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After Sealts

This site is an homage and companion to Melville’s Reading by Merton M. Sealts, Jr. One of its goals is to do for Melville’s print collection what Sealts did for Melville’s book collection—to present an exact inventory that identifies each object by artist, title, and date, making possible future research into an area of Melville’s life not previously accessible in any comprehensive way. The inventory on this site is accompanied by digital images that allow the viewer to closely examine each print known to be owned by Melville. 

Sealts published the first edition of Melville’s Reading in 1966, the second, expanded edition in 1988. Since his death in 2000, his work was continued by Steven Olsen-Smith in periodic supplements in Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies and then expanded in Olsen-Smith’s Melville’s Marginalia Online (MMO). Sealts in the 1988 edition documented 691 books that Melville had owned or borrowed.[1] This edition has become the bible of Melville’s reading but it is not infallible—not because of mistakes by the compiler (which are extremely rare), but because Melville owned or read many additional books that Sealts was not able either to locate or document. Many of these were sold by Herman’s widow Elizabeth without any record having been left of their authors or titles. Because Sealts was so meticulous, some have taken his inventory to represent the entire extent of Melville's reading, when in fact it records only the known part of an unknown whole.

The 420 prints from Melville’s collection catalogued in this book are themselves the known part of an unknown whole. The collection inventoried here is rich in Old Master paintings from the Italian, French, Flemish, Dutch, German, and English schools but it is relatively weak in prints after paintings by American artists. The easy assumption would be that Melville was relatively uninterested in works by American artists even though he was personally acquainted with several of them, including F. O. C. Darley and Sanford R. Gifford. Although I have not yet encountered prints after Darley, Gifford, or many of their contemporary American artists, this does not mean that Melville did not collect them. Prints that he did own may have been lost or destroyed over the years—or they may still exist in some location in which they have not been discovered (as had been the case with most of the prints from Melville’s collection before I discovered the first large batch in storage at the Berkshire Athenaeum in 1984/85). The prints cataloged here establish quite securely the minimum number of prints Melville is known to have owned, but they cannot be assumed to represent the entirety of his collection. What is remarkable about both his book and print collections is the number of items that have survived into our own day in spite of the literary obscurity in which Melville lived during the twenty-five years before his death.

Merton Sealts began his archival retrieval of Melville’s library in 1948 when he published the first of seven installments of “Melville’s Reading: A Check-List of Books Owned and Borrowed” in the Harvard Library Bulletin. By the time he published the first book version of Melville’s Reading in 1966, Sealts had co-edited with Harrison Hayford the genetic edition of Billy Budd, Sailor (1962), establishing the first reliable text of the haunting novella that Melville left unpublished at his death in 1891. Before his own death in 2000, Sealts had also published The Early Lives of Melville in 1974, Pursuing Melville in 1982, and Beyond the Classroom in 1996 in addition to the expanded version of Melville’s Reading in 1988. Mert was a generous man as well as an exemplary scholar. I am only one of many young scholars whose work he encouraged long before we had a chance to meet in person. Once we did meet, he took as much interest in the artistic efforts of my honors undergraduates at Northern Kentucky University as he did in the work of the distinguished graduate students had mentored over the years. 

When I told Mert that I hoped one day to do for Melville’s print collection what he had done for the book collection, he encouraged me in every way, for which I will always be grateful. I was pleased when it turned out that five of my early essays on “Melville’s Prints” appeared in Harvard Library Bulletin, the journal which had published the early installments of “Melville’s Reading” fifty years earlier. In 1948, the year of that first installment, Melville’s granddaughter Eleanor Melville Metcalf (who was then preserving many of the prints from his collection) wrote to Jay Leyda (who was gathering materials for what was to become The Melville Log in 1951) that she would like to find somebody “to index the paintings and the prints” in the way Merton Sealts was beginning to do with the books. “My idea,” she wrote, “would be not only an index, but an article on Melville’s interest in art, and its influence on him.”[2] As will become increasingly clear, this site is an homage to Eleanor Metcalf as well as to Merton Sealts.

The worlds of Melville’s reading and his print collection, I have come to learn, are not only parallel but intersecting. An impressive number of the books he owned are about visual art and artists. A significant number of the prints he collected depict literary artists or their works. Many of the books he collected include images after artists whose images are prominent in his print collection. Dozens of the prints he collected originated in books from whose pages they have been cut out, whether by Melville or some print dealer. This site will show, as has never before been possible, the degree to which the visual and the verbal interacted in Melville’s mind, art, and heart.  As he wrote in “Art,” published in Timoleon in the last year of his life, “unlike things must meet and mate; / . . . And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart, / To wrestle with the angel—Art” (NN PP 280).

[1] Melville’s Reading: Revised and Enlarged Edition (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988). Sealts numbered his entries from 1 to 567 but the 1988 edition contains another 124 titles that are tucked among those numbers—beginning with nos. 14.1, 14a, and 14b and ending with no. 563a. Subsequent references to books in this edition of Melville’s Reading will be made parenthetically in my text and notes. In MMO Olsen-Smith followed Sealts’s numbering system, Sealts no. 165 becoming MMO 165.

[2] I am grateful to Dennis Marnon for making me acquainted with this unpublished letter from Metcalf to Ledya, dated “9-2-48,” preserved in the UCLA Leyda Papers, Collection 460, Box 7, Env. 1. I am grateful to the UCLA archives and the Metcalf family for permission to cite this letter.