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  • Report: Melville Society—Bezanson Archive Fellowship 2013
  • Joseph Matthew Meyer

Thanks to a generous $500 stipend from the Melville Society and the free use of the beautiful scholars’ quarters at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library, I was able to take advantage of a wonderful opportunity during the summer of 2013. I came to the Melville Society Archive in New Bedford in June as a Walter E. Bezanson Fellow with a specific goal in mind: to work on my research on Melville and biblical genealogy. However, something happened to me when I actually arrived at the archive room. As I stared at the stacks of books and papers owned by Harrison Hayford, Merton Sealts, Jay Leyda, Joyce Sparer Adler, and Walter Bezanson, a feeling came over me. It was intimidation. These scholars have contributed lasting legacies to the Melville community, and here I was, only a year removed from defending my dissertation. I sat down at the tables outside of the archive room and gathered my thoughts. Then, in a moment of clarity, I decided to spend the first half of each day—roughly 3–4 hours—studying the scholars themselves through their books, marginal notes, and miscellaneous papers. What I learned from this experience has had a consequential professional and personal impact on me.

I spent hours going through the Bezanson papers. They are filled with wonderful insights and intriguing comments concerning possible avenues for Melville scholarship. One letter, however, really spoke to me. A young Bezanson, his Ph.D. freshly minted, had written a personal letter to a friend in which he revealed that at one point Stanley T. Williams referred to his dissertation as “a young man’s book.” I was in disbelief that such a remark was made about Walter Bezanson, the man whose name and career are honored by this fellowship. I stared at the letter for a moment and then I laughed, not at Bezanson’s expense, but at the thought that the universal thump had been passed, for I, too, have written a young man’s book. As I continued to read the letters, it seemed to me that with each passing year that he revised his work on Clarel, [End Page 90] Bezanson began to understand his mentor’s comment, even as with each passing month that I revise my own work, I also begin to understand what Williams meant.

With renewed confidence, I went into the Archive and began to peruse the stacks. A particular book caught my eye in the Hayford section: an edition of John Kitto’s Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature. In my own study, I discuss the possible connections between Kitto’s Cyclopedia and Melville’s grasp of biblical genealogy. Questions immediately surfaced in my mind. Did Hayford mark the same passages in his copy that I have marked in mine? Did he believe Melville owned or read the 1852 Boston, Gould, and Lincoln edition specifically, or is this edition here as a representative example? I carefully looked through Hayford’s copy and realized that he had, in fact, marked many passages that I noted. Also on Hayford’s shelf were books by John Bryant, Wyn Kelley, and Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, books that are on my own shelf. Perhaps, this was the greatest lesson that I took away from the experience: the communal feeling of working on Melville, the legacy of scholarship, and the feeling that I am a part of it all.

Embedded within Bezanson letters is the history of the Melville Society, which began as a series of informal meetings at various conferences. In a 1946 letter to Bezanson, Tyrus Hillway discusses expanding the Melville Society’s reach to Australia. Today, such a task would be as simple as sending an email, a text, or even a tweet. I already had tremendous respect for Hillway because of his scholarship, but reading this letter made me appreciate the hard work undertaken by him and many others to build a Society, part of whose legacy is the sponsorship of someone like me to conduct research in New Bedford. The Melville Society continues to thrive through the hard work of many individuals. I encourage all to read...


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