Charles Olson: Call Me Ishmael

January 25, 2012

In the early 1930s, while writing his Master’s thesis on Melville, Charles Olson began tracking down the books once owned by Melville, some with significant marginalia.  Melville’s widow had sold almost 500 of these books to a Brooklyn dealer in 1892.  Some of these were now in the hands of private collectors; some were in libraries; some were still owned by family members.  Every time Olson found one, he would transcribe these annotations and the locations of their marking onto 5×7 index cards.

After the publication of Call Me Ishmael in 1947, these cards were stored in a trunk in a friend’s basement and suffered water damage, but nearly 1,100 of them still survived.  They are now at the Charles Olson Research Collection at the University of Connecticut.

I think of the labor of Melville, poring over those books, a challenge in itself (his eyesight was permanently damaged by scarlet fever in 1826; Shakespeare “in small print” was “unendurable to my eyes which are tender as young sperms”).  I think of the legwork of Olson as a young and gigantic graduate student (he was six feet eight inches tall).  And I think of the work of librarians and scholars, still in progress, cleaning and repairing and transcribing and digitizing all those index cards.

   Call Me Ishmael, with its bold argument about Melville and Shakespeare, would not have been possible without those note cards.  Shortly afterwards, Olson would move on – emotionally as well as physically – to Black Mountain College, to colleagues like Robert Duncan and John Cage, and students like Robert  Rauschenberg and Cy Twonbly.  While there, he wrote “Letter for Melville 1951,” instructing the Melville Society “to see/ that he gets a lot of lips (who hung in a huge jaw)/ and no service at all (none of this chicken, he is beyond recall, beyond/ any modern highway (which would have saved him from sciatica?”   The poem ends with these lines: “he’ll look on you all with an eye you have the color of./ He’ll not say a word because he need not, he said so many.”

Olson never went back to Melville.  His Mayan Letters (1953) didn’t mention the hieroglyphics on Queequeg’s body, only the writings of a people whose “signs were so clearly and densely chosen that they retain the power of the objects of which they are the images.”

Melville would have been pleased all the same.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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