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Swimming Through Libraries

What and How Herman Melville Read

By James Williford | HUMANITIES, July/August 2009 | Volume 30, Number 4

“Call me Ishmael” is undoubtedly the most famous sentence of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; but it is not, despite popular belief, the first—at least, not exactly. Between the novel’s title page and Ishmael’s self-introduction are two chapters of decidedly bookish front matter: first, an “Etymology” of the word “whale,” including its Hebrew, Latin, and Greek forms; and, second, a collection of whale-related “Extracts” drawn from the Bible, Pliny’s Natural History, Michel de Montaigne’s Essais, James Fenimore Cooper’s Pilot, and a remarkable variety of other sources. The narrator claims that these prefaces were compiled by “a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School” and “a poor devil of a Sub-Sub” librarian, respectively. But, of course, both the “usher” and the “sub-sub” are inventions: It was Melville himself who had, as he put it, “gone through the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth, picking up whatever random allusions to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoever, sacred or profane.”

The overt scholarship of the “Etymology” and “Extracts” chapters points to an important, though often underappreciated, dimension of Melville’s life and art: his reading. While the settings, events, and characters of Moby-Dick are, to some extent, based on Melville’s youthful experiences as a sailor aboard the New Bedford whaler Acushnet, it was the time he later spent poring over great works of literature, philosophy, history, and science that truly shaped his intellect and inspired his genius. For Melville, reading was not merely the passive counterpart to writing; rather, it was an analytic, synthetic, and, above all, creative process—a process of “active study,” says Peter Norberg, a professor of nineteenth-century literature at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, “through which Melville tried to create a kind of library of reference that was directly relevant to his artistic ambitions.”

A quick glance through one of the many books that Melville owned and studied—his copy of The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, or Don Quixote, for example—reveals tangible evidence of his creative approach to reading: the pages are covered with markings and annotations. There are vertical scores, underlines, brackets, checks, double- and triple-checks, x’s, circles, as well as words, phrases, fragments of poetry, and even whole paragraphs of prose. Despite his well-documented propensity for collecting fine editions of old books, Melville evidently had no qualms about picking up his pencil—or, in some rare instances, his crayon—and inscribing his thoughts in their margins.

Often these annotations are little more than vague, tantalizing hints of what must have been Melville’s far more sophisticated reactions as a reader. Brief phrases like “this is ironical,” “noble rhetoric but vile reasoning,” and “a spark from the old flint” occur without further elaboration throughout the marginalia. More developed comments appear less frequently, but, where they do, read like well-polished mini-discourses. In response to a rather suspect analogy offered by Satan in Milton’s Paradise Regained—“The childhood shews the man / As morning shews the day”—Melville noted: “True, if all fair dawnings were followed by high noons & blazoned sunsets. But as many a merry morn preceeds a dull & rainy day; so, often, unpromising mornings have glorious middays & eves. The greatest, grandest things are unpredicted.”

Perhaps the most compelling of Melville’s marginalia, however, are those few notes that relate directly to his creative output as a writer. In his copy of Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale, for example, Melville seems to have paid particular attention to this passage portraying the gory death throes of a harpooned whale: “As the life’s blood gurgled thick through the nostril, the immense creature went into his ‘flurry’ with excessive fury. . . . He beat the water in his dying convulsions with a force that appeared to shake the firm foundation of the ocean!” Whatever Melville’s opinion of Beale’s description—whether he thrilled at its dramatic tone, or found its language a bit hackneyed—something in it stirred his creativity. He marked the sentence with an x (as well as a circle and a vertical line), and, in the lower margin of the page, next to a corresponding x, jotted down a few words of his own composing: “As when the water issuing . . . off from a fountain . . . & slowly lowers—so the dying spout of the whale.” Although portions of the note are indecipherable, it clearly represents the inchoate stage of a simile that appears fully fleshed out in the published text of Moby-Dick: “As when by unseen hands the water is gradually drawn off from some mighty fountain, and with half-stifled melancholy gurglings the spray-column lowers and lowers to the ground—so the last long dying spout of the whale.” The effect of linking these three texts is striking; we can almost see the process by which Melville transformed Beale’s more or less scientific account into an expressive figure that suited his own unique brand of romantic fiction. Steven Olsen-Smith, a Melville scholar at Boise State University, calls this “poetic
creation in motion.”

The potential rewards of studying the marginalia, for both scholars and fans of Melville’s works, are limited only by the fact that the record is incomplete. Shortly after Melville’s death in 1891, his personal library was dispersed among relatives, friends, and book dealers. Of the estimated one thousand volumes he had amassed over his lifetime, the whereabouts of only two hundred and eighty-five are known. That these books have come to light at all is due in large part to the efforts of a succession of scholars, who, since the 1920s, have proved a remarkably dedicated, if sometimes obsessive, bunch: In the 1930s, the poet Charles Olson, who was one of the first to begin hunting for volumes from Melville’s lost library, borrowed Melville’s copy of The Works of Sir William D’Avenant from its then owner and kept the book for more than two years, despite repeated requests that it be returned; Olson’s friend and colleague, Merton M. Sealts Jr., devoted a career of more than five decades to tracking down and studying not only the books that Melville owned, but those that he borrowed from friends and consulted in libraries; and recently, Olsen-Smith, Norberg, and Dennis C. Marnon, the administrative officer at Harvard’s Houghton Library, set about the formidable task of updating the existing scholarship and publishing their work in a web edition called Melville’s Marginalia Online. This last project, funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, promises to reconstitute a significant portion of Melville’s library in the form of digital surrogate texts. While the actual volumes will remain scattered among a variety of private and institutional collections across the United States, academics and the general public now have free access to an online catalog of books that Melville read and, in some cases, scanned editions of those books, complete with accurate reproductions of his markings and annotations.

Of course, one can hardly wonder at the enduring interest of these scholars: Melville’s reputation as an author is that of an impossibly gifted genius, “titanic,” says Olsen-Smith, “and as intimidating as it is alluring.” But he adds, “when we study the marginalia, we recognize that Melville’s greatness had a starting point—and a rather normal and recognizable starting point—of one individual familiarizing himself with a subject and responding to it.” Melville may have achieved more profound results from his habits as a creative reader than most of us could reasonably hope for, but the example that he set is applicable to almost any text we encounter, from the daily newspaper to Moby-Dick itself.

About the Author

James Williford is an editorial assistant at Humanities and a graduate student at Georgetown University.

Funding Information

NEH has a long history of supporting projects related to Herman Melville’s life and works, including biographies, literary studies, academic curricula, museum exhibitions, and documentary films. In 1985, Merton M. Sealts Jr. received NEH funding that allowed him to study a cache of Melville family papers housed at the New York Public Library—research that led him to revise parts of the 1988 edition of his book, Melville’s Reading—and in 2008, Peter Norberg was awarded a Digital Humanities grant to develop the Melville’s Marginalia Online project at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.