Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Series,The Lost Skill of Accurate Manuscript Transcription, No. 1, Part 2, Neal L. Tolchin

Tolchin declared that Melville's mother "spoke with gratification of his aggressive behavior" after Herman had "shipped out to Liverpool, in 1839": "I have just written Herman a few lines, his conduct delights me." How Herman would have known to look for a letter in Liverpool (and how it could have pursued him reliably) is not clear, but luckily the letter was sent to Pittsfield, since it was written on 25 September 1837 (not 1839) while Herman was managing the Melvill farm and just before he had begun teaching near there.

Here is Tolchin on p. 16, on Maria's letter which he dates 18? September 1841:
In another letter to Augusta, Maria further elucidates her version of Calvinism. For exercise, she suggests "walking, riding, & jumping, when nobody is looking on, for I hold that running, & jumping, when in the country together with --------, singing, laughter, are conducive to health." In her own youth, Maria had attended balls and studied the piano.

I date the letter 16 September 1841, and read this:

improve your time, by taking exercise, of every kind, walking, riding and jumping, when nobody is looking on, for I hold that runing, & jumping, when in the country together with hearty, loud, ringing laughter, are conducive to health, therefore will positively conduce to longevity.

In this I see nothing at all about Calvinism. Augusta was visiting Gansevoort cousins in Bath, New York, sufficiently rural, the urban-born Maria was sure, to allow Augusta to exercise freely.

Any transcription, any dating in Tolchin is suspect, even any recipient. On page 174, for example, Maria's letter of 4 March 1854 is not to Sam Shaw (she was staying in the Shaw house in Boston) but to her daughter Augusta. Maria had prevailed upon the Unitarian Sam to take her to a church where she would hear a sermon nearer the Calvinism of her Dutch Church. Her goal was the Congregationalist church on Ashburton Place on Beacon Hill, near the Mount Vernon Street Shaw house, and therefore comparatively close, although weather worsened during the sermon and she and Sam had to walk home on icy streets. Maria very likely knew the minister, Edward N. Kirk, who had been a notable Presbyterian minister in Albany when she was there in the 1830s but was now heading the anti-Unitarian Mount Vernon Congregationalist Church. (On a given day, a Congregationalist might think of himself as more earnestly Calvinistic than a Presbyterian, but their beliefs were so similar that many members attended the one or the other depending on what was available where they lived.) Tolchin says that Kirk "chastised the influence of 'a pleasant novel' and 'showed the necessity of Teachers to give direction to the minds of most hearers." Maria wrote: "We had an excellent sermon. He compared the society of the world generally to drift wood, having no power to direct their course, to day influenced by a pleasant novel, tomorrow, reading a religious work & partially influenced by its teachings, & so on from day to day, going on its purposeless way, doing nothing." Kirk said nothing at all about "Teachers" but "shewed the necessity of Preachers to give direction to the minds of most hearers & to fix it rightly &c."

Tolchin did not tease out the significances of Maria's going to hear Kirk. It showed both that she was comfortable asserting her needs for Calvinistic sustenance even in a Unitarian household. Furthermore, she was not afraid to hear a controversial minister. Kirk had become an anti-slavery minister on his path to greater radicalism, for a little later he heard the freed Anthony Burns address a crowd and decided, daringly, that Burns was more of a man than he had supposed.

Well meaning and industrious but untrained in manuscript transcription, Tolchin had become a modern Little Jack Horner who sat in libraries and stuck in his thumb over and over, almost every time pulling out not a plum but an apple of Sodom such as Melville alludes to in Typee. Yet these apples of Sodom are still current, still part of a much praised and widely quoted book on Melville. Does anyone writing on Melville think it matters?

Is Bryant's theory of transcribing according to your "rhetorical agenda" encouraging literary critics to regard old manuscript letters as free floating historicist material for fashioning into whatever argument the critics are making, regardless of what an antiquated scholar might think that the words were meant to "say"? Is this one end of the late 1970s Reader Response criticism, where the text really is what you say it is?

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