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Newly Published

Introduction to Melville's Marginalia in The New Testament and The Book of Psalms

Brian Yothers
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 Aunt Jean Melville in 1846. We know from Melville's own notations, for example, that he carried this volume with him during his second trip around Cape Horn in 1860. The material marked in this volume makes it clear that Melville frequently had this volume by his side while writing from 1846 when he received it until at least the mid-1870s. Numerous passages marked by 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 carefully during the major shift to philosophical fiction that characterized his work at the end of the 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 most 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 tantalizing features of this volume are the numerous erasures and instances where annotations have been physically removed with scissors. Although it is possible that some of these erasures and excisions were made by Melville himself, it is likely that many were made by Elizabeth Shaw Melville and other family members, in 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 discuss the 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 thought is inextricably intertwined with his sense of vocation as a novelist and a poet. To begin with, his reading of Jesus' parables and character shows a novelist intent upon justifying his craft as a means of communicating the truth through fiction. Second, his markings of the Sermon on the Mount and the epistles reveal Melville's strong attraction to the most uncompromising ethical doctrines associated with Christianity, reflected throughout Melville's fiction and poetry. Third, his markings of the Psalms, the Gospel of John, and the Pauline epistles, demonstrate Melville's interest in natural theology and the human capacity for absorption into the divine, revealing Melville to be something of a wounded lover of humanity, at times irreverent precisely because of his belief in the godlike capacities of men and women. Finally, Melville's markings are intensely personal, addressing concerns about his own faith and spirituality. Each of these four strands of annotation affords us new insight into Melville as novelist and man.[1]

Jesus as Author and Character in the Gospels

Melville marks the Gospels far more heavily than any other portion of the New Testament. Of the synoptic Gospels, he demonstrates a strong fascination for Matthew, which contains the longest renditions of most of the parables and the fullest statement of Jesus' social ethics as expounded in the Sermon on the Mount. Given his annotations to Matthew, Melville is concerned with the person of Jesus on two levels. First, he follows the development of Jesus' character throughout the gospel accounts. The Jesus who emerges through the lens of Melville's annotation is the heroic outsider who dares to speak the truth and expresses bitterness over the ways in which the truth is frequently betrayed. This Jesus exemplifies the most desirable traits in many of Melville's characters and acts as a measure with which to gauge the moral possibilities of humanity. Second, Melville seems attracted to Jesus as a fellow teller of stories. He scores the parables frequently, and even more frequently focuses on Jesus' discussion of his method in telling parables.

Melville's copy of The New Testament and Psalms offers additional confirmation of Melville's concern with Jesus' character and authority in the form of a note he inscribed on the volume's front pastedown. There Melville has copied a lengthy passage independently identified by James Duban ("'Visible Objects'" 1) and Clare Spark (164) as being from Thomas 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 manner is 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; and 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 indicates 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 concerned with the degree to which Jesus was a non-conformist, like Melville's most interesting characters, including those who possess religious faith, those who reject it, and those who remain uncertain.

This interest in Jesus' personality becomes more pronounced in Melville's marginalia to the events leading up to the crucifixion. In 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 ironical" (52.1:1-6).[2] Melville's interest in Jesus' use of irony in this passage is significant. A consummate ironist himself, Melville in this instance seems to identify strongly with the sarcastic tone with which Jesus expresses his disappointment in his disciples. The annotation helps to clarify what sort of "pure Exemplar" (NN Clarel 4.34.21) Melville regards Jesus as being. Melville's Jesus is susceptible of imitation precisely because of his readily evident humanity. His divine inflexibility is wedded to an emotional life that includes loss and frustration, and in giving this interior life expression, he manipulates verbal tropes expertly.

Given 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 them only in parables?" placing an "x" and two enclosures in the margin next to the response: "Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of 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

Scholars have rightly acknowledged Melville's resistance to religious orthodoxy. This acknowledgment, however, can at times obscure how deeply engaged Melville was by the ethical precepts of Christianity. This engagement is evident in Melville's extensive markings of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and of the ethically directed moments in the epistles. Melville marks the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) at regular intervals, focusing on divorce, wealth, and poverty, and what Melville calls in Pierre the "gratuitous return of good for evil" (NN Pierre 215). Melville's marginalia is heaviest in Matthew 5, where he marks verse 22, which equates anger with murder (8.2:39); verses 27-28, which equate lust with adultery (9.1:23-30); verse 32, which equates divorce with adultery (9.2:7-12); verses 33-37, which condemn the swearing of oaths and command listeners to "let 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 for a 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 that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you" (10.1:12-17).

Melville's concern for ethics appears as well in two marked passages in Paul's Epistle to the Romans and the Epistle of James. Both Paul and James use the example of Abraham to consider the relationship between faith and works. James 2.14, which asks whether faith without works can save you (and strongly implies that the answer is "no"), is check-marked and scored in the 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 my works," is similarly checked and scored (382.1:3-7). There is no indication here that Melville is expressing anything other than his interest in the logic of the argument. But Romans 4 is a different matter. Melville marked verse 5—which argues that someone who "worketh not but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness"—with a double score in the side margin. He marked with an "x" verse 6, which describes the "blessedness of the man unto whom God imputeth 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 suggests that Melville prefers James' emphasis on works to Paul's emphasis on faith.

