literary history

Melville’s Scrivener: Elizabeth Shaw Melville, Bibliography, and Literary History

by guest contributor Adam Fales

Who, in short, authored Congreve? Whose concept of reader do these forms of the text imply: the author’s, the actor’s, the printer’s, or the publisher’s? And what of the reader?

D. F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (1986)

When Herman Melville died in 1891, he was hardly the literary giant we read today. He spent the end of his life working as a customs inspector and writing poetry that few read. His unacknowledged death made his posthumous recovery more dramatic, when literary critics like Raymond Weaver, Carl Van Doren, and Lewis Mumford brought him back to scholarly attention thirty years later, in what we now call the “Melville Revival.” However, recent scholars like Kathleen Kier, Elizabeth Renker, and Jordan Stein have shown how the dominant narrative of Melville’s singular “Revival” erases the contributions of homosexuals and women to Melville’s legacy. These debates reconsider what and whose labor scholars acknowledge in the historical narratives they tell.

Bibliography—the study of books as material and cultural objects—is the approach most attuned to this labor. Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography (1972) shows how scholarly interpretation of a text relies on an understanding of the conditions in which it was produced. Through bibliography, Gaskell and his student D. F. McKenzie show the need to understand texts as a series of material changes, which are subsequently reabsorbed and reinterpreted by readers whose relationship to the printed word changes over time. McKenzie’s approach to bibliography also attends to the multiplicity of actors that intersect in the production and circulation of any given text. Whereas these analyses often focus on the printing-house, bibliography also complicates the way scholars understand the creation, copying, and correction of a manuscript. Following McKenzie, I use the case of Herman Melville to reconsider how we segregate the labor of “authors, actors, printers, and publishers.” Bibliography’s perspective shows that these various agents are actually collaborators, whose contributions make up the printed text, as we know it. If we ask, “who, in short, authored” Herman Melville, we must look beyond Melville himself for the answer.

Divisions of bibliographic labor imprinted themselves on the life of Herman’s wife, Elizabeth Shaw Melville. She describes his literary production in a May 5, 1848 letter to her stepmother:

I should write you a longer letter but I am very busy today copying and cannot spare the time so you must excuse it and all mistakes. I tore my sheet in two by mistake thinking it was my copying (for we only write on one side of the page) and if there is no punctuation marks you must make them yourself for when I copy I do not punctuate at all but leave it for a final revision for Herman. I have got so used to write without I cannot always think of it. (quoted in Renker, 139-40)


Elizabeth Shaw Melville: copyist, editor, and wife of Herman Melville. Wikimedia Commons.

Written while she copied her husband’s manuscript for his third novel Mardi, this letter documents not just Elizabeth’s unacknowledged labor but also how that labor impacted her life. Herman’s practice of having Elizabeth copy without punctuation affects her writing style, as she proceeds through long, winding, unpunctuated sentences. For many Melville scholars, this letter illuminates Herman’s writing process, but it also illustrates Elizabeth’s own intimate involvement in the production of these texts. She was Melville’s closest reader, deciphering his messy script, clarifying his corrections, and making the other changes necessary for his work to be consumed, first by a printer, and then by a reading public. Her letter notes that the text underwent a “final revision” by Herman, but Elizabeth’s labor frames scholarly understanding not just of Melville’s textual history but of much of his life’s work as well.

Elizabeth was the first Melvillean. Beyond copying Herman’s work in his life, she maintained his literary reputation after his death. Her labor exhibited itself in the subtlest ways. On the back flyleaf of the Melville family’s copy of The Piazza Tales, someone (likely Elizabeth) wrote the original publication dates of all the stories collected in the book. This book by Herman, annotated by Elizabeth, illustrates the intertwined nature of their shared bibliographic production, and the importance of this shared labor in the reception and study of Herman Melville. This book shows how Elizabeth’s labor exists in a tradition of note-taking and information management that bibliographic scholars like Ann Blair and Richard Yeo recognize as intellectual work in its own right. Considered within these histories, Elizabeth’s labor is a cumulative practice, in which textual copying establishes an expertise that she draws from to edit later editions of those texts. While Elizabeth had no monographs, scholarly editions, or novels of her own, her labor made those that would come after her possible.

