Monday, February 8, 2016

Adventure Writing at its Best--Erskine Childers again

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Erskine Childers’s THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS continues to enthrall me. Here Carruthers has finally learned why Davies has lured him into what so-far has seemed a ridiculously unaccountable enterprise:

Close in the train of Humour came Romance, veiling her face, but I knew it was the rustle of her robes that I heard in the foam beneath me; I knew that it was she who handed me the cup of sparkling wine and bade me drink and be merry. Strange to me though it was, I knew the taste when it touched my lips. It was not that bastard concoction I had tasted in the pseudo-Bohemias of Soho; it was not the showy but insipid beverage I should have drunk my fill of at Movern Lodge; it was the purest of her pure vintages, instilling the ancient inspiration which, under many guises, quickens thousands of better brains than mine, but whose essence is always the same: The gay pursuit of a perilous quest.

 This will just be some initial notes on


          In my extreme old age I define my scholarly life, perhaps vaingloriously, as one in which I was for prolonged periods engaged in the pursuit of a perilous quest. It’s hard to use the term “gay pursuit” when you are damaging your health by transcribing old letters in the middle of the night, or trying to write prose between 2 and 5 morning after morning, while working fulltime. But then I remember 1957-1959 when, just recovering from tuberculosis, I worked as a telegrapher 8 at night till 4 in the morning in the Kansas City Southern Freight House in Port Arthur while going to school at Lamar State College of Technology in the day. In that enormous vacant space of the Freight House I read THE FAERIE QUEENE and 2 versions of THE PRELUDE not for a class but for myself. That was “gay pursuit of a perilous quest” to learn about British poetry. Perilous?  Sure, for who knew whether I could move from railroad to Texas high school? What jobs would there be? Would the state prevent me from being around children, “arrested” TB or not?

          For pure joy I remember 1962, when the New-York Public Library and other NYC and Massachusetts libraries opened their treasures to me. At the Berkshire Athenaeum that summer I sat for hours at a long table, all alone, then when school turned out I shared the tables with fifteen or twenty small children, so that I experienced the fabulous joy of reading century and century and a half old letters in the presence of bustling descendants of some of the Melville neighbors I was reading about.  I remember the day at the NYPL when I said, for ten minutes, to hell with trying to get through what I came up to see, I want to see what’s in the folder of undated letters from unidentified correspondents, and in minutes found an unknown Melville letter. Then there is another sort of rare joys, as when I became the first person in almost a century to read something very closely approximating what Stephen Crane meant THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE to be. Gay pursuit of a perilous quest for knowledge of what American writers really wrote! Just how perilous it was FLAWED TEXTS AND VERBAL ICONS demonstrates.

          In MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE, I see that I talk more than once about the joy that a biographical researcher in the archives (paper or virtual) can experience and that no one who writes a biography from other books can ever experience. Here is that final paragraph of the Preface:

          These Malay pirates of literary biography, springing up, weapons drawn, from the bottom of the ship in the treacherous fashion Melville describes in Mardi, will not succeed. As long as libraries preserve archives such as the Gansevoort-Lansing Collection of the New York Public Library or the Melville and Morewood papers at the Berkshire Athenaeum or the Melvill-Melville papers at Houghton Library, or the Shaw papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, pilgrim researchers will come, even if only a dedicated few. There will always be a few literary detectives who devote months or years to the pursuit of documents in the confidence that at last they will sit at midnight in a little bare motel room in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and turn through a big shoebox full of what looks like only bills of lading until you spy a blue folded paper, clearly a letter, a letter with the signature “Really Thine, H. Melville”--a letter reassuring Melville’s wife’s young step-cousin Sam Savage: “Concerning the foot-ball part of the business, why, we are all foot-balls, more or less--& it is lucky that we are, on some accounts. It is important, however, that our balls be covered with a leather, good & tough, that will stand banging & all ‘the slings & arrows of outrageous fortune.’” Literary detectives will sit in dark rooms peering at their computer screens, doing their ultimately-advanced searches. They will imaginatively misspell (Mellvill, Mellville, Hermann, and more) when accurate spellings turn up nothing. They will try their equivalent of “froward” and “godless” on Google every few weeks for most of a decade, as Scott Norsworthy did until he discovered a source for some of Melville’s once-baffling notes in the back of his Shakespeare. They will boggle at a passage in a Melville text and find riches, as I did when I Googled “Napoleon” and “outline” and “tree” and discovered that Melville in The Confidence-Man was referring to a then-famous example of hidden art. There will always be a few frequenters of known archives, a few imaginative trackers of missing archives, a few librarians who recognize gaps in their institution’s papers and reach out their hands for lost treasures, and a few “divine amateurs” who believe that the facts matter and that they can identify some of them from their computers or in raids on distant libraries. And for literary biography, there will always be readers who want to know about the living man or woman whose deepest being infuses the books they love.

          In that paragraph the researcher in Spartansburg is Joyce Deveau Kennedy, who died weeks before MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY was published. I explained in the endnote: “In Spartanburg, South Carolina, Professor John B. Edmunds, Jr., acting for his mother, Helen Edmunds, entrusted Joyce Deveau Kennedy with a big shoebox full of papers. She was alone in a motel room late at night when she found Melville’s letter to Sam Savage. She immediately called her husband, Frederick Kennedy then, sleeping very little, she read and reread the letter many times, waiting for morning so she could spring her find on the owner. Scholars live for such moments. Email from JDK, 26 August 2011. Joyce had the supreme joy of calling her husband, Frederick J. Kennedy, around midnight, to say “Freddie! Guess what I’ve just found!” “What a happy memory,” FJK says. Normally, since they did research together, he would have been with her and have shared the joy of discovery.

          Lewis Mumford, Newton Arvin, Elizabeth Hardwick, Andrew Delbanco never experienced the joy that comes of discovery. Delbanco, picking through my quotations from Melville family letters, knew nothing of the joy of discovery, and of course knew nothing of the larger contexts from which I had made small selections to further particular arguments I was making in particular paragraphs. Biographers like Delbanco know nothing of the joy of reading many pages of documents in chronological order, many of which you have transcribed into the chronology and some of which you have dated or re-dated, for whenever an archival biographer reads through long known and new documents he will experience astonishing insights, often the insights which lead him to say, “I have to stop here and write it down—this is the new chapter in the story.” There’s another side: the archival biographer will sometimes make discovery after discovery that he all but wishes he had never known. One more twist to my knowledge of how cruelly the Harpers treated Melville! One more twist to what I knew about Melville’s indebtedness! One more twist to what I knew of his in-laws’ contempt for him! Or even one more newspaper juxtaposing an inquest to the death of Malcolm Melville with an account of the number of overflowing privies in the neighborhood. Yes, some things you wish Melville never had to experience or to see and that you never had to know about, particularly when you have to write an account of them. But the joy overwhelms the pain. You know these people because you have read their mail and listened to their plans and grief and their own joys, and you love them, even the unlovable ones such as covetous greedy kick-his-bed-partner Allan!

          I hope to think more about this topic and revise this post.

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