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  • Peradventure Feeble:A Response to Robert Levine
  • Geoffrey Sanborn (bio)

I would like both to applaud Robert Levine's essay in the Spring 2017 issue of J19—"Why We Should Be Teaching and Writing about The Literary World's 1850 'Hawthorne and His Mosses' "—and add a brief postscript to it. As Levine observes, the editors of the Northwestern-Newberry Moby-Dick "refuse[d] to work with the words that Melville chose to publish" in "Hawthorne and His Mosses" (the freewheeling review of Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse that appeared in The Literary World, edited by Melville's then-friend Evert Duyckinck, in August 1850). Drawing on selected portions of the manuscript version of the essay—the fair copy in Elizabeth Melville's handwriting with Melville's emendations penned in—the editors, Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle, essentially rewrote the published version.

Here's another example of overreaching on the part of the Northwestern-Newberry editors, one that I found simply astonishing when I discovered it. On June 29, 1851, Melville wrote a now-lost letter to Hawthorne that has come down to us only through Julian Hawthorne's transcription and publication of it. In both the transcript and the published version, which appeared in Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife, the following passage appears:

I am sure you will pardon this speaking all about myself; for if I say so much on that head, be sure all the rest of the world are thinking about themselves ten times as much. Let us speak, though we show all our faults and weaknesses,—for it is a sign of [End Page 25] strength to be weak, to know it, and out with it; not in set way and ostentatiously, though, but incidentally and without premeditation. But I am falling into my old foible,—preaching This is rather a crazy letter in some respects, I apprehend. If so, ascribe it to the intoxicating effects of the latter end of June operating upon a very susceptible and peradventure feeble temperament.1

In the now-standard edition of Melville's letters, however, the final clause of the passage reads: "a very susceptible and peradventure febrile temperament" (emphasis added). Why? Here is the editors' explanation:

NN … emends Julian Hawthorne's "feeble" as an error for "febrile"—a modifier for "temperament" more consonant with Melville's ascribing his "crazy letter" to the "intoxicating effects" of midsummer operating on that temperament.2

This makes no sense at all. Feeble temperaments are quite capable of being overwhelmed, even crazed, by intoxicating influences. Four sentences earlier, moreover, Melville had written, "Let us speak, though we show all our faults and weaknesses,—for it is a sign of strength to be weak, to know it, and out with it; not in set way and ostentatiously, though, but incidentally and without premeditation." Weakness, not feverishness, was the quality that was most in his mind as he composed the letter. So why, without any textual justification, did the Northwestern-Newberry editors change "feeble" to "febrile"?

We can begin to answer that question by turning to the following passages from Hershel Parker's biography of Melville.

He was muscular, athletic, even gymnastic, constitutionally restless, and was himself (as he wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne on 29 June 1851) the victim of "a very susceptible and peradventure febrile temperament."

Writing so intimately about Hawthorne's power to arouse his literary aspirations had left him more than a little febrile—excited intellectually, emotionally, and sexually—sexual arousal being for Melville an integral part of such intensely creative phases.3

Parker's preferred Melville is, clearly, a febrile Melville. There are, of course, plenty of places in Melville's writing when the tone is distinctly [End Page 26] feverish, even manic—or, in Parker's words, "excited intellectually, emotionally, and sexually." But there are plenty of other places in which Melville opens his readers to experiences of feebleness, experiences in which one's psychic and/or physiological capacities are radically diminished. Pierre's exhaustion in the midst of writing his book comes immediately to mind, as does the totteringness of Benito Cereno and the depressed states of Marianna and the narrator of "The...


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