A Melville research trip with photos by Katrin Talbot

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A portion of the complex mast rigging of the 19th century whaling ship The Charles W. Morgan. Note the semi-circular lookout spots where sailors searched the horizon for whales. Photo by Katrin Talbot.

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Katrin Talbot at Herman Melville’s Arrowhead, Pittsfield, Mass. Photo by Kevin Lynch

Partly because my little poem in honor of Katrin Talbot’s birthday Tuesday July 21 was so well received on Facebook, I’ve decided to post it on my blog, along with a few more comments. But I’m doing this mostly because Katrin Talbot is an extraordinary cultural figure who contributes so much to our enrichment.
So I will also offer a small medley of photographs she took during our 2008 research trip out East in pursuit of Herman Melville.
Katrin is collaborating with me by providing her stunning photographs for my forthcoming novel about Herman Melville, with the working title Melville’s Trace or, The Jackal.

Katrin is extraordinarily gifted as not only a photographer, but as a poet and as a musician. She is assistant principal violist with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. It is hard to say in which of her chosen media she is best. Suffice it to say she is the most talented person I know. And as an arts journalist for well over 30 years I have gotten to know and befriended many gifted artists in all media and art forms. I first admired her viola playing when I moved to Madison to cover the arts in 1989 — she was playing with the Madison Symphony and with the Karp Family in their annual fall chamber music concerts (She is married to the brilliant cellist Parry Karp, of the Pro Arte String Quartet).

Then, as I recall, I did a feature story on a fascinating inter-disciplinary performance event she was involved in. It piqued my interest because it incorporated quotes from Melville’s Moby-Dick, and was profoundly inspired by the book and author whom I had by then become obsessed with.
So Katrin’s interest in the so-called American Renaissance of literature was a natural entrée for our budding friendship.
When I got the idea of doing a research trip out East for my novel, part of my thought was to find a talented photographer to provide images to complement the story.
I asked Katrin and her enthusiasm and talent immediately lit up my hopes for the book .
We made plans and, in the final scheme, her daughter Arianna was free and interested, so the three of us made the trip together, of which these superb photos will give you a taste.
(Katrin and I also joined a very stimulating collaborative interdisciplinary group of artists called Arts Immersion, formed by Madison artist and psychiatrist Russell Gardner.  Later she and I collaborated on a paper I presented on Melville to the Madison Literary Club.)

I know, when my novel is finally published, the photos of Katrin’s in it will not do justice to the full array of wonderful images she captured on that glorious trip. So here is a sampling of her photos, along with my birthday poem for her, “And the Sun Smiled”

And the Sun Smiled

Years ago, the seed emerged as a Katrin blossom on this day, and lifted into the wind and rode the rhythms of poetry that would circle under a tree, and the vibrations that became a viola’s song.

Many years later, on a Melvillian trail, I was lucky her poetry and music filtered through a camera lense, from her poised and snaring eye, like a reflection in the eddying river that turns each glimmer into another piece of Nature’s ongoing masterpiece, sometimes as fleeting as a squirrel’s breath, other times as broad-shouldered as a cloud-burnished sunset.

She grew nearly as tall and as lovely as the tree she once composed poetry beneath. And the sun smiled, dappling through the leaves, pleased to know it warmed the place she grew.
Kevin Lynch

In Pursuit of Herman Melville: a medley of photographs by Katrin Talbot, taken for illustrations for my forthcoming novel on Melville.

Kevin Lynch reads Hart Crane's "At Melville's Tomb" at Melville's tomb, Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York, summer 2008. Photo: Katrin Talbot

Kevin Lynch reads Hart Crane’s “At Melville’s Tomb” at Melville’s tomb, Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York, summer 2008. Photo: Katrin Talbot


Kevin places a pen amid the many writing tools left atop the grave of Herman Melville. 


Gravestone of Melville’s wife, Elizabeth Shaw Melville


Bottom of Melville’s gravestone.


Gravestone of famed jazz trumpeter Miles Davis near Melville’s gravestone and beside that of Duke Ellington in Woodlawn Cemetery in N.Y.


