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.