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The Man Who Edited Melville

Recently, while Harrison Hayford was browsing in one of his regular bookstores, he overheard an argument about Melville. It was a longstanding debate at the store: wasn't American literature just a contradiction in terms, like "military intelligence" or "business ethics"? Well, what about Melville? The young man at the table shook his head. Melville may have been a genius, he said, but his books were endless, incomprehensible -- what he really needed was an editor. Then Hayford made his contribution! "He's got one," he said.

So he has: Hayford is the general editor of The Writings of Herman Melville, being published jointly by Northwestern University and the Newberry Library. Unfortunately for the young man in the store, and for everybody who had Moby-Dick crammed into their brains at school, the series isn't reducing Melville to bitesize bits. Hayford and his associates are working to recover and preserve every twitch and quirk of Melville's style, in all its unabridged madness -- everything except his lousy spelling.

When work on the series began in 1965, Hayford thought it would take four years to finish. He now thinks that was hopelessly naive, even if everything had gone well. As it is, there have been endless delays in the textual work -- which is the purpose of this edition -- and, inevitably, problems with money. After 17 years, the series has yet to reach the hallway point. Only 6 volumes of the projected 15 have been published; nothing at all has come out since 1971. But publication resumes this June, with Israel Potter: His 50 Years of Exile. Melville's short stories, The Piazza Tales, will follow later this summer. Hayford now hopes to have the whole series ready by the time he retires from Northwestern, three years from now.

Granted, these are not the books the whole world has been waiting for. From the beginning, the project has faced the hostility of the literary Establishment and the indifference of the public.

The hostility, as we shall see, is more complicated than it first appears, but the indifference is easy to understand. If you look through the long "textual note" that ends each volume, you soon become convinced that the editors are a bunch of pedantic crazies. There are long lists of "substantive variants" and "accidentals" and a "report on end-line hyphenation." Even the most fanatical admirer of Melville will find his eyes glazing over. Who needs this shit? What does it have to do with the books? It's an old argument. The editing method Hayford uses is still a new, and controversial, procedure, but editors generally have been the butt of jokes for centuries. What hurts is that the writers are the ones making the jokes. From Rabelais on, writers have had endless fun with scholarly foot notes and emendations, the eternal quibbling of the ivory tower. Alexander Pope wrote a nasty mock-epic about an inoffensive editor of Shakespeare named Louis Theobald. Nabokov's Pale Fire is about a crazed scholar making up surreal interpretations of an entirely sensible poem. William Butler Yeats wrote how

Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds
Rhymed out in love's despair....
All shuffle there, all cough in ink
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

Hayford, I must report, is getting bald, and he is in his early 60s -- if that counts as old -- but otherwise Yeats wouldn't recognize him. I have never seen him shuffle: his normal walking pace is hard to keep up with. Nor is he much interested in what other people think. A friend once spotted him in a used bookstore with a huge stack of books on sex -- everything from medical texts to The Sensuous Man. "Everybody tells me that Melville was homosexual," he said. "I've decided to figure it out for myself.

But Melville was one of the writers who made fun of editors, and I thought Hayford might at times be embarrassed by that. But if he is, he hides it very well. The Newberry has a copy of the Shakespeare set that Melville owned, and Hayford has painfully copied out Melville's marginal scribbles and underlinings from the original in the Harvard library. Beside one of the editor's fussy explanations of what Shakespeare meant, Melville had written "Peace, thou ass of a commentator!" Hayford's laugh when he saw it again was loud and delighted.

Hayford has gotten revenge anyway -- because Melville posed as a scholar on whales. He knew about whaling firsthand, but he backed it up with those long chapters on what all the ancient authorities said. "I have turned over whole libraries to make my book," he boasted. Hayford found that Melville had gotten most of it from the encyclopedia -- under "Whales."

Melville really didn't have the patience to be a scholar. He barely had the patience to be a writer. He wrote his books feverishly, whether for money or out of creative frenzy, and he couldn't much be bothered with them once he was finished. In Pierre, he talked about how much he hated correcting proofs: "They were replete with errors; but preoccupied with the thronging and undiluted, pure imaginings of things, he became impatient of such minute, gnat-like torments; he randomly corrected the worst of them and let the rest go, jeering with himself at the rich harvest thus furnished to the entomological critics." But the entomological critics, that is, the nit-picking, classifying critics, ignored the harvest. Even while he was writing the book, his career was slipping away from him.

