Friday, February 10th, 2012...1:21 pm

You’ve Got Mail: A Melville note resurfaces

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Melville, Herman. Autograph note signed. MS Am 1581(27)Like an item consigned to the Dead Letter Office where Bartleby the Scrivener once worked, this brief note from Herman Melville lay undelivered to scholars and editors for nearly a century until the autograph collection of which it is a part received a full electronic finding aid in 2007. The note, perhaps clipped from a bigger letter sent to Melville, came to Harvard by bequest in the great fishing collection formed by Daniel B. Fearing (1859-1918), art collector, mayor of Newport, and major bibliophile. Though the glue patches on the verso show that it once was attached to a mount of some sort, the note was not pasted into an album when Harvard received it. The circumstances surrounding Fearing’s acquisition of the note are unknown, but it seems to have passed through several hands before ending up in his. The autograph collection was cataloged upon receipt, though not in detail, and was waiting for readers to find it, first in the Widener Treasure Room and then, after 1942, in Houghton Library, where it is classed as bMS Am 1581. Scholars with an interest in Melville did not find it, and the note was not included in the comprehensive Correspondence volume (1993) in the Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville. His letters, even brief notes to autograph seekers, are scarce and highly valued, bringing astonishing prices in the current market. This particular note makes its first appearance in a mailbox of any kind in 150 years.

Melville, Herman. Autograph note signed. MS Am 1581(27)

Melville lived in obscurity in Manhattan for the last decades of his life. Though in his later years he occasionally received notes from admirers and autograph collectors, at the time of his final illness in 1891 few in the New York literary world knew he was still alive. The reputation of the author of Moby-Dick, however, soared in the 1920s in what is known as the Melville Revival, and he is now regarded as one of the great American writers. The brief but intriguing autograph-seeker’s prize described here shows pre-Revival interest in Melville among some collectors. The Fearing Collection, with substantial holdings on commercial fisheries and recreational fishing, quite naturally contains several first editions of Melville’s works. There are other riches too for Melvilleans: the logbook of the whaler Acushnet for the voyage immediately after the one Melville took on her in 1841 and a significant number of whaling novels, including the only recorded copy of Wharton The Whale-Killer!, a “novelette” quoted by Melville in the Extracts at the beginning of Moby-Dick.

When editors prepare a second edition of Correspondence, they will have a few challenges in handling this note. The text is simple enough. Even Melville’s notoriously difficult handwriting is at its tamest here.

                    Pittsfield, Feb: 16th

Dear Sir: Herewith is a Dedication
which I hope you will find to answer
the purpose you mention in your
note received last night.
                    Very Truly Yours,
                    H Melville

But questions abound. To whom was Melville writing? In what year did this exchange take place? What is the nature of the “Dedication,” and what was the purpose mentioned in the initial request? Both what is missing from the note and what is present in it raise questions and suggest possibilities. Scenarios, full or partial, can and inevitably will be spun.

Melville, Herman. Autograph note signed (verso). MS Am 1581(27)

For example: This may well be a very rare instance of Melville responding to a letter by writing on it. If that is what is going on, Melville received a letter sent from Pittsfield and dated February 7 and then responded to it on February 16 from Pittsfield, where he lived with his family from 1850 to 1863. If the letter to Melville was written on February 7, his comment that the note was “received last night” may suggest that he was out of town when the note was delivered. He would have made a point of being home on February 16 because that was the birthday of Malcolm, his first child, born in 1849. Several years in the mid-1850s may be candidates for this pattern of travel away from and back to Pittsfield in early February, and this possibility fits nicely with a fatherly interest in celebrating with family the birthday of a five- or six-year-old boy.

Whatever is meant by “Dedication,” the years in which this note was likely written, as well as the tenor of the note itself, suggest that this is not an exchange with his publishers. Is Melville simply responding to a fan’s request, imprecisely phrased, for an autograph note or for a copy of a book by Melville inscribed/”dedicated” by its author? Imprecision in the original request may account for the hedged and hoping-this-is-what-you-want response.

My hope is that Melville enthusiasts will find for this little note other scenarios to answer their own purposes.

Very Truly Yours,

D Marnon

This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

[Thanks to Dennis Marnon, Administrative Officer, for contributing this post.]

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