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  • Report: Melville Society—Bezanson Archive Fellowship 2012
  • Ellie Stedall

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Bezanson Archive Fellow Ellie Stedall in the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Photo courtesy of Robert K. Wallace.

I am newly returned to Cambridge after spending a month in the United States as the Melville Society Bezanson Archive Fellow; surprisingly, it is more wintery here than in New England, and there is thick snow on the ground—so much, in fact, that, today, bicycles are being escorted rather than ridden. My memories of New Bedford, Nantucket, and Boston seem oddly sunlit and even warm in contrast: January, if not always literally, was a halcyon month.

I spent the majority of that time at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, researching what was being read and written on board whaling ships in the 1840s. This topic forms part of a wider PhD project on the maritime and literary lives of Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad. When I first arrived in New Bedford, I accompanied Mary K. Bercaw Edwards and other scholars to [End Page 122] the Melville Archive and glimpsed the wealth of the existing collection. My research time was spent downstairs in the Museum library, which I came to think of as a contextual sea surrounding the island of the Melville Archive. That sea is stocked with books relevant to Melville without directly concerning him, and Senior Maritime Historian Michael P. Dyer proved to be an unsurpassable guide to its resources. After an initial conversation with him about my research, I saw the surface of the large wooden reading table disappear under suggested texts, not to be seen again. A decade’s worth of The Sailor’s Magazine and the Annual Reports of the New Bedford Port Society occupied my first few days, after which I moved on to the log books and journals of whale ships. I removed further into the recesses of the library, where I could be closer to the two tightly shelved caverns that represent the combined collections of the Kendall Whaling Museum and the Old Dartmouth Historical Society. The books they contain—official log books and also the uncompelled records of officers at sea—are extraordinary objects. Some are bound in robust sailcloth; others are naked and fragile; all are world-voyagers. Seated at a tiny desk between two copious filing cabinets, I felt privileged to read and handle them.

These books are largely factual, but they contain rare and vivid irruptions of personality. I found it impossible not to be moved by the melancholy captain, writing at the beginning of a voyage of perhaps four years:

I fell into a doze for about an hour and woke to find my room flooded with water which had got down the hatch ways during the rain it did no great damage except to wet every one of a large bundle of books for which I had paid 30 dollars just before sailing but I must dry them and make the best of a bad fix.

Often I encountered the boredom of these writers, their unimaginative entries, stock phrases (“This day commences,” “so ends”), and disintegrating handwriting. But perhaps as often I came across a record-keeper whose daily entry never faltered and, more occasionally, one who had inscribed humor, poetry, and pictures into a book whose readership—if it existed—must have seemed impossibly remote. A beautiful watercolor sketch of the Somers brig, with the three condemned mutineers hanging from the yard-arms, was a particularly special find. I was reminded of the opportunity in academic research to salvage meaning in texts and to retrieve details that are in danger of being overlooked and restore them to their contexts. This watercolor, like many other items I encountered during this fortnight, would not have meant anything to me two years or even six months ago, and now I came across it with delight, since it formed part of a web of associations that had their center upstairs, on Melville Island. [End Page 123]

While I was in New Bedford, I made a trip to Nantucket to see Ishmael’s point of disembarkation, and in the course of the month I also visited Melville...


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