Melville & annotations

I’m preparing a talk on licenses and art, for next Tuesday. In my research I stumbled on the importance of books in the life of 19th century author Herman Melville. This post is not about the books that influenced him as such, but about the annotations he made in them.

From Melville’s Marginalia:

From youth onward Melville educated himself through self-propelled reading after the bankruptcy and death of his father, Allan Melvill, Sr. (the final e was added by the family soon after he died), put formal education forever out of reach. The personal library assembled by Herman Melville over the course of his life served as the means and impetus for his phenomenal literary achievements, and the book-image was an emblem of sorts for his signature themes of disinheritance and intellectual longing. The elder Melvill was himself forced to auction part of his own library during his precipitous financial decline, as his son would recall two decades later with the miraculous recovery of one of its volumes (see Figure 2, and Sealts No. 103), and in his fourth book Redburn (1849) Melville reacted to the first signs of failure in his own professional career with the main character’s pledge to preserve one of the last remnants of his deceased father’s library:

Dear book! I will sell my Shakespeare, and even sacrifice my old quarto Hogarth, before I will part with you. Yes, I will go to the hammer myself, ere I send you to be knocked down in the auctioneer’s shambles. I will, my beloved,—old family relic that you are;—till you drop leaf from leaf, and letter from letter, you shall have a snug shelf somewhere, though I have no bench for myself. (NN Redburn 143)

With the posthumous dispersal of his library in the 1890s (when newspaper obituaries commented that he had long been assumed dead), Melville’s complex relationship to the book—as source of knowledge, as vehicle for literary expression, and as image of vanished prestige and lingering self-worth—reached fitting closure. Like larger blanks in the documentary record of his life that have resulted from decades of contemporary and posthumous neglect, the blank catalogue of Herman Melville’s library captures the poignant juxtaposition of aspiring intellect and contemporary failure so thoroughly bound up with his status among America’s greatest writers.

Extraordinarily responsive to literary influence, Melville frequently marked and annotated what he read, and he relied heavily on sources in the composition of his own works. Pursuit of Melville’s dispersed library and identification of his reading and sources have extended across several generations of scholars and now approach 100 years of research.

In one research book, the marginalia were erased. It so happens that this book had a very important topic for Moby Dick: sperm whales…

Here is the blogpost that showed me the way to this collection of annotations. The blogger writes that it was the following book where the marginalia were erased:

Author: Beale, Thomas, 1807-1849.

Title: The Natural History of the Sperm Whale: Its Anatomy and Physiology—Food—Spermaceti—Ambergris—Rise and Progress of the Fishery—Chase and Capture—”Cutting in” and “Trying Out”—Description of the Ships, Boats, Men, and Instruments Used in the Attack; with an Account of its Favourite Places of Resort. To which is added, a Sketch of a South-Sea Whaling Voyage.

Publication: London: John Van Voorst, 1839.

2nd ed.

Sealts Number: 52.

Association: Autographed, marked and annotated by Herman Melville.

Location: Houghton Library, *AC85.M4977.Zz839b.

This book is available here. The Melvilles Marginalia website – on his annotations – is beautifully detailed – they scan the spine of the books and the pages are facsimiles.

About the annotations and the status of being erased:

Melville normally recorded annotations in the top, bottom, and outside margins of the page, and usually linked them to text with corresponding x’s. In its transcriptions of annotations, the edition represents Melville’s words in large, bold, italicized, characters. Editorial policy is to observe the marginal locations of Melville’s inscriptions as well as the distributions of Melville’s words per written line. But whereas it positions annotations within the same marginal areas as the originals, the edition does not attempt to duplicate the exact spatial relationships between Melville’s individual words and the printed text areas. Although erased markings are with rare exceptions fully recovered, Melville’s erased annotations range among the fully deciphered, the partially deciphered, and the undeciphered. Partially deciphered erased annotations appear with editorial insertions enclosed by square brackets. Where words and letters can be responsibly conjectured on the basis of material evidence, these bracked conjectural readings appear in non-italicized characters. Undeciphered words appear bracketed as question marks preceded and followed by dashes.

Melville’s Marginalia shows you the erased page and an enhanced version, including the transcription of what the annotation probably was saying:

(enhanced image)
7-9] erased pencil x.
14-16] erased pencil checkmark.
Bottom margin] erased pencil annotation:
“until they attain their [one or two undeciphered words] like old
Ixion’s [—?—] & his sins & punishment.”

Now, how did I end up here? Well, that’s through another story, about Rauschenberg and De Kooning, and erasing a drawing (which Nicolas has told me a few years ago, which ……

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