Monday, March 28, 2011

Series,The Lost Skill of Accurate Manuscript Transcription, No. 1, Neal L. Tolchin

A Little Learning about Manuscript Transition

By the late 1980s a few up and coming young academics saw that, after all, there was some strategic self-promotional value in acknowledging things historical and even things biographical. A very few of these younger academics began going to the archives, the most persistent of whom was Neal L. Tolchin, who worked his findings into his 1988 Mourning, Gender, and Creativity in the Art of Herman Melville. Tolchin was a rarity, a New Historicist who had actually set out to perform archival research. In 1992 Andrew Delbanco offered this praise of Tolchin’s arguments and conclusions without mentioning Tolchin’s use of manuscript material:

Another substantial book, Neal L. Tolchin's Mourning, Gender, and Creativity in the Art of Herman Melville, uses psychoanalytic categories to propose a different way in which antebellum American culture was constricting and oppressive. Here we learn that Americans, especially women, were subject to a pathology of chronic grieving that placed them in 'a double bind . . . which at once prolonged the process of mourning and blocked the expression of feeling in bereavement."

While employing his "psychoanalytic categories," Tolchin [xv] had essayed "a radical revision of the biographical text" which located "Maria Melville's hitherto marginalized influence at the center of the tensions in Melville's art."

In achieving this revolutionary view, Tolchin had ventured into the New York Public Library to look at some of the letters in the Augusta Papers and had traveled to Pittsfield to look at family letters in the Berkshire Athenaeum. Tolchin did not recognize that he was having trouble, particularly with Melville's mother's letters. Maria Gansevoort Melville's handwriting is perfectly clear, after you transcribe several dozen of her letters (a comment that almost guarantees that I will blunder the next time I quote her). Tolchin printed some very strange transcriptions, and some of his biographical conclusions on the basis of mistaken transcriptions are breathtaking.

Tolchin's difficulties with transcribing and understanding are most prominently displayed in the first paragraph of his second chapter, "The Liminality of Grief: Mourning Ritual in Typee." Here Tolchin's misreadings are so serious as to undermine not just a single chapter (built upon misreadings) but his entire book:

In a letter of February 7, 1846, a puzzled Maria Melville comments on her son's recently published first novel, Typee, "his book which none of us understand, so contradictory in its information." One wonders if Mrs. Melville associated her son Gansevoort's leg ailment with the mysterious leg injury that the narrative persona, Tommo, suffers and which causes him to be carried about on a native's back. Writing on March 5, 1839, Melville's mother describes how "Gansevoort has still to be carried to the fire and is unable to bear his weight." One further wonders whether the cause of Tommo's disability, his exposure to "death-like coldness" during a rainy night spent in a ravine, triggered for Mrs. Melville a memory of her husband's fatal exposure. To explore the social text of Tommo's leg wound and how it relates to Maria Melville's sense of Typee's contradictions, I examine the novel's conflicting types and peeps, as it links the pain inscribed in Tommo's body to Melville's frozen grief for his father.

This is remarkable as "a radical revision of the biographical text," but it rests upon a transcription of a document in the Augusta Papers by a New Historicist not trained in working with manuscripts.

To begin with, the letter Tolchin purports to quote is not dated 7 February 1846 but 28 February 1846. In it Maria explains a complex situation to her daughter Augusta, then visiting the Van Rensselaers in Albany:

Herman left us last monday Eveg for Troy on his way to New York by the early Cars--he receiv'd a letter from Allan in the morning regarding his book which none of us understood, so contradictory in its information. Herman was very desirous of having it come out in Wiley & Putnams "Library of Choice Reading," and from Allans letter, the thing was not determined, and indeed the arrival of the Book itself by the Cambria by the reading of Allans letter was more than uncertain. If the book was not got out by the first of March he would lose the Copy right in America, so Gansevoort wrote. Herman had no Idea of that you may suppose, to have the copy right was all to Herman--so he concluded to go to New York, altho Gansevoort particularly requested him to remain here--but too much was at stake and he went down--to assure himself that all was safe.

