Friday, February 8th, 2013...9:30 am

What’s New: Given Away, Handed Down, Lost, Lost, and Found

Jump to Comments

Waddington, Samuel. The Sonnets of Europe, 1886. AC85.M4977.Zz886w (cover)Melville’s marginalia is a hot topic in American literary studies, and inquiry is kept fresh in the field when annotated books from his library turn up on the market. Sometimes they do so in interesting and surprising ways. Melville’s copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, acquired in London in 1849, appeared on the tables of a name-your-own-price auction in central Massachusetts in 2009, to the delight (and considerable profit) of a knowledgeable non-specialist, who got to name his own price twice. Decades before, another knowledgeable bookman in NY state bought, sight unseen, from a catalog of a Maine book barn what he thought was going to be a serviceable reading copy of Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, only to have delivered to his home Melville’s signed and richly annotated multivolume set. [Houghton Library in turn found these “finds,” and both sets are now part of our research collections.] Melville’s library is estimated to have contained approximately 1,000 volumes when he died in 1891. His widow, Elizabeth Shaw Melville, sold about half that number to booksellers, by far the largest group going to A. F. Farnell in Brooklyn. The rest stayed in the family, and some were among the things “of value” of Herman’s that Melville’s widow gave to friends and family after his death. Almost all of the books that remained within the immediate family are now in institutions.

Houghton Library is fortunate to own the largest number of books from Melville’s library, and circumstances of the marketplace and just plain good luck have allowed us to add steadily to that number since 2000. The latest such acquisition involves one of Mrs. Melville’s memorial gifts: The Sonnets of Europe; a Volume of Translations Selected and Arranged, with Notes, by Samuel Waddington (New York, 1886). On the front pastedown, in Mrs. Melville’s hand is the following inscription in pencil: “Maria G. Morewood / from the library of her uncle/ Herman Melville / 1891.” Though without Melville annotations of any kind, the volume contains quite a few of his distinctive reading marks in the table of contents and on individual sonnets or groups of sonnets, particularly those from Italian originals. Melville was a published author of fiction for ten years, from the mid-1840s to the mid-1850s (Moby-Dick, 1851). But he was a practicing and publishing poet for the last three decades of his life. In 1860, Poems was prepared for the press, but failed to find a publisher. Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War appeared in 1866. Clarel, a narrative and dramatic poem of some 18,000 lines on the theme of religious doubt and the kind of belief possible in the modern world, was published in 1876. John Marr and Other Sailors, with Some Sea-pieces was printed in a small edition in 1888, and Timoleon, also privately printed for family and friends, was issued in the year of his death. Melville studied poetry (for which he had a remarkable memory), its history, and its various genres to the end of his life. The books in Melville’s library, however, had occasional use in less serious literary pursuits: granddaughter Frances remembered building houses out of books in modern bindings on the floor of Grandpa’s study, and The Sonnets of Europe may well have been called on for such structural duties.

Waddington, Samuel. The sonnets of Europe, 1886. AC85.M4977.Zz886w (inscription)

Melville’s copy of The Sonnets of Europe was known to earlier generations of Melville scholars, but had not been seen or consulted for at least four decades. Following up on our recent success in acquiring books from Melville’s library, I tried to locate Eleanor Romig, daughter of Rev. Edgar F. Romig, one-time resident of Wellesley, and the last known owner of the volume. In August 2012, I came upon an online obituary of Eleanor Romig Jaquinet, of Dennis, Mass., who had died in January of that year. I wrote to the executors at ERJ’s last address, but her house had been sold, and the letter came back as “undeliverable.” Digging deeper, I found the names of the executors, contacted one, verified the Wellesley connection, and described what I knew about the book in question. As a step in settling the estate, ERJ’s library had been looked over by an auction house on the Cape, with only a few titles selected and none with a Melville provenance. The rest of the volumes not wanted by the family had been packed into cartons and placed in the basement of a nearby church on the Cape to await its annual summer charity sale. Though reluctant to deny someone an Antiques Roadshow moment while browsing in a church parking lot among estate discards, I did suggest the potential value (scholarly and commercial) of the book to the executors and hinted that they might want to take a look in the boxes in the church basement. Even if the family wished to retain the volume, it would be good to know its new owners and even better to confirm earlier transcriptions of Melville’s markings in it. The book was indeed there in the boxes in the basement, and the estate was interested in selling. Not surprisingly, we were interested in buying. This week, the library completed the purchase. Thus concludes our own narrative of bibliographic doubt and the kind of bibliographic belief and pursuits possible in the modern world.

This post is part of a series called “What’s New.” Throughout the year, Houghton staff members will be blogging about new acquisitions and newly digitized materials. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the What’sNew tag.

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

Comments are closed.