Thursday, November 10, 2016

`Silent the Victors Stood, Scorning to Raise a Shout'

I went to visit the first edition of Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War to reassure myself of the nation’s greatness. The cover is a coppery brown and resembles old boot leather. The spine is slightly faded. The leaf size is 7-7/16 by 4-7/8 inches, and its 272 pages have turned a pale brown but remain clear and readable. The volume was published a century and a half ago, on Aug. 17, 1866, by Harper and Brothers, in an edition of 1,260. The original price was $1.75, but only 486 copies were sold by 1868 and the publishing costs were never recovered. Melville dedicated his book “To the Memory of the Three Hundred Thousand Who in the War For the Maintenance of the Union Fell Devotedly Under the Flag of Their Country.” The book has heft and is pleasant to hold. I’m not a fetishist about rare books and first editions, but some volumes, even common and inexpensive ones, carry themselves with gravitas. They invite serious consideration. In “An Alphabet of Literary Prejudice” (Electric Delights, David R. Godine, 1978), William Plomer writes:

“Not a collector, I like books in their original editions, humanized by use, but not torn or defaced. An occasional squashed gnat between the pages, with its suggestion of fine summer evenings, gives me no pain; I do not shrink from a faded spine, a foxed fly-leaf, or an ex-library copy.”

This copy of Battle-Pieces is gnat-less and unfoxed but thoroughly “humanized by use.” On the inside cover is an Ex Libris bookplate for George Frisbie Whicher (1889-1954), associate professor of English at Amherst College and author of This Was a Poet: A Critical Biography of Emily Dickinson (1938). On the facing page, “$8.50” is written in pencil, and stamped twice in purple ink is this: “From H.C. Clarke, Stationer, Book and Music Dealer, Vicksburg, Miss.” I sat at a table in the Fondren Library’s Woodson Research Center at Rice University, communed with Whicher and Clarke, and read some of Melville’s poems. Clarke’s place of business led me to the only mention by Melville of Vicksburg, site of a major Union victory in 1863. The reference comes in the final stanza of the final poem in Battle-Pieces, “A Meditation”:

“O, now that brave men yield the sword,
  Mine be the manful soldier-view;
By how much more they boldly warred,
  By so much more is mercy due:
When Vicksburg fell, and the moody files marched out,
Silent the victors stood, scorning to raise a shout.”

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