The Work of Language

Melville's annotation in Emerson's Essay "Spiritual Laws"
Melville’s annotation in Emerson’s Essay “Spiritual Laws”

This is from Dan McCall’s preface to the Norton Critical ed. of Melville’s Short Novels.


He read voraciously; in Moby-Dick he said, “I have swam through libraries.” When he began to read Shakespeare, for example, something not altogether conscious or voluntary began happening to him. In American Renaissance, …F. O. Matthiessen concludes that

Melville’s imagination instinctively reshaped its impression to suit his own needs. Shakespeares’

‘where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,’

is altered to ‘No turbaned Turk, no hired Venetian or Malay, could have smote him with more seeming malice.’ On such levels the borrowed material has entered into the formation of Melville’s own thought. The most important effect of Shakespeare’s use of language was to give Melville a range of vocabulary for expressing passion far beyond any that he had previously possessed.

Matthiessen’s great insight is his realization that “the borrowed material has entered into the formation of Melville’s own thought.” What is cooing on is no isolated learned reference, no little allusion; the process unfolding is a profound altering of the mind, for Melville is acquiring a massive old language for a radical new way of seeing the world. In Melville’s hand at the end of his copy of King Lear there are notes about Pip, Bulkington, Ishmael, and Ahab. Melville’s reading and Melville’s writing are quite literally there, physically there on the page together, so that meditation and creation become one.


annotations below
annotations below

All the things that go into to making his great works are notably absent from our world of modern contrivances for capturing language “in the act.” We no longer read books with pencil in hand, steeped in listening, in studying, in ingesting the words. Here I am “tossing off” (and you know that I intend that pun) this pedestrian thought on this least soulful of places.

Melville does not happen on Twitter, Facebook, or in Jezebel, or Gawker, or Salon, etc.


Melville annotations:

“Bully for Emerson!

“A perfectly good being, therefore, would see no
evil.—But what did Christ see?—He saw what
made him weep.—Howard, too, the ‘Philanthropist’
must have been a very bad man—he saw, in jails,
so much evil.”

“To annihilate all this nonsense
read the sermon on the mount,
and consider what it implies.”

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