Gansevoort Revises Augusta: An Introduction

During the 1837-38 school year, when Herman Melville was eighteen, his 16-year-old sister Augusta wrote a set of high school compositions focusing on various topics (including the execution of Lady Jane Grey, the character of Christ, and the poetry of Felicia Hemans). Herman and Augusta’s older brother Gansevoort—who was 22 at the time and head of the Melville household in Lansingburgh, NY, just north of Troy—was always available to “correct” Augusta’s essays, and Gansevoort’s penciled revisions to her writing are evident in some of her surviving compositions, located in the Gansevoort-Lansing Collection at the New York Public Library. Although Herman’s high school compositions have not been found, Gansevoort probably vetted his schoolwork as well as other early writing, for evidence of his penciled editorial interventions can be found on the Typee manuscript, a three-chapter fragment of the 1845 working draft of Melville’s first novel, published in 1846.

Finding Gansevoort’s “hand” on Augusta’s and Herman’s drafts suggests that as the three siblings developed through adolescence, they constituted a coterie of family writers. Ostensibly, the older Gansevoort was proctoring his younger brother and sister as he was himself growing through various transitions in his precocious life—bankrupt hat-making entrepreneur, lawyer, politician, and diplomat—before his untimely death in 1846. During the late 1830s, Herman was writing letters to local papers about his debating society, inscribing poetry in the back of a book (and probably writing his own poems), and publishing locally his earliest known sketches, titled Fragments from a Writing Desk. And Augusta was working on her compositions, of which eleven survive: some are drafts; others, final versions.

In the NYPL cache of compositions is a four-page fragment of what appears to be a term paper on a topic best characterized as: What can human effort, leadership, or power among the famous and infamous men of history, politics, and religion—Washington, Grotius, Luther, Fulton, Charlemagne, Napoleon—accomplish for good or ill? The fragment is the inner sheet, folded once to create four pages, of what was probably a two-sheet composition. The lost outer sheet, also folded to create four pages, probably contained the essay’s title, introduction, and conclusion as well as the opening and closing examples of the essay’s body section. Internal textual evidence—a reference to the reburial of George Washington in October 1837—in the context of the dating of Augusta’s other, earlier compositions indicates that this longer, term paper may have been written in response to an end-of-year assignment in Spring, 1838. Unlike Augusta’s earlier compositions, which are lightly edited by Augusta and in some instances Gansevoort, Augusta’s term paper on human effort, leadership, or power has been heavily revised by Gansevoort. The document is a fascinating instance of layered voices: not only older brother superimposed on younger sister but also Augusta’s idealism and reverence interfused with Gansevoort’s ambition, politics, and nationalism. Beyond the document’s use in further exploring the Melville sibling coterie, Augusta’s draft composition reveals an early nineteenth-century family dynamic regarding the process of writing, or rather of learning to write, that resonates with today’s study of composition and rhetoric

To compare these sibling writers using Juxta, I transcribed Augusta’s term paper fragment twice: once to achieve the final reading text of Augusta’s original and a second time to achieve the final reading text of Gansevoort’s revision. I then uploaded the texts of both witnesses into Juxta Commons. The comparison set viewed here uses Augusta’s text as the base version.

The Melville Electronic Library (MEL) has adapted Juxta to its online manuscript transcription tool TextLab so that different versions of a work can be collated. In MEL’s version of Juxta Commons, users can click on revision sites, indicated by Juxta’s highlighting of variant text, and view a dialog box that sequences the two versions and permits the user to write a “revision narrative” that offers arguments about the revision. Once digital images of Augusta’s composition are made available, they can be processed through TextLab, thus giving users access to MEL’s added Revision Sequence/Narrative feature.

—John Bryant