of awed ablution.
The commode or wash stand is a smallish mahogany cabinet designed for a closet or chambers (i.e., a bedroom or dressing room). It has a slim drawer above two doors that swing outward, revealing that the commode had once held a shelf. It is topped by a thick, heavy slab of marble now broken in three pieces, with visible residue of previous repair attempts at the breakage points. Perhaps it once stashed a chamber pot; it would certainly have held a basin and pitcher. It has dovetail joints and is designed for use, not particularly ornate in design beyond the pleasing curve of the drawer face and the marbled grain of the wood of the doors. Nicole Belolan, a historian of material culture of early America (and a former student who read Moby-Dick in class with me), thinks it is an example of late 1850s-early 1860s modest wash stands, similar to the “No. 5” example she showed me in an 1858 New York furniture catalog.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “commode” was the name for a “chest of drawers, cabinet, or chiffonier for use in the bedroom or drawing-room…a piece of furniture enclosing or concealing a chamber pot; a close-stool” (OED). In Europe, commodes were often highly decorative, perhaps to distract from or transcend the baseness of the bodily functioning they enabled. The ornamental nature of the fancy furniture retains the sense of earlier meanings of commode, a word that had referred to an elaborate hat or sometimes a prostitute. Melville’s commode is sturdy and workmanlike, though. It does not cloak its function in fripperies.
To outside observers, Melville presented a clean (though not clean-shaven) face to the world, but behind closed commodes he may not have been overly fastidious in his own ablutions. Nathaniel Hawthorne noted that his fervid admirer may have had a gentlemanly appearance, but was “a little heterodox in the matter of clean linen”—that is, Melville may not have been committed to clean underwear.
Ishmael’s first encounter with his bridegroom-to-be in Moby-Dick finds him fretting about the cleanliness of Queequeg’s linen, too, which can read as a moment of queer panic before the young white man eases into a relationship with the “clean, comely looking” Polynesian. Clean linen, in other words, can signify the fastidious expectations of the domestic heterosexual life that Ishmael rejects. Later in Moby-Dick, Ishmael provides an inventory of his “conceit of attainable felicity,” which ideally would include the “intellect,” “the fancy,” and rows of men mutually squeezing sperm for all eternity. Instead, Ishmael has the deadening realization that he must immure himself in the mundane rituals of heteronormative household: “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fireside.” It’s hard for me to look at the beautifully scuffed, well-used Melville commode and not picture it as “the table” in Ishmael’s litany of straight married reluctance.
Melville’s wash stand came to have pride of place in my living room (I am certainly not secreting this treasure away in my bathroom or bedroom!) after a series of connections inaugurated by a Facebook post about Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Streisand, and Brett Goldstein (Ted Lasso‘s foulmouthed Roy Kent). Deep in the comments, off topic, a friend from grad school mentioned that she was picking up a large book bequest in the affluent Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. The downsizing donors owned two pieces of furniture that belonged to the Melville family (the second piece, a sofa, was taken by Arrowhead, Melville’s house in the Berkshires). They wanted the Melville commode to go to a home where its provenance was appreciated, even without documentation. Knowing my Melville fanaticism, my friend wondered in the Facebook thread if she might try to broker an introduction to the donors. With Brett Goldstein’s intensity I replied “FUCK yes.”
I labored over the first email I sent to my benefactors, the artist Linda Price Thomson and natural history scholar Keith Stewart Thomson, trying to seem worthy of Melville’s commode while avoiding Streisand’s magisterialness. I dropped the fact that I have edited a new edition of Moby-Dick forthcoming(here I am, doing it again!), but also aired some literary dirty laundry—I divulged to Linda Thomson that Melville’s daughter Frances or Fanny did not wish her father’s name spoken in her presence when she was older. The commode had come to Linda via her stepmother, who had lived down the street from Fanny Melville Thomas in South Orange, New Jersey; Fanny acquired “too much” of her father’s furniture after Melville’s death in 1891 and gave it away to neighbors. Many of the women in Melville’s life ended up exhausted by or fearing him (his wife’s pastor suggested that she fake a kidnapping to get away from his abusiveness at one point later in life; she declined). But I thought the Thomsons would like to see the charming sketch that Herman made in writing to his young daughters in happier moments. I loved Linda’s response, in which she said she appreciated “the sweet note from Mr. Melville to Fanny” but concluded “Sorry he turned out to be such a jerk.”
Melville took for granted the preservation labors of his wife and sisters, who copied and edited his writings and stood at his command (Fanny remembered with great resentment being forced out of bed at 2am to read page proofs with him).[i] Like the commode, if I may press a comparison too far, the Melville women acted as the go-betweens for his public-facing needs, the utilitarian furniture that supported his household.
In my correspondence with Linda Thomson, when we remarked on our shared interests and affiliations, she wrote “Some things do come full circle, and some, like this, take on a ragged path and just touch on connections.” (That the ragged path begins with a cardboard cutout of Barbra Streisand is a special delight to me.) Melville uneasily inhabited the closets and chambers of heteronormative life, itchy in his linen. I sit now performing my own literary ablutions before the Melville commode, dedicated to its preservation and to the writer’s works despite the fractures in their heavy surfaces.
Hester Blum: Long-time listener, first-time caller.
[i] A Melville biographer is unsympathetic to Fanny’s complaint, imagining instead Melville’s perspective: “Did he struggle alone as long as his strength held out, then, one time, collapsing from fatigue, implore the help of one or both of his daughters, who could, after all, nap during the day when he was out of the house?”