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A schooner mast during a tour of “Melville’s New York,” hosted by Melville “doppelganger” Jack Putnam



Rigging of the N. Y. schooner reflected in the sunglasses of photographer Katrin’s daughter Ariana.


The Statue of Liberty from the schooner as we passed by the iconic monument.


A reflection of the old and new New York, juxtaposed.



Melville “doppelganger” Jack Putnam, 72, historian at the South Seaport Maritime Museum in Manhattan. For years, Putnam has done memorized recitations of whole chapters of “Moby-Dick” as part of his tours.


Photograph of Herman Melville in late 1860s, from Pittsfield Anthenaeum. He died in 1891 at 72, the same age as his current “doppelganger,” maritime historian Jack Putnam, when Katrin photographed him in New York. 


Detail of the large chimney that dominates the Melville home at Arrowhead, and the subject of Melville’s short story “I and My Chimney.”


A lithograph print by J.M.W. Turner from Herman Melville’s personal collection. Melville was an avid collector of art prints.


This appears to be a travel visa that Melville obtained for his trip to Europe and the Holy Land.

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The piazza that Melville added to his house at Arrowhead. It provided the title for his acclaimed story collection “The Piazza Tales,” which includes such great works as “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “Benito Cereno,” and “The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles.”  

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A peek into Melville’s study and writing desk at Arrowhead, where he wrote “Moby-Dick,” and other works. Imagine, a masterpiece written with nothing but quills, ink fountains and sheets of paper!


Herman Melville (left) and a visitor surveying in the fields at Arrowhead, photo from Pittsfield Anthenaeum.



Melville’s Arrowhead, with the famous piazza he added. The home is well preserved by The Berkshire County Historical Society.

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Whale harpoon rack from The Charles W. Morgan, moored in Mystic. Conn., the last extant whaling ship from the mid-1800s, Melville’s era.

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Porthole from below deck on the whaler The Charles W. Morgan

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Harpoon rope for  whaling boat. The rope and boat would often be pulled by a harpooned whale on a “Nantucket sleigh ride” until the mighty beast weakened. Then the sailors grabbed the rope and hauled their prey in for the final kill.

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Diagram for the cutting of a captured Sperm Whale by a whaling crew.

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Forked spears, on the Charles W. Morgan, for hoisting whale blubber slabs into the tryworks for melting into oil.


melville II-another graveyard, mystic, arrowhead - 290A “widow’s walk” built atop a roof in the harbor at Mystic, Conn., where wives of whalers would watch the sea in hopes of seeing their husbands returning.


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The masthead on the tip of the prow of the 19th-century whaler The Charles W. Morgan.


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A jellyfish swims past the Charles W. Morgan in the bay of Mystic, Conn.melville II-another graveyard, mystic, arrowhead - 356A spectral reflection of the whaling ship in the water below its mooring place.




Meanwhile, yours truly tries to continue spreading the word of Melville — here prostelytizing with my “Call Me Ishmael” T-shirt from Arrowhead — with the Italian sausage of the famous Milwaukee Brewers sausage race.  I explained to him how much the Moby-Dick man loved Italy’s art. One of Melville’s traveling lectures was on “The Statues of Rome.” Photo by Ann K. Peterson.

Going back to Townes Van Zandt’s “Proud Mountains,” to anyone’s mountains.

Townes horse

Townes van Zandt with “Amigo,” Colorado, 1976

And lay me down easy where the cool rivers run/
With only my mountains ‘tween me and the sun — Townes Van Zandt, “My Proud Mountains”

A Westerly Cultural Travel Journal 

I recently drove back out to Colorado which is not my home. But something draws me back, which feels as primal and perhaps as personal as it was for the late great Townes Van Zandt when he pondered, wrote and sang “My Proud Mountains.”

