Two of my favorite (and most useful) discoveries in the library stacks lately have been a pair of works by Jay Leyda, The Melville Log and The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. There are plenty of biographical chronologies available that list the activities of major writers more or less day by day, but they are pretty soulless. Leyda's books are anything but. They are immense books (each two large volumes), clearly constructed out of love and obsession, that flesh out these two strange careers with generous quotations from letters, journals, reviews, and other contemporary documents, not only from the writers themselves, but from seemingly everyone in their orbit. If you want to know Melville's recorded expenses for his 1858 lecture tour (including charges for ale, a cigar, and the Police Gazette), they are in the Log. If you want to read a letter between two administrators asking that he be protected from dismissal from his position as a Customs inspector, that's there too. But there's little of Leyda. Both books read like thorough biographies in which all signs of the biographer have disappeared, except those of his industry.
I had thought of Leyda mainly as a film scholar, and indeed that is what he was best known for (what other scholarly book on Melville would carry this dedication: "This book was begun as a birthday present for my teacher, Sergei Eisenstein"?). But his labors on Melville and Dickinson can only have been matched by a few. A rare autobiographical hint at his work on the Log comes at the very end, in a bibliographical note called "The Endless Study," which by listing the sources Leyda did not consult, paints a fairly extraordinary portrait of all those he did. It's so hilariously thorough (and I think knowingly so) that I'm tempted to quote it in full here. We'll see how my typing stamina holds up:
When brought together, the bibliography intended for this book added too many pages to an already cumbersome work. I must be content to say that, to the best of my knowledge, all materials in print relevant to Melville were consulted, though my reading of criticisms printed since his death may have been less thorough. Printed materials quoted in the text are identified there, with further information, when necessary, given in the locations of textual sources.
It seemed better to use this space for a listing of my sins of omission, numerous though they may be. These are the things I am conscious of having left undone--the errands I should have run, the unfollowed hints, the pursuits still waiting for a hunter. Although the Log offers a maximum number of clues for further investigation, there are certainly important clues and materials left behind, unnoticed by me, in every collection searched, whether public (such as the bottomless riches of the Gansevoort-Lansing Collection) or such concentrated private collections as the whaling libraries of Paul C. Nicholson and M.M. Armstrong. Here are some of the waiting jobs:
There is more to be learned about the childhood through the papers of early family friends, doctors, ministers, teachers, and business associates of Allan Melvill, so it would have been very worthwhile to look for the descendants of Caroline Yates Taylor, Daniel P. Parker, Joseph Greenleaf, and others mentioned in those years. (Though the family of the Rev'd Robert Swan does not now live in Pittenweem, it should be somewhere in Scotland.)
Whole branches of the family were left untraced, merely through my discouragement with the known destruction of family papers. Where are the papers of the Peebles? Van Schaicks? Of the D'Wolfs? And some relatives have been left total mysteries--for example, cousin Doolittle, the Lenox expressman. A main hope in outlining the family tree of the Melvills, Gansevoorts, and Shaws (among the biographical sketches) is that this may lead to other relevant archives.
The newspapers of each port touched by one of M's ships should have been examined for the period while the Acushnet, the United States, the Cortes, etc., were in port. A knowledge of Spanish would have encouraged this, perhaps.
Despite his many names and peculiar talents, the career of John B. Troy before and after Tahiti should be traceable.
No real search was made for Franklin D. Roosevelt's trunk of ships' logs--reported missing on 30 July 1947 by the Director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park.
Luther Fox of Rensselaerville, N.Y., was too close to a Melville neighborhood to be ignored either before or after Honolulu. If Fox is found to have worked on an Erie Canal boat, Steelkilt will have been located.
Where are the papers and journals of M's messmates and traveling companions--of Hubbard, Cunningham, Mr & Miss Rousse? Where are the descendants of Herman Melville Greene and Herman Melville Russ?
I left two places of prime importance unvisited and unsearched: Galena and Gansevoort. And I did not go to England. And the promises of East Hampton, Long Island, were never tested.
Certain newspapers were not carefully examined, even such promising ones as Cramer's Daily Wisconsin; and vital years of the Berkshire Eagle, now missing from the office file, remain unfound and uninspected.
There is more published work by M than has been identified--there is surely more in The Albany Microscope, and there are too many later suggestions (essays of the Mardi period, the excursion to West Point, perhaps even "Agatha") to ignore this probability.
The papers of those supporters of M (outside the Duyckinck circle), such as Willis and Curtis, should have been more persistently sought, along with the papers of friends on the edge of literature, such as Doctors Lockwood and Gardner. And it seems unthinkable that no more remains to be discovered about the life and ideas of E.J.M. Fly, E.C. Hine, Col. Rankin, Alexander Bradford, William E. Cramer, Dr Oscar De Wolf.
More hard work should have gone into the identification of M's reviewers, both friendly and unfriendly, to see what lies behind their anonymity, and the personal papers of identified reviewers (such as Briggs, Bourne, Ripley, Jones) should have been located and examined for further information.
With the voyages of Thomas Melville occurring during M's first creative years, all his ships & experiences should be more fully investigated, as a source possibly drawn on by his brother.
It is merely another symptom of incompleteness that the only foreign language comments on M should be from France, a country that did not (as far as it is known) publish his works during the author's lifetime, while the reviews in those countries that did publish translations have not been located--though they certainly exist. Many contemporary translations may remain to be discovered.
I have left the "Powell Papers" as much a mystery as I found them; the second volume of his Living Authors of America, announced by Stringer & Townsend for publication in 1850, with a chapter on Melville, could not have vanished so totally. Newspaper serial publication is a probability.
The trickle through the autograph market of M's letters to his American publishers and editors indicates the chance that a fuller picture of his relations with Wiley & Putnam, Harper's, etc., is yet to be uncovered.
Despite the almost accidental finds of reprintings (as far scattered as Buffalo and Salem) of M's anonymous periodical writing, no systematic search of all American newspapers was made.
I did not employ a maximum effort to examine the Special Collections of Columbia University for Melville references.
With the number of Melville's friends and relatives whose lives ended at the Bloomingdale and other asylums, the archives of those institutions should have been examined--correspondence, visitor records, case histories--if any of this material has been preserved.
A conspicuous failure: my inability to trace the originals of those Melville letters to Hawthorne that we are still obliged to use through the published transcripts by Hawthorne's children.
Who wrote and syndicated "The Career of Mocha Dick" (copyright 1892)? Is it a fake?
The movements of Stanwix Melville, especially in California, were not too secret to be traced; the archives of the hospital in which he died were not destroyed in the San Francisco fire of 1906.
Hudson, Loti, Conrad--they were certainly touched off by a spark of Herman Melville, but when and how, exactly?
Perhaps this book should have been more rightly named--Melville: The Endless Study.
That is indeed the whole thing! And after typing it I searched a little further about the book and found, unsurprisingly, that many others have appreciated Leyda's work before me. To read more, see posts by Dan Visel (the source of the page spread image above) and John Latta, both of whom point out that the book itself is organized according to the philosophy of Eisenstein's beloved cinematic montage: placing things next to each other so that bridges across them might be built. And I also came across the blog of Hershel Parker, Melville's indefatigable biographer, whose two-volume opus (with wonderful cover illustrations by Sendak!) I just happened to purchase at a library sale; about the blog, I can only say: I cannot be the first person to compare Parker to Captain Ahab.