Kathleen Kier shows how Elizabeth made deals, prepared texts, and supplied biographical information for the posthumous editions of Herman’s early novels Typee and Omoo that Arthur Stedman would publish. Even though scholars like Merton Sealts give Stedman the majority of the credit for this initial revival, Kier calls attention to correspondence that illustrates the financial and editorial support that Elizabeth put into this project, which ultimately failed due to a lack of reciprocal support from Stedman. Drawing from her invaluable knowledge as Herman’s copyist, Elizabeth edited the text of Typee, “so that the United States Book Company’s edition might better be called Stedman’s and hers” (Kier 76). Kier notes that this edition was Melville’s most widely read work prior to his scholarly revival, but Elizabeth’s role in its creation went largely underappreciated until much later.


Part of a manuscript page for Typee. Credit: Digital Humanities Quarterly.

Scholars have largely misconstrued Elizabeth’s role in Herman’s life and work. Following the work of Merton Sealts’s Melville’s Reading (1948-50), Wilson Walker Cowen sought to transcribe every known instance of marginal notes in books owned and borrowed by Melville for his Harvard dissertation Melville’s Marginalia (1965). Contributing to the ongoing recreation of an archive of Herman’s life and work, Cowen’s scholarship resembled Elizabeth’s information management. Rather than recognize their shared project, Cowen came into conflict with Elizabeth, when he encountered some erased marginal notes. Concluding that “[p]ersonal feelings and reactions to women make up the balance of the erased material,” he leverages this “balance” to conclude that one of Herman’s female relatives was the culprit (xix). He blames Elizabeth. In this way, Cowen notes Elizabeth’s destructive force in the Melvillean archive, but he hardly acknowledges her productive contributions. For example, Elizabeth Renker considers how Elizabeth protected Herman’s posthumous reputation through erasing this same marginalia. Considered this way, erasure was an act of preservation.

Herman’s reputation was rebuilt after his death, whether through Elizabeth’s “revival that failed” or the later, scholarly revival that receives credit. This posthumous scholarship frames how authors like Herman Melville are approached, studied, and discussed. Renker and Kier not only recover Elizabeth’s forgotten role but also reclaim that role’s positive contribution, as they reconsider the role of labor in literary history. Their approach aligns with the insights of bibliography, in a similar manner to Barbara Heritage’s recent work. Heritage shows how bibliography enhances literary analysis “with a focus on the actual, historical copies of books being read,” but bibliography also reveals the invisible labor that produces those “actual, historical” books. Elizabeth’s labor not only preserved her husband’s legacy in print but also provides the material basis for Melville studies. The scholars we consider responsible for the “Melville Revival” depended upon Elizabeth’s lifelong efforts to organize, edit, and transcribe her husband’s life and writing. As the unacknowledged precursor to mid-century Melville scholars, she not only did the same work of copying and information management that made the careers of Sealts and Cowen (the first experts on Herman’s handwriting, after Elizabeth), but she also made the editions from which Weaver, Van Doren, and Mumford would draw in their initial revival of Herman Melville.

It’s hardly a coincidence that the figures erased from literary history resemble those that have also been excluded from the academy (this account elides the people of color traditionally excluded as well). Bibliography shows the contribution of everyone involved in the production, circulation, and reception of texts, recovering those erased from traditional scholarly narratives. Elizabeth’s fate resonates with the recent #ThanksForTyping, which notes the unnamed women “thanked” in acknowledgements sections for typing their husbands’ manuscripts (but whose work, like Elizabeth’s, often went beyond mere copying). Cowen thanks his unnamed wife, who “helped with everything” (iv). But when his dissertation was revived and revised as the ongoing Melville’s Marginalia Online, the staff page lists sixty-seven names. Elizabeth is just one figure we can recover, in the ongoing transformation of academic practices fomented by the Digital Humanities. An approach from bibliography hardly provides clear-cut divisions between author and scrivener; it messes up neat narratives of singular American authors recovered by mid-century scholars. However, bibliography calls attention to the labor that produces these texts. If the answers from that perspective are not straightforward, they might instead be more just.

Elizabeth left Herman’s manuscript without punctuation. Perhaps, then, our labor begins where we fill in the question marks.

Adam Fales grew up in Kansas and graduated from Fordham University. He is currently a digital scholarship intern as well as a manager at Book Culture in New York City. You can find him on Twitter @SupplyanddeMan. He typed this article himself, but couldn’t have done so without the support of friends, instructors, and his editor Erin Schreiner at JHIBlog

