“The coiled fish of the sea”: A brief history of the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of the Writings of Herman Melville

By Meaghan Fritz

The fifteen-volume Northwestern-Newberry Edition of The Writings of Herman Melville, completed in fall 2017 with the publication of “Billy Budd, Sailor” and Other Uncompleted Writings, originated in the early 1960s. It was initially part of a Modern Language Association project to create authoritative editions of the works of eight classic nineteenth-century American authors. Backed by a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, the MLA project at first involved 150 scholars and eight university presses working on new editions of works by Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Dean Howells, Washington Irving, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, with the goal of presenting “texts of published writings that are free of typographical and editing errors that have developed over the years.”

Scholars of American literature from around the world had been calling for new editions of classic works, especially after an unfortunate incident in which renowned scholar F. O. Matthiessen wrote an entire article turning on a typographical error in his copy of Moby-Dick. The article explored the meaning of the phrase “the soiled fish of the sea,” when it was subsequently discovered that the phrase Melville intended was “the coiled fish of the sea.”

American literature professors named Melville as the writer whose works most urgently needed scrutiny. An early grant proposal for the project stated, “The reasons for the urgency in Melville’s case are readily stated. Melville is now widely regarded as our greatest imaginative writer . . . . Yet there is no scholarly complete edition of his works. Indeed, the only relatively complete edition, published in London in 1922–1924, is available only in the major libraries, and is in any case not textually reliable; its textual principles are indeterminate, and no effort was made to find and follow Melville’s own intentions—spelling, for example, was completely Anglicized. At present, scholars, along with classroom teachers and the common reader, must piece together Melville’s works from a motley assortment of uncertainly reliable separate editions. The respectably scholarly editions among them were prepared on various textual principles and are not in any case readily identifiable by non-specialists. Teachers are likely unwittingly to assign a bowdlerized Typee, an abridged Moby-Dick, or a garbled Billy Budd.”

By 1963, the MLA established the Center for Editions of American Authors (CEAA), of which Harrison Hayford served on the Executive Committee. An outstanding Northwestern University English professor, Hayford was a serious Melville scholar who had just published a groundbreaking edition of Billy Budd, Sailor with Merton M. Sealts Jr. Their extensive study of the incomplete manuscript that Melville left behind when he died in 1891 established a reading text based on a transcription that was far more accurate than previous editions. (Hayford had also already begun work on the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick with Hershel Parker; it was published in 1967.)

Hayford’s work with Sealts on Billy Budd and with Hershel Parker on Moby-Dick was grounded in the strict methodology of textual analysis that prevailed at the CEAA. The organization’s Statement of Editorial Principles and Procedures, first published in 1967, adopted a strategy developed by Fredson Bowers based on Sir Walter Greg’s “The Rationale of Copy-Text” (1950), which had originally been proposed to study Elizabethan texts. In order to make editions that “the authors themselves would have approved,” the process involved “a heavy load of textual comparison . . . done by a trained operator at a Hinman Collator—a semiautomatic machine that superimposes images on pages from the same plates for comparison—and by sight collations of newly-set editions. It demands from the editor, faced with choices of readings, a thorough knowledge of the writers’ thought and sensitivity to his expression. With the use of the Hinman Collator, editors know that they must search out every possible relevant text of a work, and that in editing the work they must submit their evidence as well as their conclusions to others.”

Between 1966 and 1975, the Center allocated more than $1.5 million in funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to various scholarly editing projects, which were then required to follow the guidelines (including the structure of editorial apparatus) as Bowers had defined them. Each volume was rigorously inspected for conformity before receiving a seal denoting that it was “An Approved Text” by the CEAA.

Simultaneously, Hayford developed plans for an MLA and CEAA–approved complete edition of the works of Herman Melville. A three-way agreement was set up between Northwestern University, the Newberry Library, and Northwestern University Press. The original assumption was that it would take five years. An advertisement in Publishers Weekly in 1966 promoted the edition with a subscription price of $150 for the entire set: “They will be bound in black library buckram, stamped in gold with red ink panels.”

Hayford employed a full editorial team, a full-time secretary, and two contracted graduate assistants to work on the edition. With the help of initial grants from the U.S. Office of Education, preparatory work (including assembly and collation of relevant texts) was done on all volumes, culminating in six books published between 1968 and 1971: Typee (1968), Omoo (1968), Redburn (1969), Mardi (1970), White-Jacket (1970), and Pierre (1971). There was a scholarly paperback edition as well as the advertised hardcover for each. Most of the reading texts were also released in trade editions, minus the scholarly editorial apparatus.

To keep the volumes uniform and to take advantage of the newest editorial technologies and techniques, it was decided that the texts would be produced at Northwestern University Press under the general editorship of Harrison Hayford, along with Hershel Parker as Associate General Editor and G. Thomas Tanselle as Bibliographical Editor, both of whom went on to distinguished scholarly careers while continuing to contribute their expertise to the Melville project. (Parker’s two-volume Melville biography appeared in 1996 and 2002; Tanselle has published many influential books and articles on scholarly editing and book history.)

In addition to the central group working on the texts, a recognized Melville scholar was assigned for each volume to serve as the “Contributing Editor.” Though not responsible for the text itself, these editors would contribute several essential services, including a sizable afterword of a “factual, historical ‘verifiable,’ sort”—decidedly not critical so as not to date the volumes. This “historical note” should “cover such things as the circumstance of composition, use of sources, publication (non-textual aspects), reviews, and subsequent critical history including a brief account of the main lines of interpretation.”

