Melville's Notes from Thomas Roscoe's the German Novelists

By Norsworthy, Scott | Leviathan, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Melville's Notes from Thomas Roscoe's the German Novelists


Norsworthy, Scott, Leviathan


Sometime after writing Mardi (1849) and before publishing Moby-Dick (1851), Herman Melville made notes from borrowed books in the back of a prized volume of Shakespeare. The seventh volume in Melville's seven-volume set of Shakespeare's Dramatic Works (Boston: Hilliard, Gray, 1837) preserves these notes in Melville's hand, penciled on both sides of a rear fly leaf. (1) To aid the present and any future examination, the notes are herein reproduced (see Figs. 3 and 4) along with transcriptions (Figs. 1 and 5) by Steven Olsen-Smith. (2) Unlike marginalia elsewhere in this and other volumes of the set, Melville's notes in the back of Volume 7 (which contains King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello) do not pertain directly to any play by Shakespeare. (3) The recto and verso of the leaf with Melville's notes have been assigned page numbers [523] and [524], respectively, and the notes on both sides were reproduced in photographic facsimile, transcribed, and discussed by Harrison Hayford and Lynn Horth in the 1988 Northwestern-Newberry edition of Moby-Dick. (4) The notes are thus well known, but heretofore only one of their immediate sources has been identified. As Geoffrey Sanborn has demonstrated, one group of notes was copied verbatim from Francis Palgrave's unsigned essay "Superstition and Knowledge" in the July 1823 Quarterly Review. (5) That group includes the satanic inversion of the Latin formula for baptism that Melville put into the mouth of Ahab ("Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!"), partially and privately unveiled to Nathaniel Hawthorne in June 1851 as the "motto (the secret one)" of the whaling adventure then unfinished. (6)

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Melville's notes on "the name of the Devil" thus bear significantly on the compositional evolution and, as Sanborn also shows, interpretive history of Moby-Dick. Other notes on the same leaf in the Shakespeare volume obviously concern dealings with the Devil but have no clear or direct relation to any of Melville's known writings. Nevertheless, Luther S. Mansfield and Howard P. Vincent, along with later commentators on the matter of the Devil in Melville's notes, have recognized the "Faustian" premise of a bargain with the Devil ("A formal compact") as an archetype for the diabolical maneuverings of Ahab and Fedallah. (7)Affirming this interpretation, Helen Trimpi sees a thematic link to "the diabolism of Moby-Dick" in Melville's Devil-related notes and comprehensively regards them as reflections of "Melville's interest in demonology and witchcraft as a literary subject." (8)

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Besides the satanic baptismal formula used in Moby-Dick, the best evidence in Melville's notes of his fascination with the Devil as a literary subject appears in a section that Jay Leyda influentially treated as a kind of outline for a projected but evidently unwritten story about the Devil in Manhattan or the "Devil as a Quaker." (9) As embryonic fiction, the notes about a deal with the Devil have few parallels in Melville's marginalia outside of his journals, which contain among other hints for future literary development some jotted ideas for Israel Potter and a work called "Frescoes of Travel." (10) Available manuscript evidence is generally fragmentary for Melville's published fictions and (where it exists) tends to exhibit intermediate and late stages of writing, as is the case with surviving manuscript portions of Typee and The Confidence-Man. Sketchy as they are, therefore, Melville's notations about a Faustian "compact" that somehow implicates the "Devil as a Quaker" offer a rare glimpse into perhaps the earliest recoverable phases of Melville's creative process.

No source has been located or even assumed in previous scholarship for this group of Melville's notes on the Devil (Fig. 5, lines 12-30). But with something like the bibliographic diligence that his "poor devil of a Sub-Sub" would display in Moby-Dick, Melville extracted his diabolical storyline from a borrowed book, most likely a library book. …

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