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Walter E. Bezanson: A Memorial HERSHEL PARKER Morro Bay, California I n 2010, the year before Walter E. Bezanson died at almost 99, his wife, Gail Coffler, commissioned Mary O’Brien Tyrrell to conduct a series of interviews with him, which were transcribed and supplemented with photographs for Journeying through the Twentieth Century: A Memoir of Walter E. Bezanson (Saint Paul: Memoirs, Inc., 2011). The volume offers glimpses into the life and mind of a man who had, I thought, guarded his privacy throughout many decades. Here you have him as Boy Scout, as student at Dartmouth, as lover (first of “Bett” Briggs), as Melvillean (one of Yale Professor Stanley T. Williams’s first Melville students), as father of two sons (Mark pre-World War II, Jim post-War), as Lieutenant in the Pacific. Then follows his teaching at Harvard and his choice to go to Rutgers on a joint appointment in History and c  2012 The Melville Society and Wiley Periodicals, Inc. L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 37 I N M E M O R I A M English, where he could create an American Studies program and where he moved through the ranks to distinguished professor. One of the founders of the Melville Society, three times its President, Bezanson attended Melville meetings in many cities at home and abroad. He traveled much, not only for Melville. Remarkably successful in his professional life and happy in his personal life, he, nevertheless, suffered the astonishing loss of a wife, not once but twice. After 35 years, Bett died of breast cancer, and after fifteen years his second wife, Jeannie, died of a tumor in her brain. My single memory of Bett is vivid and at odds with the photographs in Journeying Through the Twentieth Century, for I see her standing, at a conference, an elegant, aloof 1940s vamp with a dark slash of lipstick and a haughty lift to the shoulders. Jeannie was easy to talk to, but before you knew it she was gone, and once again Walt had nursed his wife through long months of dying. Then came the prolonged autumnal idyll (22 years) with Gail Coffler, a romance that began at the 1988 New Orleans MLA. Two weeks later, on 12 January 1989, Walt sent me a postcard announcing that his life had begun “to open up again.” The vertical postscript on the left edge: “N. Orleans provided some voodoo.” He was in love again, and Gail was spared what he had twice endured, for Walt was reading Moby-Dick aloud with her (from the 2001 Norton Critical Edition) only weeks before he died. All that and much more you can read in Journeying. Bezanson led a remarkable life. Melville gave him a career filled with intellectual and aesthetic delight, but what good did he do for Melville? Well, he was a betting man. Given the option of writing a biography of James Fenimore Cooper, he bet he could read Clarel. He won that bet, but think about the lonely years it took. The dissertation was accepted at Yale in 1943. He dated the preface to the Hendricks House edition “September 1959,” and the book is dated 1960. It seemed still hot off the press when I bought my copy on February 17, 1962. I started reading in May, mailed the book to New York City General Delivery in June so that I could read it after hours when the New York Public Library and the New-York Historical Society were closed, and after Book 2 gave up and went back and started over: I needed to capture momentum before pushing forward. I finished the poem on 12 October 1962 in Evanston, so overwrought that I called it (on the last page) “a finer achievement than Moby-Dick.” How was I able to read Clarel? Why, Walt Bezanson taught me, canto by canto. This is the only Melville book that one person set out to understand at a time when no one else alive could make sense of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 37-42
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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