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  • Recovering Melville’s Hand: An Inaugural Report on Digital Discovery and Analysis at Melville’s Marginalia Online
  • Steven Olsen-Smith

This installment of “Melville’s Hand,” a department of Leviathan originally conceived by Founding Editor John Bryant, is the first to appear in the journal since staff at Melville’s Marginalia Online (MMO) printed newly documented marginalia in issue 10.3 of 2008. Through the vision of Bryant’s successor as Editor Samuel Otter and of Associate Editor Brian Yothers, the present installment also constitutes the inaugural printing of what we hope will remain an annual contribution by the online project to Leviathan (appearing in every June issue) for years to come. What gives us confidence that MMO will generate significant material for an annual contribution to the journal? As users following MMO’s “Events” page and social networking feeds for the past several years can attest, significant developments in the record of Melville’s reading have borne out the three coordinating editors’ founding conception of a digital successor to Merton M. Sealts Jr.’s “Check-list of Books Owned and Borrowed” (1948–50; revised and expanded into book form in 1966 and 1988) and to Wilson Walker Cowen’s Melville’s Marginalia (1965; rpt. 1987). Basic to that conception was our confidence that an online resource would help not only to organize and render more accessible the details of Melville’s reading and collecting, but would assist in the discovery and publication of hitherto lost and unknown evidence. Five years ago, the project announced the existence of Melville’s copy of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, long known to have been acquired by Melville in December, 1849 (when Melville listed the purchase in his London journal), but unaccounted for until it sold cheaply at a used book auction in 2009 to a patron who later noticed Melville’s autograph in the set. The following year, staff identified Melville’s hand in the New York Society Library’s copy of William Johnson Neale’s History of the Mutiny at Spithead and the Nore, which he had charged from the library while writing Billy Budd. Over the next years, three additional association copies were documented and/or located by project staff: George Crabb’s English Synonyms Explained in 2012 [End Page 36] (up to then unknown), Samuel Waddington’s The Sonnets of Europe in 2013 (unlocated since before 1988), and Charles Wilkes’ Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition in 2014 (five of six volumes up to then not known to survive).

New volumes will continue to turn up, as predicted in Leviathan 10.3, whether through fortunate happenstance in the used and rare book trade (as in the case of the Boswell, Crabb, and Wilkes volumes) or through concerted research (as with the copies of Waddington and Neale). But even barring the ongoing emergence of lost and unknown books owned by Melville, the project’s growing digital collection of volumes housed at holding libraries and in the private collection of William S. Reese is proving a seedbed of new information and insights in its own right. Since 2009 (from the earliest to most recent arrangements), the following institutions have generously supplied digital images of books from Melville’s library now edited and available or currently in production at Melville’s Marginalia Online:

Houghton Library, Harvard University, and the Harvard Library, Harvard University

Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University

The Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield, MA

The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia Library

The Beinecke Library, Yale University

The Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library

The Department of Special Collections and Rare Books, Princeton University Library

Also since the earliest stages of digitization at MMO, William Reese has made available for photographic capture the largest private collection of Melville’s books in existence, and the Digital Library of Villanova University provided photographic services for the collection of Melville’s books owned by the Berkshire Athenaeum. Whereas holding institutions have long granted scholars permission to examine Melville’s copies of Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, Shakespeare’s Dramatic Works, and Wordsworth’s Poetical Works, digital copies of these and other important...


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pp. 36-40
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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