OK, part of it is my love for experiencing music in an extraordinary outdoor setting, so I head for the improbable mountainous concert venue of Red Rocks Amphitheater, outside Morrison,  Colorado. Here you drive up to caverns where you lose cell phone reception. You my need to climb a ways up rock and root-thicketed pathways, and then steep concrete staircases to get to your seat.

But there’s something more personal about the mountain thing for me. As my girlfriend Ann Peterson and I drove through Iowa on our way out last week, I popped in Van Zandt’s album The Highway Kind, which includes “My Proud Mountains.”

But first, there’s another song, utterly haunting, the title song, which I think is the only way I can get to “My Proud Mountains.” I had to re-listen to “The Highway Kind” several times (once while Ann was in a gas station restroom).  For me it feels like a sort of strange, disembodied rite, about a man who has to keep rolling his tumbleweed soul down the highway, drifting in and out of relationships, in search of a woman whom he loves and yet has never met. That sounds like the stuff of pure, goofball romance but Townes makes clear in the song that chances are that he will never meet this woman, which is a different kind of longing, the stuff of pure idealism.

Yet Townes has a gift for the twist — there is no simmering sense of “just maybe,” only a forsaken dream that a darkly blessed poet could envision.

The essentially modal song putters and drones along in D minor, like a car with a hole in each tire hissing out air, till you’re sitting pancake-flat on the highway in the middle of nowhere. Pour the sun upon the ground, stand to throw a shadow. Watch it grow into the night/ Feel the spinning sky. It was the perfect song for a drive from Milwaukee to Boulder in two days, because Iowa and Nebraska seem forever (I wish I’d brought the CD last fall, when I madly drove from Milwaukee to Boulder in one day.)

Ultimately Townes has to keep moving because he’s the highway kind, the restless soul who “only comes to leave.” And then he sings: “But the leavin’ I don’t mind, it’s the comin’ that I crave.” Enough to drive a woman crazy, so none could ever stay with him, although more than a few fell in love.

Nevertheless, Townes had a devoted, long-suffering wife, Jeanene, whom I suspect might concede that this is one of the songs closest to who he really was.

Here is a striking and under-heard version of “The Highway Kind”:

It was this sort of poetic storytelling that caught me almost unawares when I turned to Townes Van Zandt’s music after my second marriage failed. Many years earlier, his baroquely overproduced first album For the Sake of the Song had kept me from investigating his later output. Now I discovered I needed his mournful yet persistently outward bound and slightly cock-eyed imagination, one that dreamed up the mini- epic “Pancho and Lefty,” which Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard turned into a huge hit. Townes also led me to rediscover so-called roots music and the many newer singer-songwriters applying extraordinary levels of literary effort to song craft, a quiet sort of American cultural renaissance.

Anyways, I don’t really consider myself “The Highway Kind.” Being a Cancer, I’m even something of a homebody. Still, as the son of a traveling salesman, I do love the road — driving across the Spartan, mute, muscular and magnificent expanses of America.

I’m fascinated by such a quietly bedeviled creature as “The Highway Kind” and yet I respond with more of an open soul to a song like “My Proud Mountains.”

Colorado was the Texas singer-songwriter’s adopted state.

He lived there in some of the happiest times of his life as well as some of the most desolate. You can read one of the two biographies of his life, though I prefer John Kruth’s To Live’s to Fly: The Ballad of the Late Great Townes Van Zandt. Despite its slightly hagiographic undertones, Kruth doesn’t flinch from the truth about a man who was a genius, and often a funny sweetheart and sometimes a cold jerk, especially when alcohol took hold of him. That demon ultimately killed him on January 1, 1997, at age of 52 — exactly 40 years to the day after his hero, Hank Williams, died, also from drink.

Kruth’s book title draws from the title of perhaps my favorite Van Zandt song, “To Live’s to Fly” a more sunlit variation on “The Highway Kind” theme. “To Live” examines the profound impulse to keep moving on, which the true troubadour lives for, because he or she simply cannot rest, with a soul as unsettled as the wind that sighs and howls almost ceaselessly through Townes’ proud Colorado mountains.
Despite the kinship between the two songs, I won’t peruse “To Live’s to Fly” in detail because it’s so well known among Townes fans.

