Friday, February 18, 2011

bibliographing's contribution to Melville scholarship - dusting the old lexicons and grammars - Long live responsible bloggers!

Punchline first: nicole, at bibliographing, has made an original contribution to Melville scholarship.  In a dang old blog post!  Well done, nicole!

Leading her triumphant readalong of Herman Melville’s epic poem of doubt and despair, the 1876 Clarel, nicole wrote a little piece showing the precise link between a bit of the poem and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sketch “Foot-prints on the Sea-shore.”  A character in Clarel can be identified with Hawthorne in various ways, and this sort of connection is how the critic knows he’s not just blowing biographical smoke.

She had read the sketch a year earlier in the Library of America anthology American Sea Writing.  I had coincidentally read it a few months earlier during my long slog through Hawthorne, and in some sense I had read it twice, since the sketch is a heavily polished entry from The American Notebooks. Let me copy the key line from the published sketch:

There lies my shadow in the departing sunshine with its head upon the sea.  I will pelt it with pebbles.  A hit!  A hit!

Melville lifts the action directly into his poem.  Even the sea theme is intact – if the episode is where I think it is, the pilgrims are leaving the Dead Sea, and perhaps even just returning to sea level.

It’s a marvelous conceit of Hawthorne’s, a nice little revelation of character through action, with a little bit of extra symbolic zip.  Reading Melville triggered nothing at all, I'm afraid, but when nicole wrote about it, I certainly remembered the scene.

Just a few days ago Hershel Parker came across nicole’s piece.  Parker is something like the world’s greatest Melville scholar, author of the recent two-volume biography of Melville, and one of the editors of the exemplary Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville’s complete works.  He discovered, in nicole’s post, a solution to a problem.  I should allow Parker to speak for himself, over in the post’s comments.  All of this is going into the book Parker is working on, cited “in the neatest most professional way.”  I don’t prof-bash at Wuthering Expectations, but I can enjoy Parker’s own lament:  “The academic failure to think!” 

The bulk, I would guess, of literary scholarship is the result of conscientious thoroughness, and some small but essential part requires real brilliance, but how much insight comes from these sorts of stumbled-upon discoveries?  A lot, I think, quite a lot.  And they are not really accidental – the base of careful and wide reading is crucial, and so is the writing, the so-called blogging.  Nicole, would you have remembered the passage in Hawthorne’s story if you had not written about it?  Speaking for myself, the writing is enormously helpful.

I don’t know if this is a good analogy, but I often compare my own progress with literature to the knowledge of some of the bird-watchers, amateur naturalists, I have met (like this guy), people who have acquired an extraordinary amount of knowledge about their subject, knowledge they really do need to do something as seemingly simple as watch birds.  Anyone can say “Hey, that red one is kind of pretty,” but surely it is even more rewarding to understand that the red one is on the Endangered Species List and was last seen in your state in 1975.  It takes real work for a birder to get to that point.  I feel like I am slowly working that way, with what purpose I do not know.  I’ll find out when I get there.

Parker supposes that discoveries like nicole’s “will happen more and more often, and everyone will be grateful, I trust...  Long live responsible bloggers!”

Great work, nicole!  Those of you who made excuses, who did not read Clarel, you won't make that mistake next time, will you?  Those grammars (I am of course paraphrasing the famous second line of Moby-Dick) won't dust themselves.


  1. Very very nice, thank you!

    Would I have remembered the pelting without writing about the sketch? I would say there is a tiny bit of "maybe" there, but mostly no.

    But what's more important, would I ever have read the sketch, not to mention Clarel, without writing about them? Would I have done the Melville project? Probably. Would I have skipped out on Clarel if no one was watching? Probably, at least for a few more decades.

    Also, "Foot-prints on the Sea-shore" was the first I had read of Hawthorne since high school, and I only read it at all because of the anthology I had it in. I had memories only of Hawthorne hatred, and that sketch totally turned my opinion of him around. And of course I only started down that road at all because of a blog project previous to the Melville one.

    All hail litblogs!

  2. Since I love Melville (and the biography of him that you mention), please let me add my congratulations to all concerned.

