- A Typee Manuscript Word: Neither “chasten” Nor “xxxxxxxxx” But “character”
As with the handwriting of a good many people, that of Herman Melville can sometimes be difficult to read. An omitted letter may be the cause. Take, for example, the word “plant” in the concluding sentence of the draft fragment of Typee that the New York Public Library famously acquired in 1983. In John Bryant’s exemplary “fluid text” edition of that fragment in his 2008 Melville Unfolding (an edition also available online as part of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda Literature and Culture Collection), facsimiles of Melville’s written pages are paired with Bryant’s own transcription pages. The comparison pages enable readers to confirm or, in a small number of cases, question Bryant’s transcription. There can be no question that his page 433 transcription of the last phrase of this sentence—“this most imperfectly constituted plant of ours”— faithfully records (with the exception of “constituted” for Melville’s handwritten “constitued” with its omitted third “t”) what Melville wrote at the end of the verso of the last surviving manuscript leaf.1 The same seven words (including “constituted”) appear in Robert A. Sandberg’s transcription of the fragment in the long-awaited volume 13 of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville’s writings (972), Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Uncompleted Writings, which appeared in 2017. The first published transcription of those words appeared in my transcription of the final four leaves of the fragment in “Censorship and Symbolism in Typee” (1987), except for the word “planet” which is not what Melville wrote but is, I assume, what he meant by “plant” (7). Bryant does observe that Ketterer’s “transcription varies from mine, in several, mostly minor instances” (Melville Unfolding 270 n3). He is being generous. There are five instances where I now realise that I clearly misread Melville’s words and he and Sandberg have correctly read them. I misread “arder” instead of “arm,” “protecting” instead of “preserving,” “simple” instead of “single,” “natives” instead of “various,” and “potential” instead of “political” (see Ketterer, “Censorship” 7; Bryant, Melville Unfolding 429, line 20, 433, lines 3, 30, 33, and 34; and Sandberg 971–72). I do, however venture that in what precedes “with one another in the arder of their attentions” [End Page 88] my and Sandberg’s “vie” is probably correct (Ketterer 6, Sandberg 969) and Bryant’s “rise ”(421, line 25) is probably incorrect. The handwritten word has only three letters; it ends in “ie”; there is no “s” between the “i” and the “e.” My view is that that word looks like “vie” and “vie” fits the sense better than “rise.” It is of course possible to try out each of the consonant alternatives to “v” in case there is a resulting word that does fit better than “vie.” I submit that there is not.
With these variant readings as cautionary illustrative background, I here want to concentrate on what seems to be another instance where my reading differs from both Bryant’s and Sandberg’s readings. What Bryant transcribes (speculatively) as the seven letter “chasten?” (Melville Unfolding 343, line 36) and Sandberg records as a nine-letter word that is indecipherable (950), I argue is the transitive verb “character,” in the slightly archaic sense of “represent.” The images opposite reproduce the beginning of Melville’s draft chapter 11 (Typee chapter 13) as it appears in Bryant’s Melville Unfolding.
Here is Sandberg’s transcription (with the nine “x”s standing for the word that he deemed indeciperable):
/ Amidst the novelty of [the canceled] scenes & incidents much of / the same nature with those I have described, a week / passed away almost imperceptibly. The natives / actuated by some mysterious impulse [canceled letter, possibly an a] day [next word inserted] after / day redoubled [the ed written over ing] the assiduity of their attentions & / like the heavenly visitants of Lot of old we seemed / in their eyes worthy of their utmost devotions.-- / Their manner towards us was unaccount- able,-- / [pencil mark in left margin] Surly thought I they would not [next word interlined with a caret] thus [next (undeciphered) word underlined lightly in pencil] xxxxxxxxx their...