Stefan Collini’s Ford Lectures: ‘History in English criticism, 1919-1961’

by guest contributor Joshua Bennett

A distinctive feature of the early years of the Cambridge English Tripos (examination system), in which close “practical criticism” of individual texts was balanced by the study of the “life, literature, and thought” surrounding them, was that the social and intellectual background to literature acquired an equivalent importance to that of literature itself. Stefan Collini’s Ford Lectures, in common with his essay collections, Common Reading and Common Writing, have over the past several weeks richly demonstrated that the literary critics who were largely the products of that Tripos can themselves be read and historicized in that spirit. Collini, whose resistance to the disciplinary division between the study of literature and that of intellectual history has proved so fruitful over many years, has focused on six literary critics in his lecture series: T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, L. C. Knights, Basil Willey, William Empson, and Raymond Williams. All, with the exception of Eliot, were educated at Cambridge; and all came to invest the enterprise of literary criticism with a particular kind of missionary importance in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. Collini has been concerned to explore the intellectual and public dynamics of that mission, by focusing on the role of history in these critics’ thought and work. His argument has been twofold. First, he has emphasized that the practice of literary criticism is always implicitly or explicitly historical in nature. The second, and more intellectual-historical, element of his case has consisted in the suggestion that literary critics offered a certain kind of “cultural history” to the British public sphere. By using literary and linguistic evidence in order to unlock the “whole way of life” of previous forms of English society, and to reach qualitative judgements about “the standard of living” in past and present, critics occupied territory vacated by professional historians at the time, while also contributing to wider debates about twentieth-century societal conditions.

Collini’s lectures did not attempt to offer a full history of the development of English as a discipline in the twentieth century. Nevertheless, they raised larger questions for those interested in the history of the disciplines both of English and History in twentieth-century Britain, and what such histories can reveal about the wider social and cultural conditions in which they took shape. How should the findings from Collini’s penetrating microscope modify, or provide a framework for, our view of these larger organisms?

First, a question arises as to the relationship between the kind of historical criticism pursued by Collini’s largely Cantabrigian dramatis personae, and specific institutions and educational traditions. E. M. W. Tillyard’s mildly gossipy memoir of his involvement in the foundation of the Cambridge English Tripos, published in 1958 under the title of The Muse Unchained, recalls an intellectual environment of the 1910s and 1920s in which the study of literature was exciting because it was a way of opening up the world of ideas. The English Tripos, he held, offered a model of general humane education—superior to Classics, the previous such standard—through which the ideals of the past might nourish the present. There is a recognizable continuity between these aspirations, and the purposes of the cultural history afterwards pursued under the auspices of literary criticism by the subsequent takers of that Tripos whom Collini discussed—several of whom began their undergraduate studies as historians.

But how far did the English syllabuses of other universities, and the forces driving their creation and development, also encourage a turn towards cultural history, and how did they shape the kind of cultural history that was written? Tillyard’s account is notably disparaging of philological approaches to English studies, of the kind which acquired and preserved a considerably greater prominence in Oxford’s Honour School of “English Language and Literature”—a significant pairing—from 1896. Did this emphasis contribute to an absence of what might be called “cultural-historical” interest among Oxford’s literary scholars, or alternatively give it a particular shape? Widening the canvas beyond Oxbridge, it is surely also important to heed the striking fact that England was one of the last countries in Europe in which widespread university interest in the study of English literature took shape. If pressed to single out any one individual as having been responsible for the creation of the “modern” form of the study of English Literature in the United Kingdom—a hazardous exercise, certainly—one could do worse than to alight upon the Anglo-Scottish figure of Herbert Grierson. Grierson, who was born in Shetland in 1866 and died in 1960, was appointed to the newly-created Regius Chalmers Chair of English at Aberdeen in 1894, before moving to take up a similar position in Edinburgh in 1915. In his inaugural lecture at Edinburgh, Grierson argued for the autonomy of the study of English literature from that of British history. As Cairns Craig has recently pointed out, however, an evaluative kind of “cultural history” is unmistakably woven into his writings on the poetry of John Donne—which for Grierson prefigured the psychological realism of the modern novel—and his successors. For Grierson, the cultural history of the modern world was structured by a conflict between religion, humanism, and science—evident in the seventeenth century, and in the nineteenth—to which literature itself offered, in the present day, a kind of antidote. Grierson’s conception of literature registered his own difficulties with the Free Church religion of his parents, as well, perhaps, as the abiding influence of the broad Scottish university curriculum—combining study of the classics, philosophy, psychology and rhetoric—which he had encountered as an undergraduate prior to the major reforms of Scottish higher education begun in 1889. Did the heroic generation of Cambridge-educated critics, then, create and disseminate a kind of history inconceivable without the English Tripos? Or did they offer more of a local instantiation of a wider “mind of Britain”? A general history of English studies in British universities, developing for example some of the themes discussed in William Whyte’s recent Redbrick, is certainly a desideratum.