Melville's fascination with Jesus' personality and ethics can best be understood in light of how he relates Jesus to the rest of humanity. Two passages from Melville's work are especially pertinent here. In "The Chola Widow" (Sketch 8 of The Encantadas), Melville relates the story of the abandoned Hunilla, whose suffering and faith rise to Christ-like proportions. At the climax of Hunilla's story, Melville's narrator exclaims, "Humanity, thou strong thing, I worship thee, not in the 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." This extension of Christlikeness is repeated in Clarel. Melville's narrator makes a similar move in the penultimate canto of Clarel when he refers to the Christians, Jews, and Muslims who are making their way through Jerusalem as "cross-bearers all" (NN Clarel 4.34.44). An identification with Christ's glory and pain becomes, then, the common fate of humanity, not the exclusive preserve of any one religious tradition.

Perhaps the strongest expression of Melville's repugnance toward religious chauvinism appears at the end of the book of Revelation. While Melville's markings of the earlier portions of Revelation indicate neither agreement nor skepticism, and may simply note imagery, his treatment of the last verse of the New Testament is a different matter entirely. Revelation 22.19 states that anyone who "shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life" (431.2:27-33). Vestiges of graphite in his erased markings show that Melville crossed out the entire 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 clearly intense and perhaps fiercely negative. Why, we must ask, did this final scripture elicit such a powerful response? In it, salvation seems to depend on an individual's adherence to Christian dogma. Melville's putatively angry response to the verse can be correlated to his preference for ethics over dogma in his markings of James and Romans, and to his desire to find a message of hope in the Bible for those who were not explicitly members of the Christian faith.

The converse of Melville's mix of anger and resentment in regard to dogmatic exclusivism is his attraction to passages that exalt the moral and intellectual capacities of human beings. However much we may assume a tendency in Melville toward misanthropy, his profound reverence for human beings and his inclusivism are evident in his markings in the New Testament and Psalms. Melville marked Psalm 8.3-5, a passage that eloquently considers the splendor of the universe and exults in the prominent position that God has given to human beings, identifying the position of humans as "a little lower than the angels." He also marked with triple cross-checks the summary at the beginning of the chapter, which reads, "God's glory is magnified by his works, and by his love to man" (6.2:19, 2:33-43). In addition to revealing Melville's interest in inclusivism and reverence for humanity, the markings in the Psalms also indicate something about the trajectory of Melville's thought throughout his career. As the notes to Melville's markings in the Psalms indicate, Melville used many of the verses from the Psalms that he marked directly as sources for lines 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 in his markings was an important and developing part of his thought at the time.

Melville's Spiritual Autobiography

In 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 inscribed an elliptical response: "The only kind of Faith—one's own" (274.2:4-5). This and other marginalia in the New Testament and Psalms constitute a compelling chapter in Melville's spiritual autobiography and contribute greatly to our understanding of his own kind of faith and how it related to his personal life.

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?

Perhaps the most poignant markings are those of passages that deal with loss and comfort. Melville marks the psalmists' pleas for comfort, Jesus' promise of a comforter to be sent after his ascension, and the promise that in the New Jerusalem every tear will be wiped away. Heavily marking Matthew 23.37-8 and Luke 13.34-5, Melville acknowledges the moments at which Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, "which killest the prophets," and expresses longing to gather "thy children together as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings" (45.1:11-20 and 128.2:10-19). Melville's close attention to these verses, which expose an eagerness to do away with prophets, is characteristic of his pessimism about the possibility of communicating truth to the wider public.

The 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, readings of Melville's religious thought that portray him as either an unambivalent skeptic or as an ultimately reconciled believer seem incomplete in light of the complexity 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 interdependency of faith and doubt as consisting of "doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions 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 with faith and doubt ends and Melville the artist begins. Melville's reading of the Bible is integrated thoroughly with his fiction and poetry, and his marginalia reflect the same oscillation between reverence and irreverence and hope and despair. Third, Melville's markings in the New Testament reflect the same careful attention to religious and cultural difference that plays such a vital role in his writing. Melville marks numerous passages that serve as flash points of controversy between Catholicism and Protestantism, Calvinism and Arminianism, magisterial Protestantism and Anabaptism, and Unitarianism and Evangelicalism. In Melville's markings in The New Testament and Psalms, we can see a record of the intellectual and spiritual life of someone who wrestled, not just with the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, but with their numerous and diverse interpreters over the centuries.

[1] This introduction is based on Brian Yothers, "One's Own Faith: Melville's Reading of The New Testament and Psalms" in Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies 10.3 (2008): 39-59.

[2] 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 New Testament.


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