Melville Marginalia on Moby-Dick revealed

Did Herman Melville contemplate killing the white whale rather than Captain Ahab in his epic novel Moby-Dick?

Some Melville scholars argue it is a possibility, and now, Steven Olsen-Smith, AS ’99PhD, an associate professor of English at Boise State University, has found likely confirmation in recently recovered annotations in the margins of Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, Melville’s source book for Moby-Dick.

For example, using digital technology, infrared light and “squinting,” Olsen-Smith recovered erased margin notes, on pages 182 and 184, that describe the death throes of a whale and its killers dragging it away from the vortex created by its struggle. On page 182 are the recovered words “as when the water issuing [word unrecoverable] off from a fountain [word unrecoverable] & slowly lowers—so the dying spout of the whale.” Page 184’s margin note reads, “Killers dragging the whale away from the vortex….”

In a Feb. 17, 2006, interview in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Olsen-Smith says, “Moments of lightning striking were very few. Recovery took a long time. It was letter by letter, sometimes parts of letters.”

Melville was an avid reader with an extensive library, and as he read, he would make notes and underline passages. This marginalia has become the basis for much of what Melville scholars use to track his thought processes since many of his manuscripts and notes, especially for Moby-Dick, have not been recovered.

It was Melville’s practice of putting his thoughts into the margins of the books he read that prompted Olsen-Smith to try to resurrect Melville’s notes erased from the margins of Beale’s 1839 book, Melville’s guide into the world of whaling.

With the help of the staff at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, where the book is housed, Olsen-Smith found ways to extricate the lost words from its margins.

When Melville’s copy of the Beale book was obtained by the library in 1960, most of the check-marked passages, underlines and notes written in the margins of the book had been erased.

Over the years, the checked and underlined passages have been recovered, but Olsen-Smith was determined to resurrect the notes Melville scribbled into the margins of the book.

On the web site that Olsen-Smith created to allow the public to see Melville’s recovered marginalia [], he writes, “Thanks to generous support and assistance from the William Reese Co., Houghton Library and Boise State University, all of Melville’s markings and much of his annotations are now recovered and transcribed in the edition introduced by this essay.

“Along with documenting an array of unexplored borrowings from The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, the newly recovered marginalia reveal Melville’s original drafts of finely crafted allusions and similes, his development of thematic motifs and startling evidence about his changing conceptions for the plot of Moby-Dick.”

Olsen-Smith explains that Houghton arranged for the book to be transferred to Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, where infrared technology was used to assist in the recovery of several annotations.

He describes the process as raking natural and ultraviolet light across an erased annotation, illuminating it in varying degrees and bringing out different depths of Melville’s original pencil-indentations. Each degree illuminated different portions of the lettering, recovering entire words step by step through a sequence of illumination.

He also looked at magnified digital photographs of each erasure on a computer. By comparing the digital image with the original under magnification, he was able to transcribe more.

Melville’s handwritten manuscripts, letters and journals supplied clear handwriting samples, and “I was able to confirm or deny potential readings by a process of comparison,” Olsen-Smith says.

“Melville responded creatively to the sources he used for Moby-Dick.  We see him recording marginal notes that discuss sperm whale behavior in terms of Greek mythology and poetic metaphor.  We see him developing thematic motifs of violent confrontation, mortal infirmity and other conceptual approaches he would take to the subject matter of Moby-Dick,” Olsen-Smith says.

When Olsen-Smith entered the graduate program in English at UD, he intended to write his dissertation on poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. But an opportunity to work as a research assistant to Hershel Parker, now H. Fletcher Brown Professor Emeritus of English, changed Olsen-Smith’s direction. Parker was writing a biography of the 19th-Century American author Herman Melville.

“Hershel sent me far and wide to fulfill research tasks on Melville—the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, Harvard University, the Boston Public Library. Along with giving me specific tasks to perform for his biographical research, he would also suggest leads that I could pursue for publication…. It was not long before I started making significant discoveries of my own and began publishing the results under his guidance. His scholarly curiosity and enthusiasm were contagious, and I was quickly sucked into the Melville vortex,” he says.

When Olsen-Smith joined the Boise State University faculty in 2000, it was as a Melville/Walt Whitman scholar. He is general editor of Melville’s Marginalia Online, which includes the newly recovered notes from Beale’s book, and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in American literature and methods of literary research.

Olsen-Smith says it was more than Melville scholarship that attracted him to the author. “He asks the big questions and tackles the great problems of the human condition. Is there an all-good and all-powerful God in control of things, or are we alone with our morality in a universe that is indifferent to our sense of right and wrong, of justice and virtue? Are human beings naturally good, or is there some truth to the deeply American puritanical doctrine of original sin?  In a modern age marred by terrorism, warfare and controversial leadership, Melville’s searching concerns about life and death remain awesomely relevant to thoughtful human experience, particularly as they are worked out in his great masterwork Moby-Dick.”

Olsen-Smith also says he is fascinated by Melville’s lifelong pursuit of knowledge through rigorous reading and by the role books played in the composition of his works.

“By the time he died, Melville had assembled a library of 1,000 books, and these continue to turn up.  The new additions to knowledge make Melville scholarship an exciting, ongoing enterprise, and there is no end in sight,” Olsen-Smith says.

by Barbara Garrison