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  • Report: Melville Society—Bezanson Archive Fellowship 2013
  • Munia Bhaumik

In August of 2013, I had the honor and pleasure of conducting research at the Melville Society Archive housed at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The generous support of both the Melville Society and the Whaling Museum staff not only enabled research on my current book project, Democracy and Dramatic Form: The Figure of the Non-Citizen in the American Renaissance, tracing statelessness in Redburn, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick, “Benito Cereno,”and Billy Budd, but also allowed me to investigate the reception of Melville in multiple languages. I was impressed to find in New Bedford an early edition of Israel Potter that was not titled by the character’s name but rather as The Refugee. Such details inform my argument that the question of the non-citizen is at play in Herman Melville’s writings. The Melville Society Archive is notable for its compendium of Melville’s works across various languages. Its collection of annotated works by Melville scholars accounts for a history of reading and translation that is important to the study of statelessness in his writing.

My own interest in Melville and translation stems from the use and specter of non-English speech in Melville’s stories, particularly in “Benito Cereno” where such speech coincides with representations of law. In “Benito Cereno” the scene of slavery is where “conversation became constrained” and the possibility for a reciprocal dialogue was annihilated. “Constrained” conversation implies a condition of force that inhibits the speakers, presenting the scene of legal exclusion and enslavement as one of failed translation between marginal languages and the dominant one. Much like the subordination of the unwritten record to the written in Melville’s trial scenes, the marginalization of Ashanti relative to English indicates a colonial situation and delineates a non-European presence within the trial scene. As the court ascribes differential values to different languages, the imposition of English in particular coincides with a founding violence in the Americas and the transition from the Spanish to the Unites States Empire. [End Page 87]

The setting of the story in the Americas prompted my curiosity about Melville’s relation to Latin American languages, particularly Spanish and Portuguese, as well as language politics. Here, encountering Merton Sealts’s own notes in Melville’s Reading: A Check-List of Books Owned and Borrowed and Mary K. Bercaw’s Melville’s Sources proved invaluable. While one can certainly encounter these books at university libraries, the notes at the margins of Sealts’s own manuscripts and in his copies of Bercaw’s Melville’s Sources added nuance to histories and methods of reading Melville. Although Melville’s Sources points to the limitations of Sealts’s study alone, the marginal notation “good” in his copy of Bercaw’s work points to his admiration of her precise study of Montaigne’s influence on Melville’s representation of the “Grand Armada.” Such marginalia are the delight of researching a history of reading and critical debates, prompting reflections on how a world, and not just a nation, of philosophy and languages resides behind the scenes of writing.

While travel narratives, including Antonio de Ulloa’s A Voyage to South America (1758), certainly had an impact on Melville’s portrayals of the region, the research on his influences also reveals a keen interest in comparative literature beginning with Goethe’s Faust and an attentiveness to a repertoire of writings in romance languages. In Melville’s father’s library, as Sealts showed, there was a constant circulation of writings in French. Melville was also drawn to Spanish and Portuguese, owning and annotating the writings of Cervantes, Calderon, and Luis de Camões in English, Spanish, and Portuguese versions. The reading of Calderon indicates that Melville’s adaptations of dramatic technique extend beyond Shakespeare and include the teatro of Spain’s Siglo de Oro as well as Cyrano de Bergerac, “a comical history of the states and the empires of the world.” While it is unclear if Melville read Spanish and Portuguese with much fluency, the annotations in some of the books he owned written in languages other than English point to a...


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