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  • The Postwar American Poet's LibraryAn Archival Consideration with Charles Olson and the Maud/Olson Library
  • Mary Catherine Kinniburgh (bio)

Book history follows the principle of an entropic universe: cohesion succumbs to eventual diffusion. The flow of historical materials between people, institutions, and spaces renders our records "atomized, pulled apart, stored in separate containers, making it much harder for us to inhabit coherent stories, to make sense of ourselves, our history, and the times we live in."1 In the mid-twentieth century, the poet Charles Olson came to a similar conclusion during his scholarship on Herman Melville and in particular, Melville's reading practices. Because of financial troubles, after his 1891 death Melville's family sold his richly annotated library to dealers all over the East Coast. Beginning in 1933, Olson began to identify and gather these books from booksellers. In reconstituting this collection, he was one of the first scholars to encounter Melville's reading notes—sometimes mere "x" marks in the margin, but as in the case of his copies of Shakespeare, sometimes revealingly annotated.2 During his graduate work at Harvard's doctoral program in American Civilization from 1936 until 1939, Olson analyzed these annotations alongside Melville's research on the New England whaling industry, and argued for their fundamental connection to Moby Dick (1851).3 Harvard scholar F.O. Matthiessen (who brought Olson to Harvard) praised Olson's 1937 essay, "Lear and Moby-Dick" in his classic American Renaissance.4

Olson completed a book-length draft of his scholarship on Melville's reading practices and library in 1940, placing this material aside as he joined the Office of War Information in 1942 as the Assistant Chief of the Foreign Language Division, a post he resigned in 1944 in protest of government censorship policies. Olson's manuscript was later published as Call Me Ishmael in 1947,5 and he turned his comprehensive list of Melville's books over to Merton Sealts, who completed Melville's Reading (1948)6 by building [End Page 206] on Olson's inventories.7 During the 1950s height of anti-Communist panic, Cyril Lionel Robert James composed Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953)8 while detained for months on Ellis Island under political suspicions of subversion. In Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, James explored the political dimensions of Moby Dick and Melville, particularly on the shifting edges of totalitarianism and democracy that became so immediately relevant while he was detained. While Olson's and James's fates were radically different, their shared interest marks the political and historical relevance of Melville at the time—at once neglected by mainstream scholarship and politically salient, if not downright subversive.

In light of this, Olson's attempts to physically regather the books of this little-understood author may have raised eyebrows at the time—though at a 2019 auction, a lot containing two of Melville's annotated books cleared one hundred thousand dollars. Yet Olson's collecting proved essential to scholars who recognized Melville's literary merits. David Herd, in the introduction to Contemporary Olson, describes Olson's fundamental contribution as no less than "alter[ing] the field of Melville studies, both as archivist (re-assembling Melville's library) and through his radical re-contextualization of Moby-Dick."9 This "re-contextualization" takes place both materially and conceptually, setting the stage for a methodological lineage; Olson's own approach to Melville would become a template for scholars to one day address The Maximus Poems through Olson's own sprawling piles of books. As Ann Charters notes in her Olson/Melville: A Study in Affinity (1968), which traces Olson's approach to Melville, Olson's work amounts to more than that of a "scholar or academic critic," but more dramatically, a "basic restructuring of the entire human universe."10 As she and others have argued, Olson's utilization of Melville, books, and bibliography as part of a larger cosmological and poetic project is one of the hallmarks of his influence. Projects such as Richard Grossinger's Olson-Melville Sourcebooks (1976),11 Albert Glover and Jack Clarke's decades-long chapbook or fascicle series, A Curriculum of...


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