“My Proud Mountains,” however, sounds like he wrote it in Texas or somewhere else far from Colorado, and invokes the deep-in-the-bone desire for the peak experience in piercingly eloquent terms. I may never live in Colorado; as a downsized staff newspaperman I lack the financial resources to move to Boulder, the splendid city I have visited most often.
So last week, my sister-in-law Kris Verdin  — who has hosted my visits every time I have seen and climbed in Van Zandt’s proud peaks — encouraged my girlfriend and I to scope out for-sale condominiums a few blocks away from her home in south Boulder, not far from the foothills of the Rockies. But those go for about 500 grand, which is way beyond me.

And yet, I return to Colorado because of the mountains, my love of which goes back in some primal way to early instincts, even though I am a lifelong Wisconsinite. I was always drawn to the mountains and when I finally got out west in 1971, a magnetic force seemed to pull me to a headlong climb up the vast, grand face of Teewinot Mountain, in the Tetons of Wyoming, a mountain often mistaken for the nearby Grand Teton.

Inexperienced and without any equipment, I didn’t actually climb the rock face. But the long trek and scramble to the base of the face and the way back, with my friend Frank Stemper, led us into a mountain cloud, hovering halfway down the mountainside, at dusk. Then rainfall began and the engulfing cloud cover forced us to simply lie down on the edge of the cliff, because we couldn’t see far enough to safely traverse either direction away from the precipice.

So Frank and I huddled in cloth sleeping bags, in the rain, pondering the sky and perhaps the fate toying with our unfolding lives, just into college. The rain fell constantly and the temperature dipped into the upper thirties. We lay with knees hunched up to protect our crotches and soon they were the only parts of us still dry. We hardly slept but Frank says he dreamed that our travel buddy John Kurzawa drove my mother’s trusty station wagon up the mountain to rescue us.
Frank shared with me the fourth and last cigarette I have ever smoked in my life, which proved somewhat comforting, amid the daunting heights of our situation. When the cloud cleared in the morning we found our way down with comparatively little difficulty.

Townes Van Zandt doubtlessly had similar feelings and probably with far deeper anxiety during the time he lived alone in a cabin in Colorado, with nobody but his dog and his horse Amigo. At that point, in his life he was so destitute and perhaps mentally destabilized that he ate dog food for his sustenance for a period of time, according to biographer Kruth.

My own life went to through a debilitating transformation when I, along with 26 other veteran journalists, was downsized out of my long-time job at The Capital Times in Madison in 2008. Shortly before that my wife divorced me. I had also contracted a rare, autoimmune nerve disease that rendered my  left hand partially paralyzed and both my arms and hands in chronic pain, which continues to this day.

So needless to say, I was distraught and at times bereft at this point in my life.
That is when I rediscovered Townes Van Zandt, like an unholy angel of deliverance.

His mountain song resonates like the tale of a mythical character, but Townes sings it with such abject honesty and honor for the spiritual wonder of the mountains that you can almost taste his wanderlust, his spiritual displacement. You can imagine yourself pulling on his dusty boots, and heading west for that big, brawny horizon, long down the road.

And yet, his song is about leaving the mountains behind:

My Proud Mountains, by Townes Van Zandt

My home is Colorado with their proud mountains tall
Where the rivers like gypsies down her black canyons fall
I’m a long, long way from Denver with a long way to go
So lend an ear to my singing ’cause I’ll be back no more

I left as a young man not full seventeen
With nothin’ for company but the wind and a dream
‘Bout all the fast ladies and livin’ I’d find
When I left my proud mountains and rivers behind

So I rolled and a-rambled like a leaf in the wind
Well, I found my fast ladies and some hard livin’ men
Well, I sometimes went hungry with my pockets all bare
Lord, I sometimes had good luck with money to spare

I made me some friends, Lord, that I won’t soon forget
Some are down under and some are rambling yet
But as for me I’m headed for home
Back to high Colorado never more for to roam

So friends, when my time comes as surely it will
You just carry my body out to some lonesome hill
And lay me down easy where the cool rivers run
With only my mountains ‘tween me and the sun

My home is Colorado.




