Walter E. Bezanson: A Memorial

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In 2010, the year before Walter E. Bezanson died at almost 99, his wife, Gail Coffler, commissioned Mary O’Brien Tyrrell to conduct a series of interviews with him, which were transcribed and supplemented with photographs for Journeying through the Twentieth Century: A Memoir of Walter E. Bezanson (Saint Paul: Memoirs, Inc., 2011). The volume offers glimpses into the life and mind of a man who had, I thought, guarded his privacy throughout many decades. Here you have him as Boy Scout, as student at Dartmouth, as lover (first of “Bett” Briggs), as Melvillean (one of Yale Professor Stanley T. Williams's first Melville students), as father of two sons (Mark pre-World War II, Jim post-War), as Lieutenant in the Pacific. Then follows his teaching at Harvard and his choice to go to Rutgers on a joint appointment in History and English, where he could create an American Studies program and where he moved through the ranks to distinguished professor.

One of the founders of the Melville Society, three times its President, Bezanson attended Melville meetings in many cities at home and abroad. He traveled much, not only for Melville. Remarkably successful in his professional life and happy in his personal life, he, nevertheless, suffered the astonishing loss of a wife, not once but twice. After 35 years, Bett died of breast cancer, and after fifteen years his second wife, Jeannie, died of a tumor in her brain. My single memory of Bett is vivid and at odds with the photographs in Journeying Through the Twentieth Century, for I see her standing, at a conference, an elegant, aloof 1940s vamp with a dark slash of lipstick and a haughty lift to the shoulders. Jeannie was easy to talk to, but before you knew it she was gone, and once again Walt had nursed his wife through long months of dying. Then came the prolonged autumnal idyll (22 years) with Gail Coffler, a romance that began at the 1988 New Orleans MLA. Two weeks later, on 12 January 1989, Walt sent me a postcard announcing that his life had begun “to open up again.” The vertical postscript on the left edge: “N. Orleans provided some voodoo.” He was in love again, and Gail was spared what he had twice endured, for Walt was reading Moby-Dick aloud with her (from the 2001 Norton Critical Edition) only weeks before he died. All that and much more you can read in Journeying.

Bezanson led a remarkable life. Melville gave him a career filled with intellectual and aesthetic delight, but what good did he do for Melville? Well, he was a betting man. Given the option of writing a biography of James Fenimore Cooper, he bet he could read Clarel. He won that bet, but think about the lonely years it took. The dissertation was accepted at Yale in 1943. He dated the preface to the Hendricks House edition “September 1959,” and the book is dated 1960. It seemed still hot off the press when I bought my copy on February 17, 1962. I started reading in May, mailed the book to New York City General Delivery in June so that I could read it after hours when the New York Public Library and the New-York Historical Society were closed, and after Book 2 gave up and went back and started over: I needed to capture momentum before pushing forward. I finished the poem on 12 October 1962 in Evanston, so overwrought that I called it (on the last page) “a finer achievement than Moby-Dick.” How was I able to read Clarel? Why, Walt Bezanson taught me, canto by canto. This is the only Melville book that one person set out to understand at a time when no one else alive could make sense of the whole thing. It is the only one of Melville's books that everyone who has now read it was able to read it only because of one person, Bezanson. Some people forget. I have seen someone patting Walt on the head and saying that his critical index of characters is still of “general” interest. No! that index, like all the rest of his work on Clarel, is of specific relevance to understanding the poem and will remain so. I would modify what Walt says about Vine, but everything I have written about the poem shows my debt. I prefaced the 1986 “The Character of Vine in Melville's Clarel” (my 1976 Pittsfield Centennial talk) this way: “Through his Hendricks House edition (1960), Walter E. Bezanson taught Clarel to me, as he taught it to almost all living Melvilleans. This essay is for Walt, if he will take it.” No one else, not even Elizabeth S. Foster, who came fairly close, no one else taught us all to read one of Melville's books. That is a unique legacy to leave as a Melville scholar and critic. The continued availability of Bezanson's work is assured by its being included (the “Introduction” intact, with my “Historical Supplement” to take note of new scholarly discoveries) in the 1991 Northwestern-Newberry edition.

