Thursday, February 16, 2006

New Story by Rebecca Harding Davis; Melville Marginalia

The Rebecca Harding Davis page has a new story available: "General William Wirt Colby" ; thanks to a reader of the site for pointing this out.

Also, a new link to the Melville Marginalia site has been added to the Melville page. Here's an excerpt from the article at the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscrption required):

Through his early fame and later obscurity, Melville was a passionate reader and annotator. In the absence of manuscript material, scholars have learned to look for compositional clues in the margins of his books — when they can find them. When he died in New York City in 1891, nobody tried to keep his library intact. "Melville's reputation was washed up," Mr. Olsen-Smith points out, "and it would not have occurred to anyone to preserve the evidence."

Scholars estimate that the writer owned about 1,000 books at the time of his death. Some went to friends and family; the rest were dispersed to secondhand booksellers in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and from there made their way into public library collections and the hands of private collectors. The whereabouts of 285 titles have been tracked, which means that more than 700 could still be extant somewhere, waiting for scholars to find them.

Lost and Found

Melville's copy of Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale is hardly a new find. It surfaced in the 1930s, by which time someone already had erased Melville's check marks, underlinings, and scribbles. The volume has been in the possession of Harvard University's Houghton Library since 1960.

Its influence on the author of Moby-Dick has also long been recognized. Dennis C. Marnon is administrative officer of the Houghton Library and a Melville enthusiast who has assisted several scholars, including Mr. Olsen-Smith, in the hunt for Melville's missing library. The Beale, he says, "puts us pretty close to Melville composing Moby-Dick. He's reading it at the time, and some of the marginalia not only find their way into the actual text ... but all the passages that are incorporated freely or in a modified way ... are also marked in this copy."

Scholars had assumed those markings, once erased, were lost for good. "None of them realized that the marginalia was as recoverable as it is," Mr. Olsen-Smith says. "It's been quite common to write about Melville's use of Beale without consulting the book."

It was in 1998 that he realized that at least some of Melville's markings were recoverable. To make them out, he first tried a highly sophisticated technique: squinting. Once he realized he could in fact decipher some of the characters, he used a combination of techniques to recover what he could. He subjected the erasures to different degrees of light and shadow, read with a high-powered magnifying glass, took digital photos that he could enlarge on his laptop computer, and did word searches in the text of Moby-Dick to confirm guesses about what a word or phrase might be.

"The moments of lightning striking were very few," Mr. Olsen-Smith says. "Recovery took a long time. It was letter by letter, sometimes parts of letters." He has only recently completed the process. Not every mark could be deciphered, but he says he is confident that he has recovered all that it was possible to recover. . . .

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