Finding a white whale: Coppin State professor might have confirmed lost Herman Melville manuscript

After 10 years of searching like Captain Ahab at sea, a Coppin State University professor thinks he may have found a lost Herman Melville manuscript that includes tantalizing hints of what later would become his masterpiece, “Moby-Dick.”

Humanities professor Roger Stritmatter thinks the unsigned, one-page document he bought online for $850 in 2009 from a New Jersey antiques dealer — a satiric mock-newspaper called “The Extr. Gazette” — might have been created by Melville on April 11, 1846, to amuse his ailing older brother, Gansevoort, who died the following month from tuberculosis.

The handwriting has been authenticated as Melville’s by a New York forensics laboratory, Stritmatter said, and his findings have been published in a major peer-reviewed publication, the Journal of Forensic Document Examination.

“Finding this document was a lucky fluke,” Stritmatter said. “As soon as I saw it, I was transfixed by the intellect and the profound sense of humor, the creativity of the text and illustrations. The more research I do into Melville’s handwriting and his biography and the language he used, the more convinced I am that this is authentic.”

Stritmatter will discuss his whale of a tale at a free public lecture at 3 p.m. Thursday in Coppin’s Parlett Moore Library. He also hopes to present his findings next June in New York at the Melville Society conference celebrating the 200th anniversary of the novelist’s birth.

Colin Dewey, executive secretary of The Melville Society, which studies and promotes the author’s novels, wrote in an email that the society “doesn’t take sides or issue opinions” about questions of authenticity.

A spokesman for the University of Buffalo Cedar-Fox forensics lab, where the document was analyzed, could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

However, the laboratory’s founder, computer science professor Sargur Srihari, presented a comprehensive forensic analysis of the text in a paper, “Determining Writership of Historical Manuscripts using Computational Methods,” at a 2013 workshop in Germany. He concluded that there is “a high confidence result” that Melville is indeed the author of the communication known as the “Hydrarchos Manuscript.”

The manuscript’s seller advertised the document as possibly being associated with a 19th-century banker and author named Augustus Ely Silliman. That piqued Stritmatter’s curiosity, since Melville occasionally ghost-wrote books for other authors. Some scholars have even speculated that his clients might have included Silliman.

The piece of paper is 15 inches tall and 11 inches wide. Both sides contain handwritten text and a total of seven pen-and-ink illustrations.

Melville was an avid amateur artist, Stritmatter said.

In addition, the paper is folded once in the middle and then in thirds vertically, consistent with it having been mailed in an envelope. The articles purport to relate news events that occurred in Boston, England, China and Italy. Stritmatter thinks that a piece of commentary datelined Cape May, N.J., is an inside-joke referring to a family event.

“These satiric mock newspapers were very popular in the 19th century,” Stritmatter said. “They originated aboard ships and were a way that people entertained themselves and each other.”

At the time, Melville’s first book, “Typee: A Peep at Polynesia Life” had just been released in England and was receiving a favorable response, though it had not yet been published in the U.S.

Melville might have been feeling especially close to his eldest brother; Gansevoort Melville, the secretary to the chief U.S. diplomat in England, who had been instrumental in helping him find his publisher.

What’s not clear, Stritmatter said, is whether Herman Melville realized how ill his sibling was. Gansevoort Melville died May 11, 1846, exactly one month after the missive was written.

No hypothesis in academia is ever universally endorsed, at least initially. Stritmatter acknowledged that other studies could be done that could confirm or disprove the document’s authorship.

The paper and ink have yet to be analyzed and dated. Nor is it known what happened to the manuscript in the roughly 150 years between its presumed arrival at Gansevoort Melville’s London home and its eventual purchase by the New Jersey antiques dealer.

But if consensus builds that the document was indeed written by the great American novelist, the manuscript has the potential to be an important literary find. It would be one of just two existing examples of Melville’s drawings — the other is merely a photograph of a drawing. (Melville’s original sketch has been lost.) In addition, the mock newspaper would become the earliest known indication that Melville was already thinking about themes that five years later would find fruition in the publication of “Moby-Dick.”

Take the man astride the sea monster described as “the Hydrarchos” in the upper part of the drawing. The serpent appears to be leading a race between it and two ships.

“That’s a parody of something that was happening in the eastern half of the U.S. in 1846,” Stritmatter said.

As he explained it, giant prehistoric bones had been found on a plantation in southwestern Alabama in 1833. A huckster named Albert Koch incorrectly reassembled the bones into the skeleton of a sea serpent resembling the one in the manuscript’s drawing. The monster toured several cities along the Eastern seaboard, including Baltimore.

Later, it was determined that the supposed serpent was really — you guessed it — a fossil whale.

“‘Moby-Dick,’” Stritmatter said, “has a chapter about the discovery of those bones.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Lillian Reed contributed to this article.

lireed@baltsun.com

twitter.com/LillianEReed

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