MSCP Mission Statement
The Melville Society Cultural Project is a research-oriented group of scholars within the Melville Society dedicated to fostering a critical understanding of Herman Melville’s writings, life, and times. The Project, in affiliation with the New Bedford Whaling Museum, collects scholarly and artistic texts related to Melville, oversees the Melville Society’s Archive, and contributes to a wide variety of programming at the Whaling Museum and elsewhere. As teachers and scholars, we seek to promote public awareness of and appreciation for Melville and his writings and assist other scholars and teachers, as well as educational and cultural institutions, in becoming well-informed about the man and his work. In these roles we take seriously the importance of building partnerships across communities to ensure that the humanities survive and thrive outside the academy.
Old Books, New Reading: The Melville Society Archive
at the New Bedford Whaling Museum
Wyn Kelley and Mary K. Bercaw Edwards
The Melville Society Archive represents a cordial affiliation between the New Bedford Whaling Museum, its Research Library, and the Melville Society Cultural Project, an academic group dedicated to community outreach and programming organized around the life and works of Herman Melville. The archive, dedicated in 2002, rests on two colossal pillars, the Melville collections of Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., towering figures from the seminal generation of Melville scholars. Together they edited the text of Billy Budd read universally today (no easy task, given the state in which Melville left the manuscript at his death) and between them, though not always working together, helped produce the scholarly 15-volume Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville as well as a thorough inventory of Melville's reading, and some of the finest twentieth-century criticism of Melville's works. Their separate bequests to the Melville Society in turn attracted substantial donations from other important scholars and readers of Melville: Elizabeth Schultz, Robert K. Wallace, Thomas Wendel, William Reese, Jill Barnum, Walter Bezanson, Gail Coffler, Charles N. Watson Jr., Joyce Sparer Adler, Robert D. Madison, and others. The archive, now numbering over 2000 volumes, continues to grow and to support outreach projects like a modest research grant to graduate students and our Book Donation program, through which we send surplus books to underserved universities and libraries abroad. To date, we have sent books to Russia, India, China, Palestine, the Ukraine, and Algeria, all of which have a keen interest in Melville.
Like many archives, this one started with certain predictable "old books" goals. We wanted Melville first editions; thanks to Thomas Wendel, we received a beautiful collection of rare volumes. We wanted the best scholarly editions of Melville's works; Hayford, Sealts, and other donors gave them in abundance. Because of Melville's dominance as cultural icon, we looked for illustrated editions, from fine art books to cheap bestsellers, as well as various kinds of adaptations: comic books, editions based on films, abridged editions, books in translation. As an academic organization, we of course wanted the best criticism we could find. Hayford, Sealts, and Wendel gave us a substantial foundation of classic scholarship extending well into the 1980s. We are assembling more recent works as well. We also sought and were delighted to receive working copies and marked books belonging to some of the most important Melville scholars of the twentieth century—a different kind of "rare" book. With guidance from Dennis Marnon, of Harvard University's Houghton Library, we are learning professional standards for scholarly archives and have acquired museum-quality materials for boxing, labeling, and shelving our books and papers.
The particular interests and unique situation of the Melville Society Cultural Project team, however, have led the collection in unexpected directions, and these have enabled forms of scholarship that you might not find in more established scholarly archives. There is first and foremost the fact that the Melville archive is housed in a maritime museum, not a university, as is usually the case. Visitors with an interest in whaling or maritime history and culture will find an unexpectedly rich trove of Melville-related materials. Melville scholars, like the graduate students we support through our research fellowship, can experience the vital synergy of reading Melville in buildings bursting with nautical charts, logbooks, artifacts, paintings, photographs, documents—even whale skeletons. We work across disciplinary boundaries with ease, as the Museum does when it celebrates the Moby-Dick Marathon every January. Michael Dyer, the Maritime Curator, can put together a display case showing artifacts from indigenous South Seas cultures and sailors' diaries right next to Melville's books describing the same places, and NBWM President James Russell or Vice President of Collections and Exhibitions Gregory Galer can throw out a topic and be sure that the MSCP will come back with plenty of ideas. The Melville Archive and the Library's main collection enrich each other in ways we are just learning to appreciate and develop.
In a second feature of our distinctive set of interests, two founders of the MSCP, Elizabeth Schultz and Robert K. Wallace, share a passion for Melville and the arts, and so some of our holdings emphasize either the works of art Melville knew or the artists inspired by Melville. Wallace's research on Melville's print collection engendered the gift by rare books dealer William Reese of forty-four prints and engravings Melville owned. Schultz has lectured at the Museum on our holdings of images by Benton Spruance and other modern artists and has curated a show on Melville in comics and cartoons. Because of Wallace's and Schultz's efforts, George Klauba, a painter of haunting images drawn from Moby-Dick, recently donated his work "The Pod" to the Museum. The MSCP has also put aside funds for new works of art. Our first purchase, a rare volume by Claire Illouz, illustrates Melville's chapter, "The Whiteness of the Whale," with works printed on paper—without ink. We believe that such an emphasis is unusual in either maritime or literary collections, and we hope to continue this innovative effort.