The story has been told so often that it's become a symbol for what happens to a writer in America. Melville began writing when he was 25, largely because he couldn't think of anything else to do. All he knew about was sailing. But he'd hated that, so he wrote a romantic story, slightly true, about how he'd ditched ship in the South Seas. The book, Typee, was published in 1846, and became an instant best-seller. People loved exotic true adventures, so he wrote another, Omoo which was almost as big a hit. But he was already getting bored. The next book, Mardi, starts out as another romance and midway through changes into a lunatic voyage around the world -- which proves to be an endless chain of Polynesian islands. It bombed. He wrote two more sailing stories in a hurry, White-Jacket and Redburn, but he was hooked: he told his father-in-law "It is my sincerest wish to write books that 'fail' He meant it: the next book was Moby-Dick.

In 1851, while he was finishing Moby-Dick he wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself." He compared himself to a seed found in the Pyramids, "which, after being three thousand years a seed and nothing but a seed, being planted in English soil, it developed itself, grew to greenness, and fell to mould. So I ... But I feel that I am now come to the inmost bud of the flower, and that the flower must shortly fall to the mould."

This was, in a way, what happened. Moby-Dick wasn't a complete disaster -- it did get some respectful reviews -- but Melville was running short of money. He decided to do an ordinary, conventional novel. But he'd just spent two years exploring the cosmos with Ahab and lshmael. He was the last man qualified to do something ordinary. The book he wrote, Pierre, is still one of the strangest novels ever written. The first half is a nightmarish parody of sentimental fiction. Love, he informs us, is "a volume bound in rose-leaves, clasped with violets, and by the beaks of hummingbirds printed with peach-juice on the leaves of lilies." After 200 pages of this, Melville runs completely amok, throws the plot away, and goes off on a string of berserk improvisations on such subjects as kinky sex and literary fame. In the end everybody dies. So did the book.

In a desperate attempt to keep going, he started writing stories for magazines. Israel Potter, the short novel the Northwestern-Newberry series is publishing this June, was written during these years. "He did it with a gun to his head," Hayford says. "He promised the publisher there'd be no -- metaphysics. But he still managed to get in a few licks of his own."

It was too late. Hayford says concisely, "He was through." The short stories, The Piazza Tales, were published in 1856. There was one more novel, the most sublime of black comedies, The Confidence Many the next year. Then, nothing. He was 37.

It was an amazing run, ten books in 12 years, including some of the best prose ever published in America. But he couldn't live on what he wrote. At the end he had no audience, no publisher, and no money.

Israel Potter is in a way Melville's parody of his own career. It is based on a true story. Potter was a young American innocent caught up in the Revolutionary War who had a string of incredible -- and, in Melville's version, hilarious -- adventures, hobnobbing with Benjamin Franklin and John Paul Jones; but when peacetime came he was left a penniless exile in another country. So Melville was swept along on the rising tide of his genius, but when his luck ran out he was stranded. "I'm sure that's what attracted him to the story,*' Hayford says. "Then you have the names, Israel and Ishmael from Moby-Dick. Someone even pointed out -- though I don't think this decided him -- that Melville and the real Israel Potter have the same birthday, August first."

Potter's last years were spent in wretched poverty, but Melville, it turned out, did not do as badly as all that. He eventually got a job as a customs inspector in New York, and kept it for 20 years. He didn't stop writing altogether. He took up poetry, and occasionally had volumes of it privately printed. They received scattered reviews, and sank without a trace. But he returned to fiction in the end: the manuscript of a new novel, Billy Budd was found in his desk after he died.

It was Billy Budd that ultimately led to the revival of Melville's books. It was published for the first time in 1924, over 30 years after Melville's death, with an essay by Lewis Mumford calling attention to this neglected genius of American literature. E.M. Forster his book, Aspects of the Novel, published three years later, said that "Melville reaches straight back into the universal, to a sadness and blackness so transcending our own that they are indistinguishable from glory."

