Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Series,The Lost Skill of Accurate Manuscript Transcription, No. 2, Cohen and Yannella

The Loss of Transcribing Skills When We Don’t Practice Them

Even older scholars lose some of their archival skills if they don’t stay in practice. In 1992 Hennig Cohen and Donald Yannella published Herman Melville's Malcolm Letter: "Man's Final Lore" –the letter being the one in the Augusta Papers to Allan about the birth of his first child, Malcolm. They took the occasion to relate the 1849 letter to paternalism, authoritarianism, and attitudes toward death displayed in the Melville and associated families. Yet Cohen and Yannella confuse family members, as in quoting Maria's letter to her brother, Peter Gansevoort, and his wife about the care being given to Peter and Maria's mother. Peter had no wife at the time of the letter, and the "Sister Mary" thanked for "her kindness & attentions to Mamma" is really Mary Chandonette Gansevoort, Guert Gansevoort's mother. Cohen and Yannella quote Maria Melville's letter to her niece Kate Gansevoort, Peter's daughter, about the death of Dr. Howard Townsend without realizing that Mrs. Townsend, Justine (whose name they give as Justina), is known in the Melville family as Cousin Teny, a Van Rensselaer, the sister of Augusta's dear friend Nilly Van Rensselaer Thayer.

As you would expect from older Melville hands, their transcriptions were conscientious, although they misread one important word in the "Malcolm Letter" itself (preferring the "robust" over "valiant" ("as valiant as Julius Cesear") and made heavy weather of a good many words they call "undeciphered," including the three on 189 that were clear to me.

When you dip here and there into different years in an archive it’s easy to make snap judgments on slight evidence. Like so many Melvilleans since Raymond Weaver, Cohen and Yannella proved unable to judge Maria Gansevoort Melville, Herman’s mother, quite fairly. Weaver and Lewis Mumford were so over-the-top in their denunciations of the woman that even the rational Leon Howard was infected with their horrified disdain for her, as when he assumed she was prevaricating in April 1853 when she said Herman had a new book almost ready for the press. Cohen and Yannella devote a long remarkable analysis to one letter to her niece Kate Gansevoort, now married to Abraham Lansing:

For Maria there was a poignancy that more strongly suggests the profound sense of family and continuity. She wrote Kate in February 1872 and reflected, "How well we all remembered the evening when the ring came for my father." So in making this gesture, Henry [Gansevoort] and Kate who carried out his [Peter's] request, were maintaining a Victorian memorializing tradition. Her aunt continues, "He opened it at the dinner table--and was so much pleased with it. He wore it, all during his illness . . . and it was only on the morning of the day he died that I took it off his hand . . . by his desire and have had it ever since. Mama says that I am to keep it now. With that ring which I cannot too highly prize with its double associations, I have now the beautiful gift from Cousin Henry. How beautiful it is--how I wish my father could have seen it."

In a footnote they "note the confusion in generations":
Maria is clearly talking about the ring received by her father from her grandfather, but her mother had been dead for more than forty years at the time this letter to Kate was penned. Perhaps the explanation is that she was merely confused or flustered. It should be noted that the letter is in her hand and signed 'Maria G. Melville.'"

In fact, the letter is not "in the hand" of Melville's mother, Maria G. Melville.

The letter is altogether characteristic of the hand of the person who wrote it, Maria G. Melville, Allan's first daughter, born the month Malcolm was born in 1849, and known as Milie. "Mama" is her stepmother, the appalling Jane Dempsey Melville. The willingness to assume that Melville's mother was a mentally doddering old woman but strong enough to write a fantastically confused letter, is perfect evidence of how the 1920's maligning of Melville’s mother has persisted. At the time the letter was written Maria was dying, absolutely devastated by the death of her son Allan in February 1872, but she was not out of her mind, not grotesquely confused or flustered as Cohen and Yannella assumed.

In another post I will apologize for doubting Yannella (in a very public way) about his assertion that Sarah Morewood was infatuated with George Duyckinck. I apologize now, Don, and will grovel later.

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