Call Me Herman: The Life and Writings of Herman Melville is a freely accessible collection of reference databases related to the life and writings of the 19th century American author, Herman Melville. After spending a mere 11 years writing and publishing a series of travel narratives and novels that culminated in the rhetorical, philosophical, and literary masterpiece that is Moby-Dick, Melville spent the last 35 years of his life writing and publishing poetry. Besides the four volumes of poetry he successfully saw through to publication — Battle-Pieces, Clarel, John Marr and Other Sailors, and Timoleon — at the time of his death he was still composing, revising, and arranging for publication three other verse-inspired or verse-filled volumes which he unfortunately did not live long enough to complete and publish: Billy Budd, Sailor; Weeds and Wildings Chiefly with a Rose or Two; and Parthenope.
Like any website, Call Me Herman is a work-in-progress, but even in its current, inchoate state, exploring its menus, submenus, and site map will provide visitors with a detailed overview of the entire corpus of Melville’s writings—published and unpublished, completed and uncompleted. The various databases include book and subject bibliographies sorted by author and year; a Melville Almanac that highlights important dates in Melville’s life; various annotated resource lists; an extensive selection of quotations; a gallery of art works that Melville saw, collected, or wrote about; and categorized listings of current and out of print books of Melville biography, criticism, and editions.
In addition to these archival resources, you will also find a calendar of upcoming events and links to Melville-related websites, blogs, and newsfeeds. The event calendar, links to various websites, blogs, and groups, and the constantly changing content of the newsfeeds indicate the extent to which Melville continues to attract, influence, and inspire readers, writers, scholars, visual artistis, critics, musicians, actors, and playwrights. A planned archive of cartoons and advertising copy will document Melville’s continuing influence on popular culture.
The Original Melville Room
Much as this website evolved out of a need for handy reference material, in the pre-internet decades of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, a similar need led to the establishment of what was to become the original Melville Room that was curated and housed on the second floor of Chicago’s Newberry Library. In the mid-1960s, the late Professor Harrison Hayford (1916–2001) of Northwestern University began to recruit scholars, editors, independent researchers, librarians, and graduate students to work on
editing and publishing scholarly, critical texts of Melville’s writings. As part of this effort, Hayford, with the help of Newberry Library staff—especially that of Richard Colles Johnson—collected, catalogued, and curated the many types of items that became the Newberry Library Melville Collection. Located in what became colloquially known as “The Melville Room,” the Newberry Melville collection was comprised of rare first editions of Melville’s writings, numerous file cabinets filled with copies or offprints of articles reviews, essays, and various sorts of Melvilliana. These file cabinets were surrounded by rows of bookshelves containing all the works of criticism and biography that had been published to date. The Newberry Library Melville Room served for decades as an essential repository of primary and secondary materials that Hayford and the Newberry staff made readily available to scholars, editors, and graduate students working not only on the texts of the multi-volume Northwestern-Newberry Writings of Herman Melville series, but on their own Melville-related research projects as well.
The Melville Society Archive
Most of the contents of the original Melville Room are now part of the Melville Society Archive, one of several projects administered by scholar and volunteer members of The Melville Society through its Melville Society Cultural Project. Working in collaboration with the New Bedford Whaling Museum (NBWM), the Melville Society Archive is maintained as a part of the NBWM Research Library. Just as with the original Melville Room, anyone with an interest in doing research related to Melville’s life and writings is welcome to visit, study, and conduct research in New Bedford, MA using the resources of the Melville Society Archive. The MSCP accepts donations of books, manuscripts, papers, and photos. You can visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s website for detailed information about visiting, donating, and accessing the resources of the Melville Society Archive.
Database Websites and Traditional Brick and Mortar Archives
Doing original research in libraries, newspaper and periodical archives, museums, and historical society holdings will always be important and essential. But now, more than two decades into the digital information revolution, author- or subject-specific websites complement the resources of the various brick and mortar archives that have been and will continue to be essential to scholars, biographers, and critics doing original research. Two such websites that offer their own unique, complementary resources for Melville scholars, critics, editors, students, and readers are Melville’s Marginalia Online which makes available digital images of the annotations Melville made in books he owned, borrowed, or shared and the Melville Electronic Library which is in the process of establishing online versions of Melville’s writings. Like these two sites, Call Me Herman is proffered as a complementary resource to the archival holdings and catalogs of important and irreplaceable institutions like the Houghton Library of Harvard College, the Berkshire Historical Society, the Melville Society Archive housed and curated in the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Mystic Seaport Museum, and the New York Public Library. You can of course add to this list many other libraries, museums, and newspaper and periodical archives located throughout the world that are important for understanding Melville’s life and writings.
I came upon a volume of William Ellis’s Polynesian Researches in a bookshop last week in Oakland, CA. Thanks to the work of scholarly sleuths like the late Harrison Hayford, we know that Ellis was Melville’s major source for Omoo. Mary K. Bercaw notes how Harrison Hayford was even able to identify the edition Melville used:
Melville characteristically appropriated into his own works blocks of writing from other works whose origin is so clear that the source-hunter can identify not only Melville’s source but also the very edition he used. The “fingerprints” by which scholars make such identifications with confidence include peculiar wording, errors in titles or dates, and misspellings that Melville copied without changing. With such fingerprints, Harrison Hayford was able to identify the 1833 Harper edition of William Ellis’s Polynesian Researches as the major source for Melville’s second book Omoo. Hayford based his identification on internal evidence (evidence found within Melville’s writing); there is no external evidence of Melville’s having used Ellis: no surviving volume owned by Melville, no library slip, no sales receipt. ((Bercaw, Mary K. “A Fine, Boisterous Something”: Nantucket in Moby-Dick. http://www.nha.org/history/hn/HN-fall1991-bercaw.html))
Like many others who have discovered the convenience of digital books available online through Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook, I am in the process of thinning out my book collection, keeping only what can never be digitally replaced. Books like this modern edition of Ellis are best had and appreciated in their three-dimensional analog form. They will survive my bibliographic cull.
Hopefully this colorfully bound edition of Ellis will be there available for purchase when I return next to Oakland.