    And about bird-watching: although the Roosevelt my work is based on is the other one, my favorite TR story is that he and his wife would wake up in the morning to birdsong outside, and if she asked him, he would tell her the names of the birds they were hearing.


  3. How exciting! All hail responsible, thoughtful bloggers, indeed.

  4. Congratulations nicole! Parker may be a little harsh on academics...we all fail to think at times (and for me, at longer periods I'm afraid). But who am I to get in the way of a good bashing?

    It's funny what turns up when reading and I'm happy to say I had a nice discussion with people at the Library of America on my post about Nabokov's possible mistake in Speak, Memory, where he thought he saw a rehearsal for a movie version of Hadji Murad (which according to the scant records available, could not have happened). I agree we'll see more of this as lit-blogging grows.

    Again, congrats!

  5. Dwight - that comment of Parker's is self-directed!

  6. There you go! I always knew that something good would happen with somebody, namely you guys, reading Clarel. Landing the Moby Dick of Melville scholars is no small feat.

  7. "You guys" - all I did is read along with the readalong.

    Which was, admittedly, on my side at least, highly valuable - kept the focus where it ought to be. Helped that the poem is genuinely amazing. But nicole kept me on my toes.

  8. wow, how exciting. I haven't read Clarel and I don't anticipate doing so anytime soon. But for me, it's just further proof that book bloggers are significant.

    That is, if we ever post our I HAVENT been doing..You are right, AR, writing is crucial to scholarship.

  9. Rebecca - skip Melville but read the Hawthorne sketch if you are at all susceptible to the charms of the seashore.

    Writing is crucial to scholarship - to thinking, perhaps.

    Now - write up Cranford, please! Which is more important to hoard, string or butter?

  10. MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE is in 2nd pdf now, very far along. It contains a tribute to Nicole all couched in the very most proper blogging identification so any old person can find his or her way back here. I'm still excited about Nicole's discovery and what it suggests about a new era when ordinary (well, maybe extraordinary) literature lovers can outdo professional critics simply because they devote time and thought to their private projects then share their discoveries to the world out of pure love. All hail, Nicole, indeed, and the best of litbloggers everywhere.

  11. Prof. Parker, welcome! Thanks for the encouragement.

    The forthcoming book - I'll link to the description at Parker's blog - looks fascinating, and should have great interest to anyone who spends any time reading literary biographies, not just to Melville fans.

    This line of the description is intriguing: "In the third part, Parker invites readers into his biographical workshop and challenges them with ambitious research assignments." Rest up, amateurs, you've got some work ahead!

    1. Tom, thank for for your comment and for the link to my description of MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE. The designer Marianne Jankowski made a gorgeous, evocative cover. I'll see if I can post it here. Well, I'm too old and inept. It's on Amazon, though. Chapter 7 contrasts the low state of reviewing in what's left of newspapers and magazines with the hopeful signs of litblog and other blog reviewing.



      Here is a link. Sorry I don't know how to copy the picture. At least I found Nicole's blog!

  12. MELVILLE BIOGRAPH: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE, featuring Nicole very prominently, is published. Copies are at Evanston and I hope to see one soon. Monday I turn 77. Maybe I will have a copy by then. Meanwhile, check out some early reviews on Amazon!
    The designer, Marianne Jankowski, is a genius. Black cloth with copper, I am told.

  13. Wonderful - congratulations on the publication of the new book! And happy birthday!

  14. Nicole's name is spelled right. I love celebrating a blogger in a Very Serious Scholarly Book. Young folks, this is the way of the future. Bloggers young and old are going to be outdoing scholars more and more often, the way Nicole did.

    The book is gorgeous. Marianne Jankowski has made the book beautiful inside and out. I'm a lover of copper sconces and lamps, so I am delighted with the strip of copper on the spine that has the title in black, vertical. The black cloth feels good, not slick but substantial. I don't know the vocabulary for describing cloth! Northwestern did great with the physical book, and the editor, Anne Gendler, did much for what was inside. Do you have any idea who many tough decisions have to be made in indexing? She kept me guided, firmly. And that's just one way she helped. I have never been happier with a book.

    Nicole, all hail again! And thanks, Tom.