Herman Melville, The London Carcanet (1831), Pierre; or the Ambiguities (1852), sous rature, Jacques Derrida, rubber erasers, deletion, erasure, inscriptions, traces, pencils, legibility
In August 1831 a young Herman Melville received an academic award from his school, the Albany Academy. To commemorate his achievement, the principal gave him a book called The London Carcanet: Containing Select Passages from the Most Distinguished Writers (1831). The London Carcanet consisted of a collection of extracts from the writings of famous authors throughout literary history, including John Dryden, Laurence Sterne, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and Washington Irving, and it functioned like a treasury, an anthology, or a book of beauties. The inside cover still contains a label from the Albany Academy addressed to Melville, which states his accomplishment: “To Herman Melville The first best in his class in—”; the remaining words are rubbed out. Thanks to a newspaper announcement published in the same year, Hershel Parker informs us that the missing, illegible words form the phrase “ciphering books,” and the outlines left behind confirm that information.1 The scratched-out words on the blank are rubbed so much that a reader can see the pale green of the endpaper underneath, and the page raises the question of why Melville, or another owner of the book, took such a displeasure in his scholastic success in “ciphering books.”2
The rest of Melville’s copy of The London Carcanet offers similar examples of erasure. On the next page of the volume, Melville inscribed several lines of poetry; some of the lines can be clearly discerned, but the ones written in pencil have faded over the years. These penciled lines include selections from a poem by the Irish writer Thomas Moore called “The [End Page 665] Kiss,” and several lines from a poem that cannot be made out. The partially erased lines indicate the heavy use of the text throughout the nineteenth century because the friction from the facing page as well as the readers’ fingers rubbed the pencil markings off the page.3 These two examples from Melville’s copy of The London Carcanet—the scratching of the award notice and the loss of the annotations—demonstrate the process of erasure on the material page. The former rubbing out involves a human agent that intentionally erased two specific words, whereas the latter example presents a slow degradation of the penciled lines that took place over years of use. As such, Melville’s prize book presents two varieties of erasure that might be found in any number of books in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What is noticeable about Melville’s book is not its exceptionality, but its conventionality. Understanding the erasure that appears in The London Carcanet and across the archive of early America requires an explanation of what erasure means, as well as the material processes involved in deletion.
Unlike other attributes of material texts—their binding, paratexts, marginalia, or format—erasure designates an in-between state of physicality that marks the shift from presence to absence. Material texts erode, degrade, and change shape, in both predictable and unanticipated ways. In The London Carcanet the missing words on the inside cover of the schoolbook and the partially faded verses exist only as remnants. Erasure presents verification that writing was formerly present on a sheet of paper (or another support for inscription) and has since disappeared. More than a simple omission, the process of erasure denotes the evidence or trace that we have of absent writing. Like the outline of the words “ciphering books” or the faint pencil markings in The London Carcanet, erasure tells its observers that something was there, but does not necessarily say what.
At the same time, erasure can also be a creative act. Because it portrays the instability of language and the movement from clarity to ambiguity, poststructuralist philosophers embraced its complicated semiotics. Jacques Derrida, for example, developed the concept of “under erasure” (sous rature). His idea emerged from a letter written by Martin Heidegger in which Heidegger considers the definition of “Being.” As a result of its problematic definition, Heidegger crosses the word out but allows both the deletion and the word to...