In my latest post, I wrote about Philip Hoare’s recent book The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea and about its relationship to the writing of W.G. Sebald. Hoare’s book is replete with all manner of anecdotes writers, whales, history, and whatnot, but one in particular stuck with me. It’s only a single sentence, but it’s enough to break the heart of any book collector or scholar. In writing about Thomas Beale’s 1835 book The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, which,as he puts it, provided the “scaffolding for Moby-Dick’s construction,” Hoare notes:
When [Melville’s] own copy of The Natural History of the Sperm Whale surfaced a century later, Melville’s marginalia had been erased by an owner who had little idea that they were worth more than the volume itself.
Can you imagine holding a copy of a book from Melville’s library, only to discover that someone has erased all of his handwritten notes? Alas, have no fear. For the task of reconstructing Melville’s missing marginalia has turned into a minor industry. Over at Melville’s Marginalia Online, a project of Boise State University (which, for some reason, Hoare doesn’t cite in his list of websites consulted), it becomes quickly apparent that there are many known volumes that Melville once owned that also suffer from erased marginalia. So who might have erased the traces of Melville’s hand from Beale’s book? Maybe Melville himself.
[David A.] Randall’s account of the discovery shows that Melville’s pencil marginalia were already erased when the book surfaced at G. A. Baker & Company circa 1935, but no further evidence is available to reveal exactly when or by whom the damage was done…. Before the revival of Melville’s reputation in the 1920s, any bookseller who acquired the book would have had understandable motives for making it a “clean copy,” as Randall suggests; and a librarian would have had similar cause for removing pencil markings and notes from the volume. The relevance of the marginalia to the genesis of Moby-Dick may indicate Melville himself performed the erasures, an act that would have been in keeping with his habitual practice of discarding and sometimes destroying manuscript evidence. [from Steven Olsen-Smith’s Introduction to Melville’s Marginalia in Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale]
And if your curiosity goes even deeper, Melville’s Marginalia Online provides a PDF file showing a copy of Beale’s book (not the one Melville owned) complete with transcriptions of much of the recovered marginalia, as they do for numerous other volumes once owned by Melville. (I think this gives new meaning to the concept of recuperating historical memory.)
For the record, the full title of Beale’s book is A Few Observations on the Natural History of the Sperm Whale, With an Account of the Rise and Progress of the Fishery, and of the Modes of Pursuing, Killing, and “Cutting In” that Animal, with a List of its Favorite Places of Resort. Melville’s copy is housed at the Houghton Library, Harvard University.