Richard Deibenkorn is the summer artist of lush and glaring riches


Richard Deibenkorn, “A Day at the Races,” 1953. Courtesy the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

“Summertime was a time/ of lush and glaring riches/ you wanted all of.” I once began a poem that way, back in the 1980s, before I had really discovered the art of Richard Deibenkorn.

But I might have written it about his work, which is the West Coast art that, for me, has epitomized the depth and spiritual liberation of the summer experience, more than that of the more popular David Hockney, though I like his fancy-free pictorial art.

Deibenkorn, however, possesses lush, lyrical riches and his art glares luminously with its layers of verdant, golden, sun-drenched colors. I was spurred to this post (as well as to a recent FB post) by the Deibenkorn painting Berkeley # 54, which is a highlight of the superb exhibit Modern Rebels: Van Gogh to Pollock — Masterpieces from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. running currently at the Milwaukee Art Museum through September 20 (For a preview of the show see my article here: https://kevernacular.com/?p=6371 berkeley 54Richard Deibenkorn “Berkeley # 54.” This image doesn’t do justice to the scale of this painting (61 by 59 inches) currently on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum, through September 20. Courtesy albright-knox.com

I’ve always wanted to go to the Buffalo gallery, ever since the 1970s, when I fell hard for Sam Francis’s painting “The Whiteness of the Whale,” an allusion to the profound essay on “whiteness” in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Like that chapter, the Francis painting is a gorgeous and, I daresay, profound work of art itself. And it was the first art print I ever had framed.

For my money, Francis was Deibenkorn’s only competitor for “best California modern painter.”

My only real disappointment with the MAM show is that the Francis painting was not part of this exhibit. So don’t look for it in Milwaukee. However, a few years back MAM received Francis’s complete oeuvre of prints for its collection (unlike many abstract expressionists Francis was a prolific print-maker) and will present an exhibit of those in the fall.

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Sam Francis, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” 1957. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery 

Ah, but the current show has so much to recommend, like Deibenkorn’s marvelous “Berkeley” series painting.

Deibenkorn is not only a pure abstractionist — he can tell vivid, witty visual stories as in “A Day at the Races” (at top), as well render ingeniously stylish landscapes and figurative portraits.

The figurative images (such as Sleeping Woman, not in the MAM show) readily show his debt to Edward Hopper, which suggests the Californian’s art entails fair more than sensory self-indulgence. “I embraced Hopper completely…It was his use of light and shade and the atmosphere…kind of drenched, saturated with mood, and it’s kind of austerity…it was the kind of work that just seemed made for me. I looked at it and it was mine,” Deibenkorn related, in a quote from an essay by Jane Livingston in a University of California Press catalogue of his work.


Richard Deibenkorn, “Sleeping Woman,” 1961 Courtesy irequireart.com

I believe I saw some Deibenkorn paintings at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison and then, in 1997, The Art of Richard Deibenkorn, the sumptuous catalog for a traveling exhibit  was published. The show never came to Wisconsin but, with the catalog, I felt really hard for his abstract expressionist/colorist revelations. He was a sterling first-generation abstract expressionist, but they never talked about him much when I was studying as an art major at UW-Milwaukee in the 1970s. Common consensus held New York the cultural Gotham City, the kingdom of the art world, in that era.


Richard Deibenkorn. Courtesy brainpickings.org. 

I would probably write more in depth about Deibenkorn, but I am about to embark on a road trip. So I am delving into my own journalistic archives (which I occasionally do, as with an unforgettable interview with bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe). I wrote a review of the Deibenkorn catalog itself for The Capital Times which I present here, as a celebration of his art and a celebration of summer. Get a taste, and you want all of Deibenkorn you can get. Enjoy and seek out this book (from The U-Cal Press) and this man’s art, wherever you may find it:



Deibenkorn review