Maria, of course, does not say that the whole family was puzzled by Typee. They were puzzled not by Typee but by Allan's letter about it. In actual biographical fact Maria Melville nowhere manifested any "sense of Typee's contradictions," if such contradictions existed. On the contrary, good mother that she was, she perfectly understood how important preserving the American copyright for his book was to Herman. Tolchin had constructed his chapter on an absolutely false basis.

Punning on the subtitle of Typee ("A Peep at Polynesian Life"), Tolchin declared he would explore "the novel's conflicting types and peeps, as it links the pain inscribed in Tommo's body to Melville's frozen grief for his father." After misquoting the letter, Tolchin explained that he would build an elaborate theory on the basis of "the social text of Tommo's leg wound and how it relates to Maria Melville's sense of Typee's contradictions"--how the social text relates to a sense of contradictions that Maria Melville never experienced. For any New Critic, of course, the opening of a chapter or a larger work carries in it the plan of the whole. Well-trained critic that he is, Tolchin recurred to his powerful opening as he constructed the rest of the chapter. He began a new section of the chapter with a reminder that some of Tommo's actions and "the contradictory peeps at Marquesan life" must "have been in large part responsible for the bafflement with which Melville's family read Typee." No, Herman and Maria, at least, were puzzled by Allan's muddy letter, but not about the meaning of Typee. And of course, good critic that he is, Tolchin in the last sentence of the chapter tied the whole back to the first paragraph: "Tommo mirrors back to Maria Melville the 'contradictory . . . information' of her own unresolved grief as it has been transmuted into and energized her son's fictive mourning rite."

The first readers, you think, would have done a little spot verifying of Tolchin's transcriptions and then would have hooted the book out of libraries? That did not happen. No one at Yale University Press, no reader for the press, no reviewer or critic checked any of Tolchin's transcriptions from manuscripts. It did not matter at all that Tolchin had built a whole chapter on a fantastic misreading of Maria Melville's handwriting, and that, of course, according to the theory of organic unity the falsely-conceived chapter is built into and effects the entire book.

I called the mis-transcription in Maria’s 28 February 1846 letter to the attention of Brian Higgins so he could mention it in the annual American Literary Scholarship, but apparently no one has referred to that warning in print. Tolchin's book has been cited favorably dozens of times. In the American Historical Review (April 1990) Karen Halttunen declared that "Tolchin convincingly demonstrates that Melville's work abounds with images of blocked bereavement and with thinly veiled references to the death of his father." Tolchin "offers a compelling synthesis of the body of Melville's work." Bryan Collier Short in Cast By Means of Figures: Herman Melville's Rhetorical Development (1992) lists it among "biographically oriented studies" and Karen Elizabeth Smythe in Figuring Grief: Gallant, Munro, and the Poetics of Elegy (1992) cites it as "a biographical study." Julia A. Stern, in The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel (1997), offers this praise:

Much of my thinking about the relationship between the feeling that characterizes sentimentality and the pathological disturbance of mourning that takes shape in melancholia is inspired by Mitchell R. Breitwieser's remark that, in a recent work on Melville and mourning in antebellum America, Neal L. Tolchin has identified the centrality of a blocking and channeling of mourning in genteel culture, and the consequent production of an underground melancholia. Tolchin's extensive and perspicacious investigation of Melville's America suggests to me that sentimentalism is a reappearance of the Puritan sublimation of mourning . . . ." 241

It is "an important study," says Peter Balaam in Misery's Mathematics: Mourning, Composition, and Reality in Antebellum American Literature (2009). As dozens of favorable citations show, Tolchin's book has entered into common knowledge among writers interested in histories of emotion, in grief, misery, gender, death, and even the making of the middle-class family. Not one of the critics who have praised its insights and have incorporated its findings has seen that the second chapter is built upon a grotesque error which taints many other passages in the book. A critic who takes this flawed book as "a compelling synthesis of the body of Melville's work" is deluded, and insofar as the critic incorporates Tolchin's findings into his or her own work, that work is tainted.

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