Melville's resurrection coincided with the first real interest in American literature as a field of study in the universities. "At that time," Hayford says, "no serious work had been done on any American writer. So they turned loose the whole American literary machine, and a lot of obvious things got done. The books were reissued, there were biographies and critical studies putting writers in context. Then in 1940 the New Criticism came in, and everybody began analyzing the texts."

For those who missed out on the glory of being an English major, the New Criticism is a way of studying literature by focusing on subtle meanings and associations -- sometimes going through a poem word by word rather than talking about how a poem fits into literary history or a writer's biography. Melville, whose books are filled with ambiguities and double meanings and strange allusions, was a natural for this kind of approach.

"Just by looking closely at a piece of writing," Hayford says, "they saw a lot of things that nobody else had' noticed before. But you take people with PhDs, who are expected to be scholars, and you tell them that they have to find something new -- well, the first 5 may come up with something, but when you have 50 people looking, the text gets used up."

Hayford himself got his doctorate at Yale in 1945 with a critical dissertation on Hawthorne and Melville. I remember thinking at the time that it was one too many It was the ninth, I think, that had been done." He smiled ruefully. We were standing in front of the Newberry's collection of dissertations on Melville -- there were almost 300 of them.

"So by 1950 it was an absurd situation. I wasn't an editor, I didn't know anything about it. But for all this close reading, all this study, nobody had ever thought to see if the texts themselves were reliable."

So, in the early 50s, Hayford began working on a new edition of Billy Budd.

Melville had left Billy Budd unfinished. The story was all there, but it wasn't ready to be published -- there were loose ends, and revisions not incorporated into the text, and various pages that needed to be rewritten, or at least recopied. An editor intending to publish a manuscript like this has two choices. He can prepare a "reading edition," that is, one that smooths out all the rough spots and gives the version Melville would have wanted; or he can present an exact transcription of the manuscript. The problem with doing the second is that nobody but another scholar would want to read it. But the problem with doing the first, as Hayford and his coeditor Merton Sealts observed, is that "would have wanted" turns into "should have wanted." You get a book that makes sense, but it doesn't necessarily make Melville's sense.

An editor couldn't take either course, though, unless he understood exactly what it was he was dealing with -- what was finished and what wasn't. It became obvious early on that the earlier editors had made a lot of mistakes. Many of these were understandable: Melville's spelling and handwriting were atrocious. Some of the corrections were harder to read than what he'd crossed out. But the editors had made several crucial errors because they simply hadn't spent enough time studying the state of the manuscript. The problems started with the title. Melville at one point decided to call it Billy Budd, Foretopman, and the editors had taken him at his word. But he'd changed his mind on the last draft -- his final title, written on the first page of the draft, was Billy Budd, Sailor (an Inside Narrative). No one had paid attention to it. This may not have been a crucial difference -- but there was also the preface, which was reprinted in every edition of the book. Hayford and Sealts found that it had been pieced together after his death from discarded pages of an early draft. He had also decided to change the name of the ship, from the Indomitable to Bellipotent. The earlier editors had missed it because he hadn't gone through the entire manuscript to make the change.

In short, all of the editions of Billy Budd currently available were unfaithful to Melville's intention. Hayford and Sealts began an exhaustive study of the manuscript. They decided to solve the problem of what to publish by doing two versions -- the exact transcript for other scholars, and a new reading edition based on it. But they would begin by figuring out the precise state of the manuscript.

To do this, they used a method known as "genetic editing." This had been developed by scholars over the past century, largely to study the transmission of manuscripts before printing was invented. The idea is that if a scribe copying, say, Chaucer, had made a mistake, later scribes copying his copy would just reproduce the error. It would be inherited, like a had gene. A modern scholar could work backwards, arranging all the surviving copies in their proper sequence (in the case of Chaucer, there are more than 50 copies, and none of them agree) and then make a guess as to what the lost original was like.

This method has been criticized, among other reasons because it assumes that scribes did nothing but make mistakes. If one of them corrected a mistake in what he was copying, it would screw up the sequence. Such are the nightmares of scholarship. Hayford and Sealts were dealing with one manuscript, written by one man. But it wasn't all of a piece. It was a patchwork of several drafts cut up and pasted back together again -- something like an archaeological site, with different pages offering clues to what the different drafts contained.