A steady crew of Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle, Richard Colles Johnson, Donald Yannella, Robert C. Ryan, Brian Higgins, and other scholars and graduate students dedicated themselves to this ambitious endeavor. There was also an advisory board of Melville scholars and representatives of institutions interested in the project. Crucial support during this initial phase came from the Newberry Library, especially in building up the collection of resources on which the editors relied.

Tasks included determining editorial principles to govern the whole edition; assembling all of Melville’s works in multiple copies, together with reproductions of all manuscripts, as well as auxiliary materials; preparing a comprehensive bibliography of Melville’s works and of secondary works (originally planned as a separate volume), as the basis for the authoritative texts and introductions; collating manuscripts and all editions in which Melville may have had a hand, in order to distinguish what Melville himself wrote from what is due to editorial changes and printing-house errors; establishing  “clear texts” as close as possible to Melville’s intention; preparing printer’s copy for each work setting forth its “clear text” with textual variants, a brief textual history, and the introduction and afterword; and insuring the intact transmission of the text into print (with editorial, design, and production work by Northwestern University Press).

Unfortunately, after the publication of Pierre, for a period of about a decade, Northwestern University Press ceased operation and editorial work on the remaining volumes was intermittent. It became clear that the editors had dramatically underestimated the time required to complete such a rigorous, multivolume project. This was especially true for the labor and time needed to prepare the volumes edited from manuscript, as was the case for portions of the Piazza Tales volume, much of the Published Poems volume, and especially the uncompleted writings in the Billy Budd volume. Several of the volumes were well under way (the reading text of Moby-Dick, for example, had already been set in type), but time for completing the editorial appendixes and other work was scarce for the now-scattered original crew members.

Publication of the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of The Writings of Herman Melville resumed in 1982 with Northwestern University Press back in business and the hiring of Alma A. MacDougall as editorial coordinator, with additional help from JoAnn Casey and graduate students Mary K Bercaw, Lynn Horth, Robert D. Madison, and Robert A. Sandberg. Eight more volumes were published in the eighties and early nineties: Israel Potter (1982), The Confidence-Man (1984), The Piazza Tales (1987), Moby-Dick (1988), Journals (1989), Clarel (1991), and Correspondence (1991). Along the way, there were many hurdles and problems with funding. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities under the auspices of the Newberry Library was awarded in 1986, the same year that Hayford retired from Northwestern University. After the grant expired, the Newberry Library and Northwestern University continued to underwrite the lengthy and complex volumes. But by December of 1993, the extremely high editorial and production costs associated with the complex, lengthy volumes forced Northwestern University Press to order suspension of editorial and production outlays pending further notice.

A conference was held between the leadership at Northwestern University Press, the Newberry Library, and Harrison Hayford, to consider next steps. Letters of support poured in. Cheryl Hurley, president of the Library of America, which had leased the texts of several of the Melville volumes, attested to “the unusually scrupulous and intelligent editing of the Melville volumes.” She considered the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of The Writings of Herman Melville to be “one of the most respected literary endeavors of the past twenty-five years.” John Bryant, editor of the Melville Society’s journal, claimed that his work on Melville “could not exist without your publications . . . a monument to excellent book making.” He wrote, “I insist that only NN editions be used for quotation. Critical works that do not use these texts, if any exist these days, are not likely to be taken seriously.” He argued in favor of keeping the Melville project; the edition is “not just a set of books; it is a cultural icon, and in the long run (and even in the short term) it brings high praise and repute to Northwestern University and its press.”

In 1997 Northwestern University received a $7,000 grant from the NEH, as well as a matching grant from the Newberry Library, to help with the production costs of Published Poems. But Harrison Hayford’s health was failing, and in December 2001, he died. Hershel Parker took over as General Editor and Robert D. Madison became Associate General Editor; the remaining team was able to complete Published Poems for publication in 2009.

The plan for the Billy Budd volume was always to prepare new reading texts from and to print corrected versions of Harrison Hayford’s 1962 literal transcription for Billy Budd, Sailor, Robert C. Ryan’s 1967 dissertation for the Weeds and Wildings pieces, and Robert A. Sandberg’s 1989 dissertation for the Parthenope (formerly “Burgundy Club”) poems and prose pieces. Nevertheless, scanning, checking, and correcting those transcriptions and then producing new reading texts took many more years than expected. G. Thomas Tanselle did the primary work on Billy Budd, Sailor and Weeds and Wildings, in addition to the textual appendixes that he had written for every volume of the edition. With funding from a Visiting Fellowship in the Study of Manuscripts at Houghton Library, Harvard University, and a travel stipend from Northwestern University Press, Robert A. Sandberg spent the summers of 2013 and 2015 producing fresh transcriptions of Parthenope and all the other pieces included in in the Billy Budd volume. In preparing the reading texts and literal transcriptions of these manuscripts, Sandberg benefited from collaborating with Robert D. Madison, who also worked with the manuscripts in the summer of 2013, and having on hand all of Hayford’s notes and original transcriptions. Hershel Parker contributed the Historical Note, as he had for many volumes, and Alma A. MacDougall shepherded the volume through the editorial and production process. These dedicated efforts enabled Northwestern University Press to come full circle back to Hayford’s work on Billy Budd, publishing the final volume of the edition in the fall of 2017.

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