Melville's Marginalia in The New
Testament and The Book of Psalms
University of Texas at El Paso
Few of Melville's
books seem to have been in his hands as
frequently or for so long a period of time as the copy of The New Testament and The
Book of Psalms (New York:
American Bible Society,
1844) that he received from his
Jean Melville in 1846. We know from Melville's own notations, for
example, that he
this volume with him during his second trip around Cape Horn in 1860.
marked in this volume makes it clear
that Melville frequently had this volume by his side while writing from
when he received it until at least the mid-1870s. Numerous passages
Melville in this volume appear either in direct quotation or in close
paraphrase in Mardi (1849), Moby-Dick (1851), The
Confidence-Man (1857), and Clarel
(1876). Melville was thus apparently consulting this volume
during the major
shift to philosophical fiction that characterized his work at the end
1840s and start of the 1850s, during the process of writing his final
full-length novel in the late 1850s, and during the drafting of his
ambitious poem in the first half of the 1870s. Melville’s consultation
of this volume is in keeping with the fact that the cadences of the
King James Bible were an essential part of Melville’s literary
imagination throughout his career. Among the most
features of this volume are the numerous erasures and instances where
have been physically removed with scissors. Although it is
of these erasures and excisions were made by Melville himself, it is
that many were made by Elizabeth Shaw Melville and other family
many cases because the family regarded Melville's marginalia as being
irreverent. In the forthcoming discussion forum for this edition, I identify numerous moments in his fiction and poetry in which Melville alludes to the content and even the language of specific passages that he marked in his copy of The New
Testament and Psalms; in
the paragraphs that follow, I
implications of Melville's patterns of marking in this volume for an
understanding of his life and thought.
Melville's markings in The
New Testament and Psalms
indicate how his personal religious
inextricably intertwined with his sense of vocation as a novelist and a
begin with, his reading of Jesus' parables and character shows a
intent upon justifying his craft as a means of communicating the truth
fiction. Second, his markings of the Sermon on the Mount and the
reveal Melville's strong attraction to the most uncompromising ethical
doctrines associated with Christianity, reflected throughout Melville's
and poetry. Third, his markings of the Psalms, the Gospel of John, and
Pauline epistles, demonstrate Melville's interest in natural theology
human capacity for absorption into the divine, revealing Melville to
something of a wounded lover of humanity, at times irreverent precisely
his belief in the godlike capacities of men and women. Finally,
markings are intensely personal, addressing concerns about his own
spirituality. Each of these four strands of annotation affords us new
into Melville as novelist and man.
Jesus as Author and Character in the Gospels
marks the Gospels far more heavily than any other
portion of the New Testament. Of
synoptic Gospels, he demonstrates a strong fascination for Matthew,
contains the longest renditions of most of the parables and the fullest
statement of Jesus' social ethics as expounded in the Sermon on the
Given his annotations to Matthew, Melville is concerned with the person
Jesus on two levels. First, he follows the development of Jesus'
throughout the gospel accounts. The Jesus who emerges through the lens
Melville's annotation is the heroic outsider who dares to speak the
expresses bitterness over the ways in which the truth is frequently
This Jesus exemplifies the most desirable traits in many of Melville's
characters and acts as a measure with which to gauge the moral
humanity. Second, Melville seems attracted to Jesus as a fellow teller
stories. He scores the parables frequently, and even more frequently
Jesus' discussion of his method in telling parables.
copy of The
New Testament and Psalms
offers additional confirmation of
concern with Jesus' character and authority in the form of a note he
on the volume's front pastedown. There Melville has copied a lengthy
independently identified by James Duban ("'Visible Objects'" 1) and
Clare Spark (164) as being from
Carlyle's translation of Goethe's Wilhelm
Meister's Travels, in which the
Christ-like individualist is said to be one who "stands firm to his point"
and "goes on his way
inflexibly," daring "to equal
himself with God; nay, to declare that he himself is God": "In this
he wont from youth upwards to
astound his familiar friends; of
these he gains a part to his own cause; irritates the rest against him;
shows to all men, who are aiming at a certain elevation in doctrine and
life, what they have to look for
from the world" (italics signify
Melville's underlining). The
excerpt is ambiguous in its relation
to the orthodox Christian doctrine of the incarnation, but it clearly
that Jesus is a model to be followed by "the nobler portion of mankind"
(Duban, "'Visible Objects'" 7). In underlining the passages on firm
inflexibility, Melville seems
with the degree to which Jesus was a non-conformist, like Melville's
interesting characters, including those who possess religious faith,
reject it, and those who remain uncertain.
interest in Jesus' personality becomes more pronounced
in Melville's marginalia to the events leading up to the crucifixion.
