Thursday, January 17, 2013

Melville Scholarship and Cousin Cephas Bell

In the 1960s I tried to rush into print with every little new Melville item I found and kept doing that through the 1970s. After identifying topics that needed the efforts of a corps of searchers and rarely finding any helpers I gradually began to feel like the Little Red Hen. After I started enlarging Jay Leyda’s THE MELVILLE LOG I stopped publishing piecemeal (except for announcing in 1990 that Melville’s lost 1853 work was entitled THE ISLE OF THE CROSS). By the time the 900-page 1951 LOG and 90-page 1969 Supplement had grown to several thousand pages in my computer (where it now continues to grow, slowly, past 9000 pages, not 900), I got requests from rival biographers who did not want to soil their hands in the archives by looking for documents and transcribing them. Instead, they suggested that I should hand over to them my working LOG as handy bio-kits. Well, as I explain in MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE, by then I knew that the great insights came in the course of transcribing documents, identifying people named, understanding motives and actions, supplementing and correcting what we thought we had known. I rebuffed all such wholesale requests.

While working on MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE I have been gathering what has grown into a massive amount of documentation on my American ancestors, white and red—documentation of people I thought had left no written record at all. All this will be distilled into ORNERY PEOPLE: WHAT WAS A DEPRESSION OKIE?  My prospectus for this book, I freely admit, has been rejected in instant horror by Oklahoma presses: “HE USED THAT WORD ‘OKIE’ AND EXPECTS US TO PUBLISH HIM???” 

In my work I have gained a new respect for family patterns, not necessarily genetic but maybe genetic to some extent. Is it just coincidence that I went into print advocating an aesthetic theory that sometimes “More is More” only a short time before Mother’s Uncle Mode’s great grandson Kevin Costner was quoted as saying that “More is More”? For several years when Mother was little (in the panhandle of Oklahoma Territory and later Oklahoma) the only uncle she knew was Uncle Mode and the only cousins she knew were Uncle Mode’s children: all the rest of the family was in Mississippi still. A few generations is not much for attitudes to get passed down.

Here’s an example of a cousin getting tired of being the Little Red Hen. Cousin L. M. Hoffman tells this story about Cephas Bell, a Confederate soldier in the 28th North Carolina Regiment, grandson of Uncle Thomas Costner, who fought on the right side at King’s Mountain in October 1780:

“His comrades say of him that he was not unusually bright but that he was unusually brave. On one occasion his command was ordered to charge the enemy entrenched on a hill. The Federals scattered in confusion and Bell leading in the rush did not notice that his command had halted in the enemy’s abandoned position but went on after an officer in the rear of the rout. He overtook his man and ordered him to surrender. The officer said he couldn’t surrender except to an officer. Bell swore at him and said he’d blow out his d----d brains if he didn’t surrender quick . . . . He took his prisoner back and meeting some officers as he approached headquarters they told him they’d take the prisoner. He said, ‘No you won’t; if you want to go get you one, there’s plenty of them over there [pointing in the direction the enemy had gone]. You shall not have mine.’”

Now, is this genetic or just an attitude passed down in the Costner family? I understand Cousin Cephas!

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