Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Collecting Herman Melville

Collecting Herman Melville - An essay detailing the difficulty and allure in collecting works by Melville. Contains biographical information as well as information on his works and their popularity through the last century.

From the site:

Nineteen-ninety-one marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Herman Melville. Numerous observances were held to commemorate the work of that remarkable American writer, so widely forgotten a century ago and so widely celebrated today. The centenary was another step in the evolving attitude toward the man and his work. The re-evaluation of Melville's literary career began even before his death, and has grown in ever-widening circles ever since. Today it is a healthy small industry, especially in the academic arena, where biographers, critics and interpreters, as well as biographers of critics and critics of biographers, assiduously work away. In this whole imposing edifice of Melville studies, booksellers and book collectors have played a role, sometimes aiding scholarship and sometimes paralleling it. And, at the same time, intentionally or not, they have shaped some part of the way Melville is read today.

I came to be a collector of Melville, and hence a participant in the modern Melville world, purely as an amateur. Hearing Robert Penn Warren read from Battle-Pieces inspired me to read further than Moby-Dick, and I worked my way through the works from Typee to the late poems before beginning to accumulate seriously. My reading was made easier by having acquired, for starters, the scholarly Melville material from the library of the Yale professor, Norman Holmes Pearson. This gave me a wealth of secondary material, including all of the standard biographies and early criticism. My own reference library provided many of the sources for the activities of my predecessors in Melville collecting. These aided greatly both in pursuing Melville material and in looking at the history of collecting him. In the case of Melville, there is a strong parallel between the revival of general scholarly interest in him and interest in Melville collecting. In both instances, the modern "Melville revival" dates from 1919, both the centenary of his birth and beginning of a more disillusioned, deterministic, post-war age.

Melville was never completely ignored by intelligent readers during his decades of eclipse. In England, especially, Moby-Dick found numerous readers in the late nineteenth century and first decade of the twentieth century, most notably among the Pre-Raphaelites and such writers as W.H. Hudson and Virginia Woolf. It is safe to say that his general literary stock was far higher among English readers than among Americans during this period. At home, Arthur Stedman made a valiant effort to revive Melville around the time of his death in 1891, republishing Typee, Omoo, White Jacket, and Moby-Dick, but the publisher went bankrupt, and the remaining sheets were sold to an English publisher. Typee seems to have never gone out of print at Harper's during Melville's lifetime, even if its sales were minimal. Moby-Dick saw further republication in England, including in Everyman's Library, before the First World War.

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