Collini partly defined literary critics’ cultural-historical interests in contradistinction to a shadowy “Other”: professional historians, who were preoccupied not by culture but by archives, charters and pipe-rolls. As Collini pointed out, the word “culture”—and so the enterprise of “cultural history”—has admitted of several senses in different times and in the usage of different authors. The kind of cultural history which critics felt they could not find among professional historians, and which accordingly they themselves had to supply, centered on an understanding of lived experience in the past; and on identifying the roots—and so, perhaps, the correctives—to their present discontents. This raises a second interesting problem, the answer to which should be investigated rather than assumed: what exactly became of “cultural history” in these senses within the British historical profession between around 1920 and 1960?

Peter Burke and Peter Ghosh have alike argued that the growing preoccupation of academic history with political history in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries acted regrettably to constrict that universal application of historical method to all facets of human societies which the Enlightenment first outlined in terms of “conjectural history.” This thesis is true in its main outlines. But there were ways in which cultural history retained a presence in British academic history in the period of what Michael Bentley thinks of as historiographical “modernism,” prior to the transformative interventions of Keith Thomas, E. P. Thompson and others in the 1960s and afterwards. In the field of religious history, for example, Christopher Dawson – while holding the title of “Lecturer in the History of Culture” at University College, Exeter—published a collection of essays in 1933 entitled Enquiries into religion and culture. English study of socioeconomic history in the interwar and postwar years also often extended to, or existed in tandem with, interest in what can only be described as “culture.” Few episodes might appear as far removed from cultural history as the “storm over the gentry,” for example—a debate over the social origins of the English Civil War that was played out chiefly in the pages of the Economic History Review in the 1940s and 1950s. But the first book of one of the main participants in that controversy, Lawrence Stone, was actually a study entitled Sculpture in Britain: the middle ages, published in 1955 in the Pelican History of Art series. Although Stone came to regard it as a diversion from his main interests, its depictions of a flourishing artistic culture in late-medieval Britain, halted by the Reformation, may still be read as a kind of cultural-historical counterpart to his better-known arguments for the importance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a period of social upheaval. If it is true that literary criticism is always implicitly or explicitly historical, perhaps it is also true that few kinds of history have been found to be wholly separable from cultural history, broadly defined.

Joshua Bennett is a Junior Research Fellow in History at Christ Church, Oxford.

Why Auden Left: “September 1, 1939” and British Cultural Life

by guest contributor Spencer Lenfield

To make sense of the intellectual climate of Britain on the eve of the Second World War, one could do worse than to turn to the case of W.H. Auden. It would be less accurate to say that Auden chose to become an American citizen than that he chose not to be a British one. Politically discontented no matter where he lived, he was less irked by New York than he was by London. A trip to America to write a travel book with Christopher Isherwood grew permanent, and in 1946 he swapped nationalities for good, having identified himself as a “New Yorker” since 1939. It was there, rather than England, that he wrote the poem “September 1, 1939“—as Britain and America both realized that they would have to address, with renewed trenchancy and seriousness, the still-open question of whether to go to war with Germany over Polish sovereignty. The poem explicitly tries to make sense of its moment by interpreting the historical forces that brought it to pass, and finally arrives at a famous call to action: “We must love one another or die.” For many readers, the poem seems to distill almost perfectly the scent of what Auden later named “the age of anxiety”: fear and reluctance twinned with grit and humanity.

Except Auden himself hated the poem. He excluded it—vehemently—from nearly every edition of his collected works. Writing to the Scottish novelist Naomi Mitchison, he grumbled, “The reason (artistic) I left England and went to the U.S. was precisely to stop me writing poems like ‘Sept 1 1939’, the most dishonest poem I have ever written.” In particular, he hated the line “We must love one another or die,” remarking, “That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” Auden had a hard time living up to his own call to universal love. He did not want to have a cult, or at least not a British one, and he did not want to write the conscience of a generation into existence. He envisioned himself as an outsider, and was most comfortable when he was at a remove from others. “I left England in 1939 because the cultural life there was a family life,” he explained—not so much because the “cultural family” in question was especially warm or traditional (to the contrary, it could be cutting and delighted in breaking with propriety), but more because of a sense that the island environment was too claustrophobic for him to work.