Hayford and Sealts worked with the handwriting, the paper stocks, the inks (four different colors), the page numbers (six different sets of numbers), even where the numbers were put on the page (five different places), until they understood exactly how the novel had been written. Melville had begun it as a poem, a sailor's monologue before he was hanged for mutiny. He added a brief prose note explaining the situation of the poem. (In this version, Billy Budd was guilty.) Then he began expanding the note. Billy turned into a saintly innocent falsely accused of mutiny. Then his accuser, the horrendous Claggart, began to interest Melville; new chapters were added to explore his character. Captain Vere, who orders Billy's execution, began to flower in his turn. Melville was adding touches to his character when he died. In all, there were eight major stages of revision, and numerous substages; the story grew from 6 longhand pages to a 351-page manuscript.

Genetic editing, obviously, is a difficult and time-consuming process. It took Hayford and Sealts ten years, off and on, to complete their work (they were both teaching full-time). But when they were done, they knew the manuscript better than anyone else in the world had, except Melville himself. Their edition now stands as a landmark of modern scholarship. The reading text is now accepted, as a matter of course, as the definitive text. But Hayford disagrees: he says now, "In places where the manuscript was especially ragged, we used the U of C Manual of Style to determine the correct punctuation. I've come to feel, that was a mistake. We should have used contemporary style books. But that's a small matter, really -- it only affects a few dozen places in the text."

His success with Billy Budd is what led Hayford to undertake a new edition of Moby-Dick. He collaborated this time with his colleague Herschel Parker. (Hayford had supervised Parker's dissertation.) This project, begun after Billy Budd was finished in the early 60s, resulted in the Northwestern-Newberry series.

But it wasn't the edition of Moby-Dick itself, but the method of editing. In the last few decades, a quiet revolution had been going on in the way modern scholars reprinted old books. This was known as the "New Bibliography" -- the capital letters show how important they thought it was. It is what is now called textual editing.

The goal most modern editors have, whatever method they use, is an "ideal text" -- that is, one that corresponds as closely as possible to the writer's intentions. To avoid confusion, if for instance the writer changes his mind in between finishing the book and publication day, this has been narrowed to "final intentions." But what if there's no evidence about whether the writer had a change of heart, or even approved of the published version? The genetic text of Billy Budd would have been impossible without the manuscript -- but for most books, including almost all of Melville's, there is no manuscript surviving -- no direct evidence of any kind for what the writer wanted.

In that case, it had been assumed, you had to take it or leave it. You could correct misprints, or suggest changes for passages that made no sense whatsoever -- assuming there was a simple and obvious change that would restore a passage to sense (and even then you worried that the nonsense was what the writer wanted). But past that, you were helpless. But the New Bibliographers suggested that exhaustive study of the printed books themselves -- everything about the books, down to the watermarks of the paper -- would enable an editor to get a toehold into the text and determine how accurate it was.

With most modern books, it isn't necessary to do this kind of work. The writer usually has got what he wants anyway, and, if there's any doubt, there are often the manuscripts to consult. Scholarly appeals to the writer's ego, plus (until recently) some lenient tax laws, have resulted in a great many manuscripts being donated to university libraries.

But when you get back more than a couple of hundred years, the problem becomes far more complicated. Writers usually had no control over the finished book -- all rights were sold to the publisher, who could do whatever he wanted with the manuscript. Hamlet was published twice during Shakespeare's lifetime, and again in the collected works (First Folio) seven years after his death. He didn't have anything to do with any of these editions, and they all contain wildly different versions of the same scenes. So which one is really Shakespeare's?

To answer the question, the editor must be saturated with Shakespeare's style, so he can make a guess about what sounds "Shakespearean" and what's just Elizabethan, and must also be an expert on how each version came to be published -- which isn't easy because there's not much evidence surviving. The textual edition is most likely going to be a synthesis of the best lines from all three versions. More technically: to avoid complete chaos, a textual editor first determines which version is the most generally accurate, and uses this as his base -- it is called the "copy-text." (The choice of a copy-text is sometimes straightforward -- as it proved to be with Moby-Dick -- but sometimes requires a long chain of hypothesis and circumstantial evidence.) Then he adopts lines, or "readings," from the other versions only if they are markedly superior. If they differ, but none of them is all that strikingly better, the textual editor sticks to the copytext reading and usually prints the other possibilities in a footnote. These footnotes, which usually bore or annoy readers, are really there out of honesty: the reader can decide if the variant line sounds better or more appropriate.

