- Report:Melville Society—Bezanson Archive Fellowship 2012
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I was lucky enough to be the Melville Society fellow in the same year that the annual MLA Convention was held in Boston. In January, I was able to be in residence at the Melville Society Archive in New Bedford as a Walter E. Bezanson Fellow, with a $500 stipend and lodging in a trendy, post-industrial apartment at Wamsutta Mills, and also attend the Convention in Boston and the Moby-Dick Marathon in New Bedford.
And a marathon it was! With the members of the Melville Society Cultural Project, I went back and forth between Boston and New Bedford during [End Page 82] the first weekend of January, in order to make the best of this happy coincidence. I attended two Melville panels at MLA, as well as the splendid Melville Society annual dinner in Boston, where I had the chance to socialize with some of the Melvilleans I had met at the Rome conference almost two years before.
In New Bedford, a different kind of frenzy awaited us: meetings and archival and filing work with the members of MSCP, in which I was kindly allowed to participate, and the Marathon itself with its related events, beginning with the inaugural dinner at the Whaling Museum and Matt Kish's heartfelt lecture on his efforts to create and draw an image for every page of Moby-Dick. After the energetic performance of "Extracts" by our Melville scholars, the three famous words—"Call me Ishmael"—signaled the start of the seventeenth Moby-Dick Marathon. No Melville aficionado should miss this experience. The thrill of being an active part of it—"stumping" the scholars; reading, with a trembling voice, a fragment in Italian from "Queequeg in His Coffin"—I won't soon forget.
After twenty-five hours of continued reading, in different settings, with different voices and languages, the "Epilogue" closed the Moby-Dick Marathon. And then my own personal marathon began.
The Bezanson Fellowship offers a matchless opportunity: full access to the impressive Melville Society Archive as well as to the unique maritime and whaling-related materials of the Whaling Museum Research Library. Both collections offered unlimited, if very different, resources for my own work on trauma in Melville. My initial task was to figure out how to navigate most effectively through the resources.
In such a nautical environment, I was naturally drawn to the logbooks and sailors' journals the Library owns, which could give me a sense of how the hardships of sea-life and the perils of whaling were perceived and represented in Melville's time. With the invaluable help of Assistant Librarian Mark Procknik, I soon found my way into the fascinating world of these treasures. Apart from being a pleasure to the eye, these manuscripts register the seamen's reactions to the extreme experiences (violent deaths, stove boats, falls overboard) they witnessed or experienced first-hand, and their responses (homesickness, insanity, loneliness, depression) to the confinements of life at sea. While the logbooks gave me "dry" entries, which nevertheless attest to the existence and frequency of such potentially traumatic events, the journals are filled with personal reflections on events and enriched by interspersed poems and metaphysical musings. The serendipitous discovery of Log 1033, following a casual conversation with volunteer Jan Keener, was particularly thrilling: a long journal kept by Daniel C. Whitfield during his journey on board the Dr. Franklin, strikingly prefaced by a number of essays on whales, whose [End Page 83] apparently ordered index hides a digressive and chronologically disrupted narrative. Of course, I was reminded of Ishmael's mighty book!
My archival work at the Library would not have been complete without an enlightening chat with the Library's maritime curator, Mike Dyer. A swift description of my project was enough to prompt a flood of focused tips. He told me about Capt. Edmund Gardner, Cornelius Hulsart, and Samuel Comstock, whose (first-person or third-person) narratives were on hand at the Museum's Research...