And this is not all Bezanson's legacy. More people have been influenced by Bezanson's “Moby-Dick: Work of Art” than by his work on Clarel. He gave the long Moby-Dick piece as a lecture at Oberlin to celebrate the centennial of the American publication of Moby-Dick. It was printed in “Moby-Dick” Centennial Essays, edited by Tyrus Hillway and Luther S. Mansfield (1953). In the Literary World, Evert Duyckinck had briefly offered the possibility that irreverent parts of Moby-Dick could be read as reflecting the mind of Ishmael, and William Ellery Sedgwick in Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind (1945) had devoted several pages to distinguishing Ishmael from Ahab, but Walt was the first to treat Ishmael as “the enfolding sensibility of the novel, the hand that writes the tale, the imagination through which all matters of the book pass,” the first to celebrate “the magic voice.” When Bezanson says, “Enough of evocation,” you realize you have been under his spell as well as that of Melville and Ishmael. But the essay was not fully available for reading and teaching for many years. By the mid-1960s some English departments had Xerox machines on which an article like this one could be copied for a teacher to mark up, although no one could afford to copy it for students to read and discuss. Harrison Hayford and I changed all that when we put the essay in the 1967 Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick. For more than a third of a century, year after year, several thousand new copies of that essay were put into the hands of several thousand students, most of them new readers. From 1967 on, anyone could read it at a time when few pages of Walt's other publications, aside from his edition of Clarel, were readily available, and I suspect that not many dozens of people bought the Hendricks House edition year by year. The essay on Moby-Dick was not in our 1970 Moby-Dick as Doubloon volume because that book was a companion to the still-recent Norton Critical Edition, but I included Walt in it with his trenchant review of Edward Dahlberg. In 1992, Brian Higgins and I put “Moby-Dick: Work of Art” in Critical Essays on Herman Melville'sMoby-Dick,” which had nowhere near the circulation of the NCE but nevertheless introduced the essay to some new readers in a challenging new context. By 1998 Nick Selby could describe the essay as “essential in setting out the formalist and humanist terms which dominated readings of Moby-Dick over the following three decades … . Bezanson's insistence upon seeing Ishmael as the book's most important character marks … a crucial shift in Moby-Dick criticism.” Fittingly,“Moby-Dick: Work of Art” is the only modern academic essay I carried forward from 1967 into the revised sesquicentennial Norton Critical Edition (2001). There, with the fabulous cobalt and gold image of Tupai Cupa on the cover, Bezanson's 1951 Oberlin talk, still fresh, holds its own with Hayford's previously hard-of-access but now-classic “Loomings” and his provocative “Unnecessary Duplicates.” I realize something remarkable as I write this paragraph: because of its presence in both the 1967 and the 2001 Norton Critical Editions, “Moby-Dick: Work of Art” must be in print in more copies around the world than any other academic essay on Moby-Dick. I wonder if that ever occurred to Walt during the many days toward the end when he held the 2001 NCE in his hands.

After the Oberlin talk, Walt's next important work (besides his ongoing work on Clarel) was his 1954 PMLA article on Melville's markings in his copies of Matthew Arnold, never reprinted and not well enough known. Online access has changed everything. Here, in Morro Bay, if I did not have a smeary old photocopy of the piece, I could in about ninety seconds be printing it, thanks to access to databases through the University of Delaware. Walt had a way of blazing trails, as in this venture into Melville's marginalia where he prefaced his news about Melville by a theory of marginalia. 1954 was almost a decade before Walker Cowen began his Harvard dissertation on the subject, and more than half a century before Steven Olsen-Smith began his online Melville's Marginalia Online and Dennis Marnon facilitated the digitizing of Melville books containing some of his most significant marginalia, including the Shakespeare. Again, Walt was a pioneer.

Bezanson's next big Melville job after the Hendricks House Clarel was the “Historical Note” in the 1982 Northwestern-Newberry Edition of Israel Potter. Now that only I survive to tell you, I can say that we had trouble getting Melville critics to write straightforward “Historical Notes,” simply defined as reliable accounts of composition, publication, reception, and later critical history. I took on the 1969 Redburn note to make it a workaday model for later notes. Walt's is the best “Historical Note” in the NN Edition. Listen to a few of the passages I find marked in my working copy: “Although Israel Potter would not become as much an English or London book as Melville probably anticipated in 1849, he was experiencing at first hand the backgrounds he might need. Thus Israel Potter will be in marked contrast to the section of Redburn in which the reader is whirled in and out of the city … without ever being shown London … . It is interesting that he even contemplated, as early as 1849, composing a work whose major narrative line would be from another book, a writing method which would have anticipated his procedure with ‘Benito Cereno’. … This was Melville country even if somewhat flattened out, and the advantage of pseudo-anonymity—everyone played the unmasking game—was that Melville could have it both ways at a time when his reputation could use some disguise … . With this stroke Melville postpones indefinitely Israel's descent into beggarly anonymity. The very heart of the Life, the grimly ironic London aftermath to heroism which seems to have invoked Melville's interest in the first place, is thrust aside for a whole new mid-section of naval adventures … . Presto, Israel gets the job … . The same kind of balloon method—free flight, but a strong cord back to the source—marks the St. Mary's Isle episode … . From here on Melville filled his magazine installments with pages of comedy, melodrama, meditation, and adventure of his own devising mixed half-and-half with pages of his own hurry-up brand of history. Melville, after all, was no scrivener.” This “Historical Note” on Israel Potter cost Walt a year and a half. There's no way we could have gotten something like this, in time, for the first or second notes, on Typee and Omoo, to serve as models, and our ambitions did not extend as far as requesting “Historical Notes” written by prose stylists. We already knew, but the “Historical Note” in Israel Potter testifies that Bezanson was no scrivener, either.

