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  • Editing Melville in Manuscript
  • John Bryant
“Billy Budd, Sailor” and Other Uncompleted Writings: “Billy Budd, Sailor,” “Weeds and Wildings,” “Parthenope,” Uncollected Prose, Uncollected Poetry
Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 2017. xii + 998 pp.

The publication of “Billy Budd, Sailor” and Other Uncompleted Writings, volume thirteen in the fifteen-volume Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville—and the last volume of the series to be published—is an occasion for celebration, three times over: first, for the completion of the edition itself, a project that has become a universally admired model of eclectic editing and high editorial standards; and, second, for the appearance of this long-awaited volume, which, more than any other in the NN series, guides us through the realm of Melville’s manuscripts, his creative process, and, in many respects, the very essence of his art.

This new and final publication is also an occasion to revisit what an edition is, how it is made, and why. You might think it would be easy to issue a reliable set of Melville texts, but it has taken fifty years for the NN Edition to reach its projected endpoint. To do it right takes time and people. Someone must assemble an archive of textual and critical materials. Someone must gather a team of scholars, graduate students, librarians, and bibliographers to perform research over several decades. Someone must coordinate the analysis of variant texts (and each Melville work has them). Someone must compose historical notes. And someone must work with a publisher to squire each volume through the press. From the beginning, as early as 1964, General Editor [End Page 107] Harrison Hayford initiated and coordinated these efforts, built the archive at the Newberry Library, arranged for the publisher Northwestern University Press, and assembled the teams of scholars. Across decades, Associate General Editor Hershel Parker (who became General Editor in 2001) and Bibliographical Editor G. Thomas Tanselle made contributions to the historical and textual notes, respectively. Beginning in 1981, Executive Editor Alma MacDougall supervised the crucial vetting of texts and notes. Over the past fifty years, a range of associate editors—among them Walter Bezanson, Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, Dennis Berthold, Brian Higgins, Howard Horsford, Lynn Horth, Richard Colles Johnson, Robert Madison, Robert Ryan, Robert Sandberg, Merton M. Sealts, Jr., and Donald Yannella—have helped to bring the Northwestern-Newberry Edition to completion.

Before registering my third hurrah, let me make one unqualified observation: not since the publication of the 1962 University of Chicago Press edition of Billy Budd, edited by Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., has any single collection of Melville’s prose and poetry cast so much focused light on the dark period of Melville’s last four decades. Granted, in recent decades, many have labored individually and together, and successfully so, to bring sharper critical attention to Melville’s later career as a poet, some focusing even on the lesser-studied works published in this volume, formerly referred to as Melville’s “late manuscripts” and here more aptly called his “uncompleted writings.” But now, in one volume, we have the overview that encompasses Melville’s persistent creative drive into his final years, from as early as 1857 to his death in 1891.

Uncompleted Writings offers close to 300 pages of reliable texts for the projects Melville left unfinished on his desk and never published in his lifetime. (The book ends, without explanation, with a grab bag of three “Related Documents,” a puzzling distraction from an otherwise compelling volume.) Chief among the volume’s offerings is a new version of Billy Budd (a modification of Hayford and Sealts’s 1962 edition). Found elsewhere in a section on “Uncollected Prose” are gems of varying luster waiting for deeper critical analysis. Best known of these is “The Story of Daniel Orme,” about a grizzled old salt, which like Billy Budd might have been part of a prose-and-poem work, perhaps at one point the kind of work included in John Marr and Other Sailors. But quite different and equally...


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