Moby-Dick, since it is a very complicated book, was crowded with misprints when it was first published, so most modern editors did correct the mistakes. Nobody thought there was any textual problem until Hayford and Parker started working on it in the early 60s. Everybody knew there were two editions -- the American and the English, both published in 1851. But the English edition had been censored by the publisher. They cut out not only Melville's bawdy jokes, and some ambiguously atheistical passages, but also a number of jokes he'd made about British royalty. So editors assumed as a matter of course that the American edition was the trustworthy one.

But when Hayford and Parker compared the two editions, they found a number of changes that couldn't be accounted for either by censorship or by editorial fussiness. Ishmael, the narrator, compares a whale's skeleton to "the hull of a great ship" in the American edition, but in the English he compares it to "the embryo hull of a great ship." No editor could care about a change like this, or would be likely to dream it up in the first place. The only logical conclusion was that it was Melville's.

First Hayford and Parker determined that Melville could have made the changes in the text. They found that the American edition had been set up in type first, and the proofs had been sent to Melville before being forwarded on to London. If he made the changes on those proofs, it would explain how they ended up in one edition but not the other. But no manuscript or proofs survive; so Hayford and Parker now had to compare both editions word by word, and account for all of the hundreds of differences. The procedure was to take the American edition as the copy-text, and adopt an English reading only if it was clearly "Melvillean." "It's not a science," Hayford says now. "You draw up lists and you argue about them."

For example: Melville is talking about the sex life of whales in chapter 88. He says that the ruler of the herd "cannot keep the most notorious Lothario out of his bed; for alas! all fish bed in common." He says so in the American edition, anyway; in the English it reads, "he cannot always frustrate the most notorious Lothario; for alas! all fish have very vague ideas of the connubial tie." Both versions sound like Melville; Hayford and Parker observe that the English version "is funnier, though more genteel"; so which do you choose? In this instance, they chose the first, the original version; if there is no clear preference, you stick to the copy-text.

But ultimately they were led to make over a hundred substantive changes, that is, changes of wording, and another hundred changes in the punctuation (punctuation marks are called, misleadingly, "accidentals"). They observed that the original punctuation is very confusing, "at least for people who take pointing as a guide to the sense."

Their edition was eventually published in 1967, as one of the Norton Critical Editions. It was customary for editors in the series to include a brief "note on the text" describing what text had been used and what modifications, if any, had been performed on it. Hayford and Parker's note ran to 30 pages, but even so, they admitted in their forward that they were "opening up, not closing, the textual problems of Moby-Dick" They promised to settle the problems in a new venture: the Melville Editions Project.

This was, in turn, part of a much larger project -- in fact, the largest ever undertaken by American scholars. The Modern Language Association proposed a series of definitive, complete editions of all the major American writers, using the New Bibliographic al techniques.

The gains of the New Bibliography were obvious -- to other scholars, anyway. A reader who picks up a recent edition of Shakespeare, The Riverside Shakespeare, for example, or the Pelican, or the Signet -- is getting the most minutely accurate versions of the plays ever published. They are barely a step away from Shakespeare's manuscripts. But American literature was still relatively untouched. The MLA proposed to crank up the whole scholarly machine again, and turn it loose on everyone from Emerson and Thoreau to Charles Brockden Brown (author in case you've forgotten, of Wieland).

The problem, naturally, was money. And here they ran up against the literary Establishment, as personified by the most respected critic in America, Edmund Wilson.

Wilson also had a plan for an American literature series. Together with Jason Epstein of Random House, he wanted to issue a series modeled on the French Standard Authors series, the Pleiades. (These books are subsidized by the French government, and contain the complete works of all the important French writers, in compact and readable form.) Wilson and Epstein had a list of American writers they wanted to do -- it was almost identical to the MLA list. They were also looking for money. Hayford says, "We'd be in anterooms of the Carnegie or the Guggenheim Foundation and they'd be sitting on the other couch."