In any large library one can find John Bryant's collection, A Companion to Melville Studies (1986), with Walt's “Moby-Dick: Document, Drama, Dream.” My annotation on p. 185: “so much we have assimilated over the last decades from Walt & others– 18 Dec 86 enroute LA to Fresno.” Underlined on that page: “It is the narrator who settles in to probe for understanding, summoning evidences from world culture in an effort to break through into meaning … . For Ishmael's struggle with how to tell his tale is under constant discussion, is itself one of the major themes of the book. A modern reader's fascination with Moby-Dick might well begin with attention to Ishmael's search for forms—a sermon, a dream, a comic set-piece, a midnight ballet, a meditation, and emblematic reading. It is as if finding a temporary form would in itself constitute one of those ‘meanings’ which Ishmael is always so portentously in search of. Also it is as if Ishmael would stop at nothing in his efforts to entertain, to show off, to perform.” Walt's “Melville: Uncommon Common Sailor” in Bryant and Robert Milder's 1997 Melville's Evermoving Dawn: Centennial Essays is the best thing ever written about hyena laughter, Melville's comedy in Moby-Dick:“Melville's comic flair no doubt began with temperament, nourished by youth and good health. But the nub of its style came right out of the fisheries, especially the sort of hangman's humor not unlike the black comedy bred by modern wars … . Given a temperamental bent toward humor (merely struggling for existence in the pre-Pacific writings), Melville found right here in the whaleboat the perfect incubator for his hyena laugh. It erupts in the sea books; it declines, or perhaps ascends, into subtler ironies in the later years.” Checking just now, I find that for anywhere between $44 and $67 you can have a copy of the 1997 collection and something between $90 and $210 will get you the older Companion. Availability of Walt's words is a recurrent theme in this tribute. Who has the copyright? Someone with Readiris optical scanning software could take an hour or two to convert these into PDFs and then put them online, for free.

Bezanson's publications are majestic, but not all of his finest thought has been publicly associated with his name. In “Melville's Chimney, Reexamined,” Merton M. Sealts, Jr., gave a close-to-the-vest account of his writing “I and My Chimney,” his first Melville publication: “An intelligent and sensitive individual knowing little of Melville had been powerfully affected, I was told, by something in the story—what was that something?” Walt, intelligent and sensitive even in 1939 or 1940, had told other students of Stanley T. Williams that the story had given him the “heebie-jeebies.” After settling down, he analyzed with Mert how the story had affected him. Even then, Walt had a golden aesthetic and psychological divining rod: he got what was essential in Melville. And he continued to be alert to the ways Melvilleans influence each other. On p. 169 in my copy of A Companion to Melville Studies, I see the slanted handwriting: “For Hershel, who helped Walter to write this, even if he didn't know that … .Walter E. Bezanson.” I still don't know that, still have no idea how I might have helped him. I ate at a table with him more than once, but I never had a private conversation with him—and was too much in awe of him to initiate one. Others who knew Walt better have written and will write personal reminiscences. From Dennis Marnon I learn of Walt's prowess as a lecturer in his great age, when he taught Moby-Dick in the Boston Adult Education Center not only with Marnon but also with one of Melville's great-great-grandsons in the classroom. I focus here on Walt's publications and their availability, but how many hundreds of students, some of them now long past their first youth, remember his voice as he taught Melville and remember something inspiring from what he said? A legacy like Bezanson's takes many forms. And gratitude circles round on itself so that I say again: “This essay is for Walt, if he will take it.”

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