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  • Report:Melville Society—Bezanson Archive Fellowship 2016
  • Meredith Farmer

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Fig. 1.

Entrance to the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The Melville Society Archive is housed within its Research Library.

Photo courtesy of Meredith Farmer.

In July 2016, I had the opportunity to read through the papers of the Melville Society Archive, which are housed in a brand-new space at the New Bedford Whaling Museum's Research Library in Massachusetts. I proposed to read material for my first book project, Melville's Ontology, along with a collection that I am co-editing with Jonathan Schroeder, Rethinking Ahab: Melville and the [End Page 96] Materialist Turn. One claim at the heart of our collection is that, in the early 1950s, Melville criticism abruptly shifted away from work that engaged with the material world. Instead scholars emphasized a Cold War frame for Moby-Dick, focusing intensely on the leadership (or lack thereof) of monomaniacal Captain Ahab. When I arrived, I was especially interested in learning more about Tyrus Hillway, the founder and first Secretary of the Melville Society, who never converted his 1944 dissertation into a book on Melville and science. I wanted to know why. And the archives told a story that I had not anticipated: in 1950 Tyrus Hillway stopped work on "Melville and Nineteenth-Century Science" to write a play called Captain Ahab. This transformation bolstered the claim that I wanted to make and provided the perfect anecdote for our collection's introduction. And yet this detail only scratched the surface of what I discovered when I got lost in the Melville Society Archive. The richness of the files in "Melville Society Archive, Box 1 of 5" took me down a different path (see Fig. 2).

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Fig. 2.

Melville Society Archive Box 1 of 5, which contains the earliest records of The Melville Society.

Photo courtesy of Meredith Farmer.

[End Page 97]

Just before my trip to New Bedford, I learned that I was about to become the Associate Secretary for Programs and Conferences of the Melville Society. So with boxes of the Society's history in front of me—and an unexpectedly complex set of identifications with Tyrus Hillway—I found myself totally absorbed by the story of the Society. It unfolded through letters by a number of scholars whose work I had read but will never view in quite the same way. I was absolutely captivated. And I hope the best way to show the real strengths of these collections is to share a brief overview of what I was able to learn about our history in only ten days.

In the spring of 1945, Tyrus Hillway sent out a set of invitations to join the new Melville Society for the modest fee of $1. Replies indicate that the group had two goals: to select editors for a centenary edition of collected works and to build a Melville Room that could hold important relevant collections. Potential members were invited to join. And letters poured in. Every response in the Society's archives was an acceptance, including a number of notes from people who indicated that they did not generally join groups. Most convey strong approval for Hillway's project: an ambitious undertaking for a scholar a year out of defending his dissertation at Yale. Many sent names of potential board members or of junior scholars who might receive invitations. A handful sent offprints of essays that could be included in the new Melville Room's library. And a few wondered whether membership should be open to anyone with "an interest in Melville," resisting the idea of an organization that would only represent scholars: a stance that still shapes the Society today.

In May of 1945, a group of scholars from Princeton, Columbia, and New York University—including Jack Birss, Henry Wells, and Willard Thorp—met with Hillway in New York to discuss rapidly developing plans. The group seems to have been based in New York City. Jay Leyda writes from the Northeast as often as anywhere else, and when Hillway was forced to move West to Colorado because of his son's health problems...


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