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  • A Mandate Fulfilled (1965–2017): The Writings of Herman Melville
  • Hershel Parker

On 27 October 2017, I could have lined up paperbacks of the fifteen volumes of The Writings of Herman Melville. After 13 February 2018, I could have lined up all the hardbacks on my upside-down mantel above the door to my study, this way:

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I have tried to fake two more spines for lost volumes that Melville completed, The Isle of the Cross (to go between Pierre and some of the short stories, ideally, or the next book, Israel Potter) and Poems (between The Confidence-Man and Battle-Pieces). Here is my rough seventeen-volume array:

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Why start off this way? Because few people who love Melville have come round to visualizing anything close to the trajectory of his literary career as he lived it, the career in which he tried to publish two lost volumes, The Isle of the Cross and Poems. The final section of my Historical Note to Published Poems was “The Trajectory of Melville’s Literary Career.” As I said in the Billy Budd volume (13, but the last of the fifteen to be published), “A major purpose of this Historical Note is to reveal more of the trajectory of Melville’s career by providing clearer glimpses of some of the arcs that have been unknown.” This forum gives me the opportunity to emphasize how much remains to be absorbed, even after we have found so much, and to acknowledge that much more will be discovered.

In the early summer of 1965, the Office of Education in the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare gave General Editor Harrison Hayford, Associate General Editor Hershel Parker, and Bibliographical Editor G. Thomas Tanselle a mandate to produce fifteen volumes of The Writings of Herman Melville, headquartered at Northwestern University and the Newberry Library (abbreviated NN). In addition to an authoritative text accompanied by textual and bibliographical evidence, the volumes were to include Historical Notes on such things as accounts of the composition, publication, reception, and later critical history of a book, most to be written by professors from other universities who had published on Melville.

As it turned out, Melville’s works did not present as many complicated textual situations as did some books in other editions of American writers undertaken about the same time. W. W. Greg’s “Rationale of Copy-Text” seemed to work well, although it was applied a little too arbitrarily once or twice (as in White-Jacket). Starting in 1964 Hayford and I had collated the American Moby-Dick against the English The Whale for the Norton Critical Edition (NCE), finding that some words in the English edition were Melville’s corrections of mistakes in the American text (where his handwriting was mis-copied) and a few were his additions. Making multiple collations was necessary, for if a collator blinked a dazzling Melville word in the English edition might go undetected. This is an American passage: “Nor, will the tragic dramatist who would depict mortal indomitableness in its fullest sweep and direct swing, ever forget a hint, incidentally so important in his art, as the one now alluded to.” Melville’s correction in the English edition, “direst swing,” ranks in significance with the correction he pointed out to Sophia Hawthorne in his essay on Mosses—not “same madness of vital truth” but “sane madness.”

For the 1967 NCE of Moby-Dick (which later flowed into the NN), Hayford and I made textual decisions on the basis of collations of the two early editions, aware all the while that Melville’s handwriting was regularly [End Page 15] misconstrued, even by his wife and sisters. In his contributions to the Literary World, we had Melville’s manuscript with which to correct the printed text, and in the “Extracts” in Moby-Dick, we saw in working on the NCE and in the still more comprehensive checking of Melville’s sources for the 1988 NN edition (done with Tanselle’s help) unsettling evidence of how many misreadings must have been in his books where no...


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