American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for April 2010

In Praise of the Variant

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One of the more depressing things I’ve read lately:

Jo Ann Boydston, the editor of the complete thirty-seven-volume edition of John Dewey’s writings, dolefully reports that to her knowledge not a single study of Dewey has ever referred for evidence to the enormous end-of-volume apparatus of rejected variants.

That’s from D. C. Greetham’s 1996 PMLA article “Textual Forensics,” a nice summary of the state of textual studies at the end of the last century.

Boydston’s comment gave me an idea for a new feature here … “Variant of the Month.” A chance to draw some attention to the unsung labor of editors, and a chance also to share to some of the delights of a scholarly edition.

With specific regard to nineteenth-century American poetry, the pool of available authors will not be very large. But there are still some options. Dickinson and Whitman, of course; and Emerson too. Also Stephen Crane, Jones Very … and there’s an interesting variant noted on occasion in a reading edition. I may even mention a variant I’ve discovered on my own.

But since Melville’s poems have only just been published as part of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville, I thought I’d begin with something from that volume, which was edited by Robert C. Ryan, Harrison Hayford, Alma MacDougall Reising, and G. Thomas Tanselle. [1] Read the rest of this entry »


Poems of Places 11

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From Poems of Places, vol. 1, England 1 (London: Macmillan and Co., 1877), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


To A Bird That Haunted the Waters of Laken in the Winter

O melancholy bird, a winter’s day,
Thou standest by the margin of the pool;
And, taught by God, dost thy whole being school
To patience, which all evil can allay:
God has appointed thee the fish thy prey;
And given thyself a lesson to the fool
Unthrifty, to submit to moral rule,
And his unthinking course by thee to weigh.
There need not schools nor the professor’s chair,
Though these be good, true wisdom to impart:
He who has not enough for these to spare
Of time or gold may yet amend his heart,
And teach his soul by brooks and rivers fair:
Nature is always wise in every part.

— Lord Thurlow

Written by Ben Friedlander

April 9, 2010 at 9:12 am

Moby Dick Meets Eel Queen

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Click on image for larger view

By way of Caleb Crain’s blog, I’ve just learned about a wonderful online resource: a complete archive of the Melville Society Extracts, covering the years 1969 to 2005 (link). There are 127 issues in all, one an index of issues 49 to 72. Each issue has its own link, but the pages are reproduced as image files, so this is not a searchable database. But a useful one? Hell yes.

Fun too. The page shown to the right (from issue 2 [August 15, 1969]) includes the following tidbit under the heading “Media”:

Saturday morning TV pabulum this summer includes an animated children’s series in color on the doings, mostly beneath the surface of the sea, of Tom and Tug and their attendant seal. They are extricated from assorted difficulties by a benign and cuddly white whale. The episode I saw on WVTW-TV of Charlotte, N.C., was entitled “Moby Dick Meets Eel Queen.” When I sought further information from my fellow TV-viewers, ages six and seven, they expressed mild surprise that I didn’t know about white whales.

It looks like I have another project to keep me busy: going through the archive, in search of entries on Melville’s poetry.

Meanwhile, the Moby Dick FAQ (link), devoted to the Hanna Barbera cartoon, not Melville’s novel, provides a thumbnail of Moraya, The Eel Queen. Minimal searching turns up a few snippets of the cartoon, though I’ve no idea how long those will remain online. Moby Dick and the Iceberg Monster is one, available complete.

Written by Ben Friedlander

April 7, 2010 at 9:14 am

Posted in Melville, scholarship

Tagged with ,

falling into a lump, or flowing in waves

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It is time, indeed, that men and women should both cease to grow old in any other way than as the tree does, full of grace and honor.
— Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century

But men and women aren’t trees, and Margaret Fuller wasn’t fated to enjoy a graceful old age.

In July of 1850, when she was 40 years old, Fuller’s ship from Europe, the Elizabeth, struck a sandbar within sight of Fire Island. The sudden jolt loosened Hiram Powers’ statue of John C. Calhoun, which was lashed in the hold, and the marble tore a hole through the hull. With the tide rising and a heavy storm coming down, the ship began to take on water at an alarming rate.

Fuller might have saved herself by swimming to shore with the aid of a sailor, but she refused to leave her husband — who couldn’t swim — and she refused to be separated from her two-year-old son, who couldn’t be carried in the rough sea.

When Emerson heard the news of Fuller’s drowning, he sent Thoreau to search for her body and effects. Some of Fuller’s manuscript material was recovered, but her book on the Italian revolution — she and her husband had been participants — was lost forever in the waves. Years later, in Cape Cod, Thoreau wrote:

Once … it was my business to go in search of the relics of a human body, mangled by sharks, which had just been cast up, a week after a wreck. …

Close at hand they were simply some bones with a little flesh adhering to them. … There was nothing at all remarkable about them, and they were singularly inoffensive both to the senses and the imagination. But as I stood there they grew more and more imposing. They were alone with the beach and the sea, whose hollow roar seemed addressed to them, and I was impressed as if there was an understanding between them and the ocean which necessarily left me out, with my snivelling sympathies. That dead body had taken possession of the shore and reigned over it as no living one could, in the name of a certain majesty which belonged to it.

Thoreau also died young. Emerson, the oldest, lived longest, to the very edge of his 79th year, though he suffered from dementia in his last decade, forgetting words and friends and then himself. After 1872, he wrote little, and then nothing, rereading his old journals while evincing a great contentment, sinking slowly into oblivion. In his last series of lectures, The Natural History of the Intellect, he wrote of memory:

Without it all life and thought were an unrelated succession. As gravity holds matter from flying off into space, so memory gives stability to knowledge; it is the cohesion which keeps things from falling into a lump, or flowing in waves.

I like to think of my scholarship and poetry as autonomous activities, with occasional points of crossing. Most of those points are marked in pencil in my books. Sometimes, I try to gather them up, to make a line, to make a text. The text above was written for a poetry reading in New York, with Fanny Howe. I’m not sure why I thought it was necessary, or even a good idea, but I wanted to set the three quotes alongside my own work, much of which recently loops tangentially from hospital and nursing home. Fuller’s dream, Thoreau’s appraisal, Emerson’s accedence: three incommensurate stances I’d like, somehow, to reconcile.

Written by Ben Friedlander

April 6, 2010 at 8:42 am