Matthew 26.45, Melville underscores the moment when Jesus says to his
disciples "Sleep on now, and take your rest," and writes at the top of
the page, "This is
interest in Jesus' use of irony in
passage is significant. A consummate ironist himself, Melville in this
seems to identify strongly with the sarcastic tone with which Jesus
his disappointment in his disciples. The annotation helps to clarify
of "pure Exemplar" (NN Clarel 4.34.21)
Melville regards Jesus as being. Melville's Jesus is susceptible of
precisely because of his readily evident humanity. His divine
wedded to an emotional life that includes loss and frustration, and in
this interior life expression, he manipulates verbal tropes expertly.
his crafting of double meanings, and admiration for Hawthorne's
ability to "deceive, egregiously deceive, the superficial skimmer of
pages" (NN Piazza Tales 251), it
is not surprising
that Melville was attracted to Jesus' parables in Matthew 13.10-11. For
instance, he scored Jesus' answer to the question "Why speakest thou to
only in parables?" placing an "x" and two enclosures in the margin next
response: "Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the
heaven, but to them it is not given" (24.1:8-12). Just
as only some of Jesus' listeners can know "the mysteries of the kingdom
of heaven," Melville's writing requires
an "eagle-eyed reader" (251).
Ethics and Religious Pluralism
have rightly acknowledged Melville's resistance to
religious orthodoxy. This acknowledgment, however, can at times obscure
how deeply engaged
was by the ethical precepts of Christianity. This engagement is evident
Melville's extensive markings of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and
ethically directed moments in the epistles. Melville marks the Sermon
Mount (Matt. 5-7) at regular intervals, focusing on divorce, wealth,
poverty, and what Melville calls in Pierre
"gratuitous return of good for
evil" (NN Pierre 215). Melville's
marginalia is heaviest in Matthew 5, where he marks verse 22, which
anger with murder (8.2:39); verses 27-28, which equate lust with
verse 32, which equates divorce with adultery (9.2:7-12);
verses 33-37, which condemn the swearing of oaths and command listeners
your communication be Yea, Yea; Nay, Nay" (9.2:14-32);
verses 38-39, which reject the older saying "an eye for an eye, a tooth
tooth" in favor of the command to "turn the other cheek" (9.2:33-40);
verses 40-42, which call for generous giving (9.2:40-44 and 10.1:1-3);
and finally verse 44, which concludes "Love your enemies, bless them
you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully
concern for ethics appears as well in two marked
passages in Paul's Epistle to the Romans and the Epistle of James. Both
and James use the example of Abraham to consider the relationship
and works. James 2.14, which asks whether faith without works can save
strongly implies that the answer is "no"), is check-marked and scored
side margin (381.2:32-35). James 2.18, which
concludes with "shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will show
you my faith by
works," is similarly checked and scored (382.1:3-7).
There is no indication here that Melville is expressing anything other
interest in the logic of the argument. But Romans 4 is a different
Melville marked verse 5—which argues that someone who "worketh not
believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for
righteousness"—with a double score in the side margin. He marked with
verse 6, which describes the "blessedness of the man unto whom God
righteousness without works," adding a comment at
the bottom of the page that has been erased
(259.2:36-39, 2:40-43). The evidence here
Melville prefers James' emphasis on works to Paul's emphasis on faith.
fascination with Jesus' personality and ethics can
best be understood in light of how he relates Jesus to the rest of
Two passages from Melville's work are especially pertinent here. In
Widow" (Sketch 8 of The Encantadas),
Melville relates the story of the abandoned Hunilla, whose suffering
rise to Christ-like proportions. At the climax of Hunilla's story,
narrator exclaims, "Humanity, thou strong thing, I worship thee, not in
laurelled victor, but in this defeated one" (NN Piazza
Tales 157). Here, the Gospel trope of redemptive suffering
applies to all of humanity, but most specifically to the "defeated."
extension of Christlikeness is repeated in Clarel.
