- Melville Society Bezanson Archive Fellowship 2017
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Itake to the archive the same way that Ishmael takes to the sea. When my writing "hypos" begin to get the best of me, I turn to nineteenth-century diaries, letters, and handwritten literary manuscripts for inspiration. It's a way I have of "driving off the spleen." Attempting to write a dissertation chapter on widowed women and Moby-Dick proved to be a daunting task, not only because of their infamously small role in the novel (which drew me to the topic of my dissertation in the first place), but also because of the intimidation involved in navigating the vast ocean of Melville critical studies. As the fortunate recipient of the Walter E. Bezanson Research Fellowship, I shipped out to the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library for two weeks in early April 2017, where I found the perfect balm for my chapter's woes: a vast collection of manuscripts written by and concerning the women of nineteenth-century New Bedford and the Melville Society Archives, which contain, among many riches, a repository of materials documenting Melville studies from its inception to the present.
I travelled to New Bedford to better understand the lives of sailors' wives and widows in nineteenth-century maritime communities. Struck by Ahab's description of his wife as "a widow with her husband alive!" (NN Moby-Dick 544), I began to wonder about her life onshore. How did she spend her time? How did she provide for herself and her son during Ahab's long voyages? How, affectively, did she endure his absences? What role did her small appearance at the end of Moby-Dick play in the larger gender dynamics of the novel? Compounding my interest in these questions were the "Agatha Letters," or notes that Melville wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne after Moby-Dick was published. The letters describe the germ of a story centered on a woman named Agatha that he wished one of them to write, thematically taking up "the great patience, & endurance, & resignedness of the women of the island in submitting so uncomplainingly to the long, long absences of their sailor husbands" (NN Correspondence 232). Melville failed to develop Ahab's wife as a full character, and Agatha appears never to have come into print, although her story may have been expanded as "The Isle of the Cross," a lost manuscript by Melville identified by Hershel Parker. As part of my larger PhD project on widowhood, womanhood, and the law in nineteenth-century American literature, this chapter seeks to understand, both in Melville's novel and in their own words, the unique personhood of sailors' wives and widows. Because maritime women existed legally, socially, and economically in between the status of a widow and that of a wife during their husbands' prolonged absences, I argue that authors outside of Melville—and women writers in particular—turned to such figures in fiction to imagine new possibilities for women's citizenship and sexuality. [End Page 126]
Evidently many women, just like Ahab's wife, married shortly before their new spouses took to the sea. I spent the better half of my first week at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library immersed in the letters of Eliza Russell to her husband Thomas, a whaleman. The two were married on June 3, 1851, and by early August Thomas had shipped out as first mate of the Isaac Howland, not to return until July of 1854. Russell's letters are remarkable in their scope. The collection includes correspondence written to Thomas on three different voyages, with 32 letters existing from the first voyage that he took after they married and 17 from a second. The third collection contains only three letters that Russell wrote to Thomas from Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where she remained in order to more safely deliver a baby while Thomas proceeded on the voyage. Having endured at least two long absences from her husband, Russell appears eventually to have chosen to accompany him.
Because we do not have any...