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· Scholarly, Critical, Theoretical Academic Librarianship, Leon Howard Style ·

I've been packing books lately since I've moved into a new Trope Topic College building. The move has had the effect of putting me in mind of academic librarianship, literally the care and keeping of books. It has had the effect, too, of putting in hand a valued text from the past, an academic biography I studied forty years ago now, Leon Howard's Herman Melville (1951). You should know that Howard was my Doktor Vater, and as I had not seen his work in years, I took a brief peek.

Howard was a fine scholar trained in the German style at Johns Hopkins — one writing the nineteenth dissertation in American literature ("of which there are no extant copies," he happily joked). His long career at Northwestern, UCLA, and New Mexico was highlighted by New Mexico's naming a small library for him in 1983. I thought that fitting, since as Moby-Dick readers may recall, "librianship" is a key theme in Melville's novel.

My own work in that service (getting students into the library and weaning a few from the net) is modest enough, but since books are all helpful, getting folks to read, and even beyond that to "think" about literature, is still more so. You may recall my Whose Words These Are I Think I Know, a January 2005 post centered on finding abstraction, figuration, and organization in books. Today I thought to add a fresh take on still more academic work — work stretching over the entire course of the past century.

Howard's biography can help us in defining it — at least at the boundaries. · Leon Howard, Scholar ·

As I tell students, twentieth-century literary academics fall broadly into three kinds, scholars, critics, and theorists. All have played one-upsmanship games over time, the older looking down on the younger, and vice versa, of course. Though I am quite non-sectarian, in aging I have grown to appreciate the work of the older scholars like Leon Howard.

Here's how he stakes his claim on "critical" study in his brief "Preface":

To those critics who insist that a work of literature makes its most admirable appearance an an independent object of aesthetic experience, I can only suggest that the arts which we call the humanities are, as a matter of fact, unavoidably human. Of them, literature is the most comprehensive and illuminating in its humanity; and, for my part, the knowledge of human beings, in all their complex relationships, which can be gained from literary study is one of the greatest incentives to its pursuit. I cannot, in short, share the apparently widespread feeling that a rereadable book is so delicate a plant that it needs to be removed from its natural environment before it can attract the imagination. Leon Howard, Herman Melville: A Biography, Berkeley & Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1951, 1967, viii.

Those perfect adverbial phrases, "as a matter of fact," "for my part," and "in short," catch Howard's concern: some gathered "facts," "personally" acquired, and all "briefly" shown are, indeed, his point. So, naturally, his conclusion ("Recollection and Renown") drives it home more stylishly.

Critics whose impulse has been to worship Art have found in Melville's works a challenge to their ceremonial ingenuity in rationalizing impressions. So satisfactory has been his reflection of their subtleties that typographical errors in cheap editions of his books and mistranscriptions of his difficult handwriting have inspired them to intellectual gyrations of ectasy. The omission of a comma in modern versions of a sentence addressed to Bulkington in Moby Dick has transformed that character from one of Melville's forgotten men into one of his most "significant" heroes. The error which changed a "coiled fish of the sea" into a "soiled fish" in some editions of White Jacket has been the basis for a lyrical tribute to the author's unique genius in imagery. The probable misreading of Melville's original spelling of the word "visible" as a reference to a "usable truth" in a letter to Hawthorne has provoked discourse on the "usable truth" of both men and inspired a meditation on the "usable past." Leon Howard, Herman Melville: A Biography, Berkeley & Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1951, 1967, 341.

What more can I say?

Lots, of course, but any real "usable truth" in this "blog post" cannot sustain — even theoretically — a more "usable past" in his book.

And, less so, that in the Leon Howard Memorial Library.

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