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A Melville Marginalia Mystery


In this series, we focus on research projects undertaken using NYPL research collections. By showing off some of the research Made at NYPL, we hope that other researchers will build on these projects in new ways.

Dawn Coleman, Associate Professor of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, specializes in the work of Herman Melville, and in particular books Melville annotated. A significant number of these are housed in the New York Public Library's Gansevoort-Lansing collection. We are particularly pleased that researchers are now using Melville’s books in their research, since Melville himself was a library user who had consulted books in one of NYPL’s founding collections, the Astor Library.

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m an Associate Professor of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, specializing in nineteenth-century U.S. literature and culture. Recently I’ve focused on Herman Melville.

You visited NYPL to look at some of the Melville family’s books, where you found a long-erased note written by Herman Melville that nobody else had ever uncovered. First of all, which book was it?

I was interested in a set of volumes, The Works of William E. Channing (1848), which was recently digitized by NYPL and is published by Melville’s Marginalia Online. Since I couldn’t visit NYPL immediately, my first step was to examine a digital image of the page provided by the library. Without manipulation, that image reveals little, but by using various filters and adjustments in Photoshop, you can generate edited images that faintly show four lines of Melville’s scratchy handwriting in the bottom margin. For that, I depended on the Photoshop expertise of Steven Olsen-Smith, general editor of Melville’s Marginalia Online, and Ashley Maynor, the UT Digital Humanities librarian. Working with the enhanced images, I arrived at a provisional reading of the note, with just a few vexing gaps.

The works of William E. Channing, volume 3. Image ID: 5108813

When the digital images didn’t lead to the answer, what next?

The next step was to pack my bags for New York so that I could examine the page in person. I was nervous. What if the actual, un-enhanced erasure looked like little more than a blank margin? What if the trip ended up being a waste of time and money? But soon after settling in at the library, I was delighted to find that the actual book revealed more than the digital image. Not that the recovery process was easy. I used an LED task light, a magnifying glass, and the technique known as “raking,” which involves moving your hand slowly between the light source and the page. The shifting light and shadow reveal residual indentations in the paper: just enough so that, with a good deal of patience, you can discern the erased writing. It helped that back in Tennessee, I had created an analytic chart of Melville’s idiographs, or distinctive letter formations. Reading erased marginalia is a slow, letter-by-letter process, in which you have to shuttle back and forth mentally between possible letter formations and possible readings of the passage as a whole, while considering the content of the commented-upon essay, the knowledge Melville may have brought to his reading, and his annotative style.

In the first half-day at the library, I completed most of the transcription, but I still devoted nearly two full days at the NYPL trying to recover this four-line note. Most of that time was spent squinting at the most elusive words. It felt surreal to sit in the heart of New York City and to stare at one page in one book for so long. But it was also a thrill to decipher writing by Melville that virtually no one else had ever seen.

So what does Melville’s erased note say? What was he responding to in Channing, and what does that reveal to us about Melville?

Melville’s note appears in the middle of the essay “The Evidences of Revealed Religion.” On the page Melville annotates, Channing presents the argument that the unlikelihood of someone with Jesus’s humble background aspiring to found a world religion suggests a supernatural source.

Melville put a check in the margin next to this idea and responded:

"Could not this [point] with still m[ore]
force be applied to Mahomet?‒who after
age forty [&] less probably [mad], first delivered
his Gospel?"

Right after that, he responded to Channing’s point that Jesus came from “an oppressed nation” by writing “[E]ssentially true as to Mahs tribe.”

Here is Melville, the student of world religions, challenging claims for the divine uniqueness of Jesus by pointing to the seemingly parallel circumstances of the founder of Islam. And he calls Muhammad’s teachings a gospel! Since I hadn’t been able to see that word on the digital image, its appearance at the library was electrifying. Melville may have meant to imply a moral equivalence between Christian and Islamic teachings, a sense that they functioned as “good news” to their respective communities. Very few people in mid-nineteenth-century America were thinking about religion in such a thoroughly comparatist way. As often happens, Melville looks strikingly modern.

Enhanced marginalia
Enhanced marginalia

If you’d like to learn more about the variety of NYPL’s Melville-related collections, watch this brief video narrated by Jessica Pigza, Assistant Curator of Rare Books. Read on to learn more about Melville and Channing’s thought.

Who was William Ellery Channing?

All but forgotten today, Channing was one of the most important intellectual and spiritual leaders in the Northeastern U.S. from about 1815 until his death in 1842. He led the Federal Street Church in Boston and became the country’s leading champion of Unitarianism, a movement among the Congregationalist churches that sought to liberalize Christianity by maintaining the essential goodness of human nature and the benevolence of God. He was also what we would call today a public intellectual, writing on cultural and political subjects that fell outside the typical minister’s scope, such as literature, war, education, and slavery. His adamant opposition to slavery ended up alienating many of his parishioners.

Why do you think Channing’s writing and ideas would have interested the author of Moby-Dick?