Wilson didn't think much of the MLA, or academics generally, and he hated textual editions, with their long lists of emendations and scholarly quibblings. The major criterion for his edition was that the books would be comfortable to read in bed. "They had a publishing scheme," Hayford says, "but they'd given no thought to what they'd publish. We had a proposal for the texts but didn't care who published them. At one point it was going to be the Government Printing Office.

"We pleaded with them to combine the two ideas. We'd do the texts, and they'd publish them. But they wouldn't have anything to do with us."

Neither side could get enough money from the private foundations, so both went to the Feds. "These were the Kennedy years," Hayford says. "They were giving scientists money to shoot at the moon and the scholars money to compare commas." The National Endowment for the Humanities was advised by an independent board on the merits, and, as Hayford says succinctly, "They saw our point." The MLA got a series of grants to do the work from a variety of government agencies. (The Melville money came from the Office of Education.)

"Wilson was furious. The New York Review of Books lambasted the MLA -- Epstein's wife was one of the editors. We still would have been willing to deal with them, but their attitude was, 'These fucking pedants got our money!' "

Wilson ultimately wrote a long, vitriolic piece called "The Fruits of the MLA," that the New York Review published in 1968. (It was reprinted in his posthumous collection The Devils and Canon Barham.) He had a long list of quarrels with the MLA editions, which were then beginning to appear. They were ungainly; they were crowded with useless information; they were often books nobody cared about anyway. He heaped scorn on Indiana University for issuing William Dean Howells's first novel, Their Wedding Journey, together with his source material. Who cared about a book this obscure, written by such a minor author? Then he went on, almost against his will, to do a fascinating analysis of the novel in light of the sources. "He proved our point for us," Hayford laughs. "That was exactly what the project was for."

When Wilson died in 1972, his publishing scheme was still without money. To the end of his life, he insisted that the MLA had won through politics. "There may have been something to that," Hayford says. "The project was originally going to be done through the MLA offices, but that wasn't practical, so it was divided up among a number of universities. Some senator may have gone with it just to get money for his state university."

Still, Hayford insists, "You couldn't do the books unless you had the texts." Wilson himself admitted that the Pleiades editions were often the product of the editors he despised -- the Pleiades Proust was based on an exhaustive study of Proust's manuscript (and the new, three-volume English translation published by Jason Epstein's Random House is in turn based on the Pleiades edition). Wilson even conceded that Hayford's MLA Typee was superior to any previous edition -- and he complained that the editorial appendix was too short.

Hayford was chosen to be general editor of the Melville series in 1964. He was still teaching at Northwestern, so the Newberry Library, which had a large collection of books by and about Melville, was the obvious place to begin work. Hayford persuaded them to enlarge their collection, to acquire everything connected with Melville they could find. Their collection is now the finest in the world. They have at least one copy of almost all the printings of Melville's books that came out in his lifetime, and most of those that have come out since. It now fills a large room on the library's first floor, overfills it, currently, since the Newberry is being torn up for expansion. Rows of filing cabinets contain photocopies of all the articles and reviews researchers could dig up; they have accumulated an enormous number of anthologies, to trace Melville's modern reputation. They even have a hymnal that belonged to Melville's mother.

Hayford thinks that, apart from the needs of the Melville project, it was a good idea anyway. "Any library that has the money should try and collect an author. It almost doesn't matter who. Just think what a treasure it would be for anybody interested in working on him."

But the Newberry collection was essential to Hayford. He wanted to do an edition that would settle all the textual problems of Melville's books. The original plan was to farm out each volume to one Melville scholar, with a general editor supervising the series as a whole. He changed that immediately. "That idea just doesn't work. You need uniform quality control. Then you have the conflict between the literary editors and the bibliographic editors. The literary editor knows the writer, but he doesn't know what goes on in a printing house -- except for one course at school, which he's probably forgotten. But the bibliographic editor is like a surgeon. He doesn't know the patient's family. All he's concerned with is the one hole in the text he's trying to repair."

Hayford, in fact, still doesn't think of himself as a bibliographic expert. So he brought in a specialist, G. Thomas Tanselle, to be the bibliographic editor. Richard Johnson of the Newberry became the bibliographic associate. Hayford and Herschel Parker were the literary editors, and a large number of Melville authorities and researchers joined in. They began work in July 1965, using the New Bibliographic methods on every printing of every book Melville could have had anything to do with.