Melville's narrator makes a similar move in the penultimate
canto of Clarel when he refers to
Jews, and Muslims who are making their way through Jerusalem as
all" (NN Clarel 4.34.44). An
identification with Christ's glory and pain becomes, then, the common
humanity, not the exclusive preserve of any one religious tradition.
the strongest expression of Melville's repugnance
toward religious chauvinism appears at the end of the book of
Melville's markings of the earlier portions of Revelation indicate
nor skepticism, and may simply note imagery, his treatment of the last
the New Testament is a different
matter entirely. Revelation 22.19
anyone who "shall take away from the words of the book of this
shall take away his part out of the book of life" (431.2:27-33).
of graphite in his erased markings show that Melville crossed out the
verse with horizontal, vertical, and diagonal cross-outs, deliberately
fulfilling the act against which the passage warns. His annotation in the bottom margin was
subsequently cut from the page. Melville's reaction to this passage was
intense and perhaps fiercely negative. Why, we must ask, did this final
elicit such a powerful response? In it, salvation seems to depend on an
adherence to Christian dogma. Melville's putatively angry response to
can be correlated to his preference for ethics over dogma in his
James and Romans, and to his desire to find a message of hope in the
those who were not explicitly members of the Christian faith.
converse of Melville's mix of anger and resentment in
regard to dogmatic exclusivism is his attraction to passages that exalt
moral and intellectual capacities of human beings. However much we may
tendency in Melville toward misanthropy, his profound reverence for
beings and his inclusivism are evident in his markings in the New Testament and
marked Psalm 8.3-5, a passage that eloquently considers the splendor of
universe and exults in the prominent position that God has given to
beings, identifying the position of humans as "a little lower than the
He also marked with triple cross-checks the summary at the beginning
chapter, which reads, "God's glory is magnified by his works, and by
to man" (6.2:19, 2:33-43). In addition to revealing Melville's interest
inclusivism and reverence for humanity, the markings in the Psalms also
indicate something about the trajectory of Melville's thought
career. As the notes to Melville's markings in the Psalms indicate,
many of the verses from the Psalms that he marked directly as sources
in Clarel, which was published in
1876. This pattern both suggests that Melville was using this copy of The New Testament and
Psalms heavily as
he was writing Clarel during the
first half of the 1870s and indicates that the inclusivism demonstrated
markings was an important and developing part of his thought at the
Melville's Spiritual Autobiography
reading Romans 14.22, Melville paused to underline this
sentence: "Hast thou faith? Have it to thyself before God." And in the top margin, he
elliptical response: "The only kind of Faith—one's own" (274.2:4-5). This and other marginalia in the New
Testament and Psalms
compelling chapter in Melville's spiritual autobiography and contribute
to our understanding of his own kind of faith and how it related to his
Consistently, Melville's marginalia to the New Testament show him in the process of wrestling with complex theological questions on a personal and existential level. In response to I Corinthians 7.40, in which Paul states with a touch of irony, "I think I also have the spirit of God," Melville underlined the words, "I think," and in the recoverable portion of his annotation wrote, "I too am uncertain" (286.2:37-38). This sort of query about the epistemological status of authoritative biblical pronouncements is characteristic, and his apparent responses to two of the most theologically knotty chapters in the entire Bible, Romans 8 and 9, reveal a similar impulse. In Romans 8, St. Paul is outlining the crucial and frequently debated Christian doctrine of predestination, and in Romans 9 he is refining and expanding this doctrine and mapping the relationship of Gentile Christians to Judaism. Melville's concern with ethics as opposed to doctrine and with multi-religious approaches to truth come together in making this a vitally engaging pair of chapters for him, and in both cases he appears to be asking questions of the text in his marginalia. Melville scored the left-hand margin of Romans 8.28-30, a passage that begins with the comforting assertion that "all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are the called according to his purpose." Melville's erased annotation is mostly illegible, but words conjecturally recovered by the editors of this online edition include Melville's likely reference to "work" followed by his expostulation, "but what then?," suggesting that he was questioning the broader implications of a verse that promised good only to a predestined minority (266.1: 12-16). Likewise, in his erased annotation to Romans 9.15 and 9.18, Melville seems to complain of recurring circular logic in the chapter's account of divine justice. The marginalia point to moral questions that many readers might pose about a deity who actively "hardens" those whom he has predestined for damnation, with reference solely to his own will (267.1:40-42, 267.2:11-14). These questions parallel Captain Ahab’s reflections about fate when he memorably muses "is Ahab, Ahab" (Moby-Dick 545)—in other words, does Ahab, or indeed any human, truly have control over the substance of his or her choices?