Channing, like Melville, was a thoughtful, open-minded writer with a deep interest in ethical, religious, literary and social questions and a disinclination to toe anyone’s party line. Melville probably also found Channing’s liberal theology a refreshing antidote to the Calvinist teachings he grew up with, when his family attended a Dutch Reformed church in Manhattan. Reading Channing complemented his Unitarian churchgoing as an adult; he seems to have read Channing (for the first time, at least) in the late 1840s, when he and Elizabeth Shaw were newly married and attending All Souls Unitarian church on Broadway. Also, Melville’s father, who died when Melville was only twelve years old, identified as a Unitarian; in reading and considering Channing, Melville may have felt that he was connecting in a way with his lost father. Finally, Channing was a huge influence on Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Melville read and responded to with strong mixed feelings. It makes sense that Melville, who critiqued the radical optimism of Transcendentalism, would have been curious about Emerson’s more pragmatic mentor.

This evidence has been overlooked by scholars on account of its erased state. Is this common in the study of Melville’s marginalia? Who would have erased Melville’s annotations in the set of Channing’s Works, and for what reason?

In the twentieth century, scholars paid relatively little attention to Melville’s erasures, but in recent years, and especially with the guidance and resources of Melville’s Marginalia Online, that’s changed a good deal. For instance, my essay on Channing’s Works in Leviathan appears alongside essays on Melville’s erased annotations in two other titles published at MMO, his copies of Dante’s Commedia and Milton’s Poetical Works. As for who erased these lines in Channing, the conventional wisdom would be either Melville’s wife or one of his daughters. However, the fact that the annotation reflects inaccurate information about Muhammad’s life raises the possibility that Melville himself erased these lines. He might have done so after he read Thomas Carlyle’s essay on Muhammad in the summer of 1850. Carlyle discusses Muhammad’s illustrious family, and after at some point reading that essay, Melville may have tried to remove the evidence of his misconception.

In your critical introduction to the digitized set at Melville’s Marginalia Online, you say that Melville’s reading of Channing may have had far-reaching influences on his thought and craft. In what ways might Channing’s views of religion and culture have helped to shape Melville’s ideas?

I think one of the most important things Melville learned from Channing was a style of liberal, dialectical, socially conscious thought that kept its distance from party politics yet opposed slavery unreservedly. We tend to think of that approach to the world as distinctively Melvillean, yet Channing was a powerful antecedent. As for religion, Melville seems to have found in Channing’s writings a palatable, if imperfect, defense of liberal Christianity, one that shaped his sense of which aspects of the Christian tradition were worth saving in a modern, pluralist age. Although Melville seems to have differed from Channing in his metaphysics (the minister, not surprisingly, comes across as more theistic), he found in him strong support, possibly even a source, for the idea that among Christianity’s most important contributions to the world were its calls to forgiveness and charity.

As a literary influence, Channing’s “Remarks on National Literature” may have inspired Melville’s authorial ambitions. This essay, which eloquently outlines the ideal qualities of a national literature, may have lit a fire under Melville in the late 1840s, when he began to try to write for the ages. Melville would have found further inspiration to literary greatness in Channing’s essay on Milton, which also expresses a reluctant yet fascinated appreciation of Satan—passages that may have planted or watered a seed that grew into the magnificent defiance of Ahab in Moby-Dick.

As you point out in your introduction, the set also contains markings and notes in the hand of Elizabeth Shaw Melville. What has your study of the set revealed about Melville’s wife and her views?

Elizabeth Shaw Melville is an elusive figure in Melville studies, and one of the pleasures of working on this set was reflecting on her annotations. Although she’s often assumed to be conventionally pious, several of her notes take issue with Channing. For instance, when Channing speculates that the deceased can watch us from heaven, she writes, in neat script along the length of a left margin, “Vain vain speculations!” Or when Channing maintains that memories of this life must persist in the next, she writes “? A question not so readily settled.” She may have agreed with most of what Channing wrote, but she didn’t give him a free pass. I got the sense of a strong woman unafraid to disagree, at least in privacy and on paper, with a leading male intellectual of her day.

As Melville’s Marginalia Online continues to edit and publish digital copies of Melville Family volumes housed at NYPL and other institutions, how do you expect Melville scholarship to develop, and do you anticipate additional discoveries like the one you’ve written about?

MMO has been and will continue to be—with an ever-growing collection, I hope—an essential resource for scholars of American literature. Digitizing and publishing Melville’s library, with all of its fascinating marginalia, is a tremendous gift to scholars around the world who would never be able to investigate these volumes in person at the NYPL. I expect that as we learn more and more about Melville’s extensive reading—how he read, as well as what he read—we will better understand how his creative genius arose from his ability to synthesize and probe the diverse ideas he found in print. And yes, I absolutely expect that collections of Melville books preserved in archives like the NYPL hold secrets that await unveiling. Every plunge into archived materials is a leap of faith, yet every such leap I’ve taken has been rewarded with eye-opening, perspective-transforming fragments of history. I have no doubt that other scholars and librarians willing to summon “time, strength, cash, and patience” to recover Melville’s marginalia will have similar experiences of discovery.


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Melville's marginalia

I think it is a mistake to assume that erased marginalia was erased by Melville himself. That assumption is made in this instance, but I think it likely that the erasures were not made by him, but by others after his death- either his widow, or more likely, the booksellers who handled the books after they were purchased from his widow. Antiquarian booksellers often removed penciled notes in books, and clearly the booksellers who handled Melville's copies of books in the first several decades after his death didn't attach monetary value to his annotations. Bill Reese

American literature

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