A third area where we have broken new ground is that of Melville's sources. Hayford, himself a collector of and dealer in books, began early in his career to assemble editions and printings of the books Melville used. For instance, Hayford acquired an 1837 Hilliard & Gray edition of The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare, the same edition and printing as that owned by Melville. (Melville's own copy is in the Houghton Library at Harvard University.) Thus, scholars could read Shakespeare as Melville himself read Shakespeare. Since Hayford's early work, the field of source studies has continued to grow. Some of this work is quite traditional, as Hershel Parker demonstrated in his new book Melville: The Making of the Poet, a close study of the poets Melville read in his long career. To support The Making of the Poet as well as the Northwestern-Newberry volume of Melville's poems, Robert D. Madison, like Hayford before him, assembled a complete collection of the editions Melville used in his development as poet. Madison presented these volumes to the Archive, so we now have an astounding archive of Melville's archive, the books Melville consulted and learned from in order to write his poems.
But in an age when multimedia remixing has become a popular way to adapt and share texts of all kinds, this type of scholarship is no longer traditional; it is cutting edge. When we show students how Melville read and borrowed from his sources, they see remixing practices with which they are deeply familiar. Mary K. Bercaw Edwards's more recent work, on Melville's oral sources, the sailor talk circulating through the Pacific in the nineteenth century (Cannibal Old Me), participates in this larger movement toward recognizing and analyzing the many different sources of artistic inspiration in various media.
A fourth area of interest has less to do with Melville's writings and more with those of Melville scholars. That is the evidence our collection affords of the world of academic scholarship in the twentieth century. Some of this material—correspondence, papers, conference programs, offprints, and records of the early years of the Melville Society—will seem relevant only to a few. Some of it may seem amusing—random jokes and jottings of Melville scholars in unguarded moments. Other material may lend insight into the production of scholarly texts, like the notes and drafts Walter Bezanson and Gail Coffler have donated from their own desks. At worst, the communications passing back and forth among a small group of scholars obsessed with a single author, however genial or insightful they are, may seem elitist or simply meaningless. Should we preserve chummy greetings from one Melville scholar to another? Do we really need to know that one Melville scholar wrote down his sexual dreams on a napkin?
But we would argue that these materials, like the source materials we noted before, have become newly relevant in an age of digital texts and information. Just as we have learned new ways to appreciate authors' appropriations and remixings of other works in the gray areas between print and other media, we have also come to appreciate the blurred boundaries between published and unpublished scholarship. Because there are so few Melville manuscripts, intense interest has long centered on Melville's annotations and jottings in the books he owned and lavishly marked. Likewise, the battered, grubby scholars' desk copies we own in our archive, which might once have been considered unworthy of a scholarly collection, now yield up new information about the way scholars read his texts and come to their conclusions. We own numerous examples of these annotations and marginal thinkings-out-loud.
Furthermore as editors have begun to appreciate what Melville scholar John Bryant calls fluid texts and editing practices—methods, that is, of capturing the different stages or versions of a text as it proceeds from manuscript to print text to adaptation or later edition—these rough stages have become newly revealing and valuable. We own not only the print editions of Hayford's and Sealts's books but also uncorrected proofs of their work and those of others. And we have examples of their works in progress: Sealts's Melville's Reading at different stages; the text of Typee used to check the manuscript version miraculously discovered in 1983; and Parker's galleys of his Melville biography. These show the history of scholarly methods, the development of critical work, and the growth of knowledge that is now central to the field.
These texts also revise our notion of a clubby group of mostly white male scholars bent over their white pages. Regardless of their gender and class, these scholars welcomed new scholars into the world of Melville studies—especially women, at times when there were still precious few. They also labored collaboratively in ways that can inspire us now. Our archive offers a vision of vigorous intellectual exchange, the free sharing of fast-breaking information and, in spite of some famous rivalries and quarrels, a lively culture of fresh criticism of a cultural icon.
In other words, it's not a big leap from the activities of the Melville Society, mid-to-late twentieth century, and the blogs, fan sites, discussion groups, and social networks where much intellectual and cultural work is taking place today. Media scholar Henry Jenkins has called this world a "participatory culture," one in which traditional barriers between experts and novices, critics and fans have become more permeable, making generous forms of creative and intellectual exchange possible.
We may be preserving old books. But we are making possible new ways of reading. The Melville Society archive is valuable to a wide range of contemporary users. To lovers of maritime culture we offer a resource for reading one of the greatest writers of the sea, ships, sailors, and marine life. To scholars of Melville we provide a convenient repository of editions, sources, criticism, scholarly papers, and historical materials. To explorers of media, we supply texts in print, visual, auditory, film, and pop-culture forms for different kinds of sampling. And for thinkers about new media practices, the archive can produce fresh insights into the ways we read and share texts, the communities within which we consume and produce creative work, the activities of mentoring new arrivals and criticizing experts, and our lively social networks outside the academy. Nothing could be more traditional and nothing could be more up-to-date.
The Melville Archive is composed of the following separate collections
Thomas Wendel 300 volumes; Harrison Hayford 951; Merton M. Sealts, Jr. 269; Jay Leyda 22; Robert D. Madison 129; General, including gifts from Walter Bezanson & Gail Coffler, Joyce Sparer Adler, and Douglas Robillard, 600; plus auxiliary Literature of the Sea and Frederick Douglass collections.