- Harrison Hayford and the Melville Edition: A Student’s Perspective, 1978–1981
I went to Northwestern riding the bow wave of the NN Confidence-Man (1984). Hayford was all astir with Confidence Mannerisms—jokes, observations, world view—all in the orbit of P. W. and No Trust. It was a great time for literary skepticism. Israel Potter was finishing up (to be published in 1982), and some of us had spent time in the catacombs of the Newberry Library pouring over volumes of the Penny Cyclopædia, making “hit” after “hit” in those pre-Google days of searching for sources through intuition and diction. But Israel Potter lacked the postmodern appeal of The Confidence-Man and simply was not the sort of thing you quoted in everyday conversation.
Survivors of the second generation of Melville critics like Leon Howard and Howard Vincent filtered through Evanston, trailing clouds of scholarship. There was an overlap among Melvilleans and Emersonians, and we graduate students oscillated accordingly, pitting Mark Winsome against genial misanthropes over sprawling sandwiches at Great Expectations Bookshop on Foster, where Hayford ordered his textbooks and where musty piles of Hendricks House editions of The Confidence-Man and Clarel took their last stand.
My wonderful friend the late John Seelye slunk around the edges of the Northwestern-Newberry edition like Wile E. Coyote eyeing the Roadrunner. He didn’t approve of all that energy wasted on textual editing but preferred facsimile editions. His own 1968 edition of The Confidence-Man is a good example. “But I like to do it,” I expostulated, and years later Seelye made it possible for me to edit several Penguin Classics.
Younger Melvilleans passed through as well. Bob Lee taught a spate at Northwestern, as did Henry Binder. The combination of Binder’s revelations and The Confidence-Man led to some of us wondering if the whole proposition of the Center for Editions of American Authors (later Center for Scholarly Editions) was not an avatar of the favorite steamer Fidèle.
“What’s to prevent it? Hayford would have quipped. [End Page 31]
Hayford had a very low tolerance for the literary confidence men who cheated on their editing or attempted to profit from the editions (the price of all early editions went up as editors scurried to acquire the copies necessary for reconstructing the growth of texts). But he unfailingly supported the wildest of critics if their intentions at least were pure. He did not waste time arguing with the errant but tried to help them present their cases in at least their best light.
In the world of The Confidence-Man, we immersed ourselves in the literature of the American west—a focus that seems to have given way to Indigenous Studies in American literary study at large, but which gave the wherewithal and impetus to (for instance) the monograph Reading James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Prairie” that Karen Madison and I published as recently as 2017. Hayford planted germinous seeds.
Hayford had the phrenological quality of “Individuality,” the ability to discern the essential nature of something. Any course Hayford taught might be expected to include Moby-Dick; at this time several also included The Confidence-Man. Everything in class revolved around the text currently being edited. Thus the Emerson we read was “Experience,” not Nature. Hayford expressed a high regard for Tristram Shandy and Sartor Resartus, so it was not unexpected that we would view The Confidence-Man as the world out of clothes or embrace as coherent a story without a conclusion.
When you took a class from Hayford you were—if you were a Melvillean—expected to work on the edition and publish the results of directed research as you went. I learned to appreciate the art and value of the scholarly note: the newly discovered fact without any gloss of “significance” or “meaning.” Melville scholars were expected to know why something was important by looking at it, as if it were the jazz of literary study.
The most important of the new Melvilleans at Northwestern University when I was there had very different paths that led to the final Northwestern-Newberry volume. One, Alma MacDougall, wasn’t even...