the most poignant markings are those of passages
that deal with loss and comfort. Melville marks the psalmists' pleas
comfort, Jesus' promise of a comforter to be sent after his ascension,
promise that in the New Jerusalem every tear will be wiped away.
marking Matthew 23.37-8 and Luke 13.34-5, Melville acknowledges the
which Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, "which killest the prophets," and
expresses longing to gather "thy
together as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings" (45.1:11-20
Melville's close attention to these verses, which expose an eagerness
away with prophets, is characteristic of his pessimism about the
communicating truth to the wider public.
powerful personal allusiveness of these annotations
compels us to ponder what Melville's response to the New
Testament and Psalms
suggests about the contours of his own
religious thought. Let me offer some tentative conclusions. First,
Melville's religious thought that portray him as either an unambivalent
or as an ultimately reconciled believer seem incomplete in light of the
of his marginal responses to scripture. A careful reading of Melville's
marginalia to the New Testament and
Psalms suggests that Ishmael's
famous description of the
faith and doubt as consisting of "doubts of all things earthly, and
of some things heavenly" might indeed be of profound autobiographical
significance for Melville (NN Moby-Dick 374).
Second, we cannot draw the line where Melville the individual wrestler
faith and doubt ends and Melville the artist begins. Melville's reading
Bible is integrated thoroughly with his fiction and poetry, and his
reflect the same oscillation between reverence and irreverence and hope
despair. Third, Melville's markings in the New
Testament reflect the
careful attention to religious and cultural difference that plays such
role in his writing. Melville marks numerous passages that serve as
points of controversy between Catholicism and Protestantism, Calvinism
Arminianism, magisterial Protestantism and Anabaptism, and Unitarianism
Evangelicalism. In Melville's markings in The
New Testament and Psalms,
we can see a record of the
spiritual life of someone who wrestled, not just with the Hebrew and
but with their numerous and diverse interpreters over the centuries.
This introduction is based on Brian Yothers, "One's Own Faith:
Reading of The New Testament and Psalms"
Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies
Parenthetical page references in this introduction refer to pagination
in "Herman Melville's Marginalia in The New Testament
and The Book of Psalms," with column and line
numbers following pagination, where applicable. For instance, the
citation "52.1:1-6" refers to page 52, column 1, lines 1-6 of The
Melville's Religious Thought.
NC: Duke University Press, 1943.
Cowen, Walker. Melville's Marginalia. 2
vols. New York: Garland, 1987.
Duban, James. Melville's
Fiction: Politics, Theology
and Imagination. Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University
————. "'Visible Objects of Reverence': Quotations
Melville's Annotated New Testament."
Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies
9.2 (June 2007): 1-23.
Goldman, Stan. Melville's Protest
Silent God in Clarel.
DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press,
Heidmann, Mark. "The Markings in Melville's Bibles." Studies
in the American Renaissance (1990): 34-98.
Kenny, Vincent. Herman
Spiritual Autobiography Hamden, CT: Archon Books,
Knapp, Joseph. Tortured
Synthesis: The Meaning of Herman Melville's Clarel. New
York: Philosophical Library, 1971.
Mason, Ronald. The
Spirit Above the Dust. Mamaroneck, NY: Paul P. Appel, 1951.
Potter, William. Melville's Clarel
and the Intersympathy of Creeds. Kent,
OH: Kent State University Press, 2005.
Spark, Clare. Hunting
Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival.
2nd ed. Kent, OH: Kent State University
Thompson, Lawrance. Melville's
with God. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.
Wright, Nathalia. Melville’s Use of the Bible.
Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1949.
Yothers, Brian. "One's Own Faith:
Reading of The New Testament and Psalms." Leviathan:
A Journal of Melville Studies 10.3 (2008):