February 25, 2009
That Coffin Is A Lifeboat
One of my favorite people, um, ever is Charles Olson — poet, amateur anthropologist, rector of Black Mountain College back when BMC was quite possibly the coolest place to be in the country. (Olson reportedly said, “I need a college to think with” — something that I often feel myself whenever I take a stab at thinking about the New Liberal Arts.)
Olson’s essay/manifesto “Projective Verse” helped build the bridge between modernist and postmodern literature — in fact, Olson’s sometimes given credit for helping formulate the whole idea of the postmodern.
One of Olson’s most important contributions to American letters is his book Call Me Ishmael, a wonderful, idiosyncratic but authoritative critical take on Herman Melville and Moby Dick. Here, for example, are the first few sentences:
I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.
Olson himself was a giant — 6’8” — and knew a thing or two about spelling things large. (If you want to read more, I highly recommend picking up Olson’s Collected Prose — it’s all really, really good.)
Now the University of Connecticut is digitizing Olson’s notes on Melville — which would be cool in its own right, but 100% cooler insofar as Olson’s notes bring back a world that doesn’t exist anymore:
Olson was one of the first scholars to consider the importance of Melville’s reading and marginalia.
In the 1930s, Melville’s surviving literary manuscripts, letters, personal papers and journals, and reading library were still, for the most part, in the possession of the family and a few institutional or private collectors. The most substantial collection of Melville materials unaccounted for at that point—and the materials that Olson pursued most vigorously—were the “lost five hundred,” the approximate number of books Melville’s widow had sold to a Brooklyn dealer in 1892. As a young scholar, Olson was indefatigable in his research; when he located a volume from Melville’s library in a grand-daughter’s home, in a private collector’s hands, or on a public library’s shelves, Olson carefully transcribed onto 5 x 7-inch note cards complete bibliographic information on the volume, as well as the content and location of Melville’s annotations and reading marks. Charles Olson’s note cards are, in a few important instances, the only account of Melville’s reading marks in books whose location is now unknown. Olson’s notes also provide scholars with Melville’s marginalia in volumes currently in private hands and not readily available to scholars.
In addition to the note cards on books from Melville’s library, there are two other groups of cards at the University of Connecticut. On one group of cards Olson captured his notes of interviews and recorded his astonishingly thorough methods for tracking down relatives of those known or thought to have bought books from Melville’s library. Other note cards were used by Olson to record his reading and critical notes on Melville’s published works. In all, nearly 1,100 note cards survive.
Unfortunately, when Olson moved away from Melville scholarship after the publication Call Me Ishmael (1947), he stored the results of his investigative work in a trunk in a friend’s basement. Countless water leaks over the years damaged the note cards containing the transcriptions and research notes. Some cards were merely soiled; others were fused together in large blocks. After the University of Connecticut purchased the Olson papers in 1973, the note cards were stored separately while awaiting appropriate preservation measures.
That’s right — we can piece together Melville’s library from soggy, seventy-five-year-old index cards.