So what about England in particular might have led Auden to set such thoughts on paper? And what made him reject them later as untrue? After all, “We must love one another or die” sounds resolutely cosmopolitan. The young, leftist Auden was hostile to nationalism of all kinds. From the vantage point of New York City, he writes:

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse: (34-39)

Auden is, of course, worried about Fascism here (“the strength of Collective Man”). But he is also averse to the nationalism of liberal democracy, evident as the poem’s speaker looks upwards from 52nd Street, in the belly of Manhattan. It is in the linguistic and ethnic diversity of Manhattan that Auden senses the greatest strife—the sound of languages mingling in the thicket of the city. Auden attended a screening of the Nazi film Sieg im Poland in November of the same year: biographer Humphrey Carpenter writes, “When Poles appeared on the screen [Auden] was startled to hear a number of people in the audience scream, ‘Kill them!'” (282). But Auden later felt that his reaction against nationalism was as harmful to his work as nationalism itself. Not just in England, but also in America, he felt compelled to come up with a cant of magnanimous universalism because it spoke to the issues that presented themselves at the time—thereby taking him away, he claimed, from some deeper truth.

But how did Auden conceive of England in particular in the 1930s? He has two visions of the country: the one whose “cultural life is a family life” on one hand, and the one of cheap nationalism on the other. The problem is that the first vision defines itself in opposition to the second. Auden imagines himself and literary intellectuals as occupying a Britain apart, distinct from warmongers and imperialists; they are the hardy minority—those who are

. . . dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash[ing] out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages[.] (91-94)

The intelligentsia against the demagogues, the internationalists against the jingoists: Auden depicts cultural intellectuals as embattled heroes. Yet this image of the good few lost in the clashing of ignorant armies belies political reality: Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement lasted for years, through the Anschluss of Austria, and was hardly a minority view. Angus Calder cites the Times‘ remarks when Chamberlain returned from Munich: “No conqueror returning home from a victory on the battlefield has come home adorned with nobler laurels” (26). Auden conflates war with policy. But the end of the interwar years in Britain is not the story of an ironic few holding out against a war-hungry nationalist fervor; it was rather the effort of a majority to avert war until it was almost too late. Rearmament drives, urged by Churchill, were not taken up until late 1938. Even then, popular opposition was widespread. “A surprising number of Britons contemplated killing their families if war broke out,” Calder observes: “‘I’d sooner see kids dead than see them bombed like they are in some places,’ said one woman, thinking of Abyssinia and Spain” (22).

But if Auden’s historical reading veers wide of the facts, it is grounded in the perception that an imperial, aggressive Britain, together with the victorious parties of the Great War, had brought the revenge of an angry and resurgent Germany upon themselves, most clearly evident in the wake of the “competitive excuse”:

But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong. (40-44)

The “long weekend” of the interwar years is mocked as so much self-delusion; it never really was peace as long as German resentment echoed beneath. What is at fault is not just Britain’s hubris, but “the international wrong”—in short, the terms worked out in the Treaty of Versailles. Auden adopts the language of Jungian psychopathology in the second stanza in an attempt to explain Hitler’s rise:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find out what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return. (12-22)

The reduction of a major historical problem to a schoolmarm’s maxim stings with moral clarity—a tone that Auden later hoped to avoid or transcend.

But this sense of obvious wrongdoing had been widespread among the British intellectual elite since the conclusion of the last war. Auden more or less directly echoes Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace, which depicts a benevolent, clumsy Wilson outfoxed by a vengeful Clemenceau and an impassive Lloyd George, who together set the conditions for the impoverishment of postwar Germany. Keynes was a friend of Auden’s, and one of his earliest financial backers. The conclusion of the Economic Consequences would have been taken as a given by their entire circle: “In one way only can we influence these hidden currents,—by setting in motion those forces of instruction and imagination which change opinion. The assertion of truth, the unveiling of illusion, the dissipation of hate, the enlargement and instruction of men’s hearts and minds, must be the means.” That sentence, freed from its moment, could have easily come from Auden.

It is easy to mistake the poem’s resounding moral appeal for a public clarion call for unity in Britain and America. But the target of Auden’s call is the “ironic points of light” of the cultural elite, standing in contrast to “the romantic lie in the brain / Of the sensual man in the street.” “We must love one another or die” is not a declaration of the state of Britain as Auden sees it; instead, it is what Britain must do, and is failing to do. The fact that, in retrospect, it appears as though Britain heeded Auden’s call—rallying together at the moment of its greatest need—makes it easy mistakenly to fashion “September 1, 1939” into a votive rather than an “ironic point of light.” This popular misreading of the poem seems like yet one more reason why Auden rejected it so vehemently: people took it to mean exactly the opposite of what he wanted it to say about the moment in which he was living and writing.

Spencer Lenfield graduated from Harvard with a concentration in modern European history and literature in 2012, and then received a second degree in Greats from Oxford in 2015. He currently works for the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C.