Documentary Note on Melville's Marginalia in Dante's The Vision.

Herman Melville's ownership of of Henry Francis Cary's translation of Dante's The Vision was first documented by Merton M. Sealts from John Wiley's 1 July 1848 statement of Melville's account with the publisher, which lists the volume as purchased by Melville on 22 June of that year (see Sealts No. 174 in the "Online Catalog"). Melville consulted the volume at different times during the period of his ownership, which likely extended up to his death in 1891. As revealed by rough notes on the rear free endpaper of the book, Melville drew from Dante's The Vision during the composition of his third book, Mardi (1849); and material used by Melville in his seventh book, Pierre (1852), is marked in this copy. An ink inscription in Melville's hand on page 1 of the main text was annotated by him in pencil, "A. D. 1858." A partially-erased notation on the final page (xlviii) of Cary's "Chronological View of the Age of Dante" was dated by Melville 22 September 1860, while he was at sea aboard the Meteor, captained by his brother Thomas. Scholars have speculated about when Melville may have consulted the copy in later years, such as the period following the death of his eldest son Malcolm in 1867.

Melville's copy of The Vision presents substantial challenges for editing and study. As a book that left the Melville family following his possession, it passed through the hands of subsequent owners and contains marginalia by at least one additional reader. Its provenance is undocumented before it first appeared at Christie’s New York on Nov. 22, 1985, where it was bought by the American book collector Haven O'More, whose bookplate is mounted on the front pastedown. It was acquired by Mr. William Reese at the sale of O’More’s Garden Library on Nov. 9, 1989. Marginalia not in Melville's hand are most clearly present in the section devoted to Dante's "Paradise," where all of the marginal annotations and likely also the pencil illustrations accompanying them were inscribed by one or more later readers. Many and perhaps most of the markings in the "Paradise" section were inscribed by a later reader or readers, particularly in sections where the abundant, indeed cluttered, proliferation of markings does not conform with Melville's habitually precise and selective style of marginalia present elsewhere in the copy and in other books that survive from his library. The apparatus to this electronic edition of the marginalia consistently identifies all annotations not in Melville's hand, and it distinguishes questionable markings and clusters of markings generically as "unattributed marks."

The one section of the present copy where all marginalia have been attributed to Melville with confidence by the editors is Dante's "Purgatory," and the verified markings and annotations in this section provide a comparative measure by which markings in the rest of the book are attributed to Melville or instead classified as unattributed. The characteristically neat and continuous character of the markings in this section, in proximity to Melville's verified handwriting, contrasts substantially with markings elsewhere in the book. For instance, the lone pencil score inscribed at 344.15-17 and associated with Melville's transcription of a phrase from that marked passage on the printer's imprint in the back of the book corresponds in density and continuity of inscription to marginalia by Melville inscribed in "Purgatory" at 308.3-12. Both examples differ remarkably from most of the unattributed marginalia on pages such as 38 in "Hell" and 451 in "Paradise." However, many instances of marginalia are less distinguishable in terms of attribution. This is particularly true in the "Paradise" section of the book, where doubtless many markings in Melville's hand are for the time being classified in the apparatus as unattributed on account of their proximity to questionable markings and to insufficient means of differentiation.

The classification "unattributed," it should be emphasized, signifies not that Melville's authorship of the markings in question has been positively ruled out, but that present means of differentiation make positive attribution unrealistic. Isolated instances corresponding in appearance and contour to the marginalia in "Purgatory" are attributed to Melville, and correspondences of marked subject matter with thought and rhetoric in Melville's writings are frequently pointed out in accompanying commentary. All pages containing marginalia are labeled as marked and/or annotated in the apparatus regardless of attribution. Analysis of the marginalia in Melville's copy of Dante's The Vision will continue as technical aids become available and scholarly research continues. For the time being, users of the electronic edition should practice caution while endeavoring to study Melville's engagement with the book.

Publication: First published at Melville's Marginalia Online, 2015.

Selected studies of Melville that cite this copy: Hennig Cohen and Donald Yannella, Herman Melville's Malcolm Letter: "Man's Final Lore" (New York: Fordham University Press and the New York Public Library, 1992); Lea Bertani Vozar Newman, "Melville’s Copy of Dante: Evidence of New Connections Between the Commedia and Mardi," Studies in the American Renaissance (1993), 305-338; Hershel Parker, Melville: the Making of the Poet (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2007); Dennis Berthold, American Risorgimento: Herman Melville and the Cultural Politics of Italy (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009); Martin Kevorkian, Writing Beyond Prophecy (Louisiana State University Press); Steven Olsen-Smith and Joshua Preminger, "Newly Deciphered Erased and Faded Inscriptions in Melville's Copy of the Commedia," Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies 17.2 (June 2015), 41-58.