To do some of their work for them, they had a machine -- the Hinman Collator. It is named after Carleton Hinman, a New Bibliographer, who had it built so he could make minute analyses of the Shakespeare First Folio. It looks like a reject from a Quincy set -- a huge metal box that now squats in one corner of the Newberry's reading room. Hayford and the Melville scholars used it to compare different printings. You put page 23, say, of the first printing of Mardi on a glass plate, and page 23 of a later printing on a second plate. Then you peer through a microscope while the machine flashes portions of each page at you in alternation. If there have been any changes between printings, the words will start to jump around the page. (Astronomers looking for new planets used to use the same method with star-photographs.) Usually you find nothing at all. Often the type has gotten worn down through repeated use and the letters have been dislodged. "The first time I looked through it," Hayford said, "I saw a 'y' wagging its tail." But even wear can cause significant changes -- periods drop out, and semicolons become commas.

"You can look through a whole text and not find any changes," Hayford said. "But that doesn't mean you've been wasting your time. You've found out a great deal. You found that the text is healthy. Some are absolutely cancerous."

The exacting standards of the work made progress remorselessly slow, but the volumes did begin to appear. Typee and Omoo were published in 1968, Redburn in 1969, Mardi and White-Jacket in 1970.

But there were still problems. For all the care that went into the texts, the books themselves were monstrosities. Mardi was the size of a phone book. Edmund Wilson couldn't've read it in bed. Nobody, in fact, could read it in any position. Hayford doesn't hide his unhappiness with the design, though he sensibly refuses to blame anyone. Other people I talked to said Northwestern University Press simply wanted to come up with something really impressive. What they got was a line of books no bookstore could fit on its shelves. The paperbacks were only fractionally smaller -- and the covers had been done in a material that picked up stray dirt like a vacuum cleaner.

Still, the books were at least coming out, until 1970. Nixon then committed one of his lesser crimes -- he withdrew the MLA's funding. The Melville project published one more volume, Pierre the next year, and then the money was gone.

The last ten years have been frustrating ones for Hayford, and for everyone connected with the MLA editions. None of the projected series have been completed. But work still goes on. Hayford continues as general editor. (He has also edited two volumes of Emerson's journals, for the Harvard edition.) Northwestern considers it his regular scholarly duty -- that is, how he publishes instead of perishes. He still leaches full-time. The other professors do work when they have the time, apart from their course loads. Students participate as part of their graduate study. Hayford now says the work is "ninety percent done." Things are looking up; the paperback editions of the first six volumes have even been redesigned -- they are now ordinary size and reasonably cheap ($6.95 each, at not many bookstores anywhere).

A friend calls Hayford bitter about the fate of the series, which has turned, against his will, into his life's work. That bitterness, if it's real, only came out obliquely in our talk. At one point, speaking about textual editions generally, he said, "It is painful to spend years on a book and have somebody come along and take over your work, then give you a four-line acknowledgement at the back." In fact, one prominent paperback Moby-Dick takes over his Norton critical work almost line for line. Hayford and Parker wrote to the publisher to protest, and the editor replied that that was too bad.

Then there is the Wilson series, which is finally being published as The Library of America. Its publishers have already put out one volume of Melville's works, and promise ultimately to do a complete set. But they didn't quite keep their promise to stay away from the pedants. They hired Thomas Tanselle, the Northwestern-Newberry's bibliographic editor, to edit the Melville volume, and he used, needless to say, the Northwestern-Newberry texts. Hayford smiles: "At least. one of us got something out of it." (Hayford himself does not receive a penny from his series or any reprints of it, either in royalties or in editor's fees.)

Hayford himself continues to make discoveries about Melville. He is now convinced that one passage of Moby-Dick printed as narration is in fact a speech by Ahab (it is, for the curious, the sixth paragraph of Chapter 111). I asked him if he was going to make any changes in the opening line -- the most famous opening line in American literature: "Call me Ishmael."

He laughed. "Yes, as a matter of fact I'm often tempted to put a comma after the second word."