Christie's New York is pleased to announce its upcoming auction, The Herman Melville Collection of William S. Reese, taking place online from 1-14 September.
William S. Reese was the pre-eminent dealer-scholar of printed Americana of his generation, renowned for his scholarship, generosity and the legacy he left on his profession. His private collections of literature were less well-known in his lifetime, although still celebrated. He collected many authors—from James Thurber to Saki—but the two he collected in by far the greatest depth were Robert Graves and Herman Melville. Reese gifted the majority of his collection of Graves to the Beinecke in 2002 and 2015; the Melville he kept.
Of all the great writers of America’s first century, none but Melville so thoroughly represented the eternal wanderlust of the human race—a wanderlust that was arguably more trenchant in mid-19 th century America that it has ever been at any other time or place. And not only is Melville the chronicler of that distinctly American form of wanderlust, but his language is singularly timeless—for example employing Quaker diction and pronouns within a prophetic modernism more akin to Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. A century after it was written, Robert Penn Warren would compare Melville’s epic poetry to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.
Herman Melville presents a singularly ambitious challenge to the collector. For starters, the Melville family was notorious for burning their own papers. All of Melville’s letters to his mother were burned and nearly all of his letters to his siblings (see lot 676 for a notable exception). One of Melville’s nieces threw his correspondence with her father into a bonfire at Arrowhead, and Melville’s daughter Elizabeth is suspected of destroying all the correspondence between her parents. (See Lepore, “Melville At Home.” The New Yorker, 29 July 2019). “Billy Budd” was very nearly lost to the sands of time and a large portion of the original manuscript for Typee was discovered in a barn as recently as 1983. The physical longevity of Melville’s printed works is not much better. The meager sales of every single work subsequent to Typee meant ever smaller print runs, intermittent pulping, and inexpensively produced books (except for The Whale) which rarely survived and were certainly not “collected” until at least about 30 years after Melville’s death.
The most important Melville collection in private hands, The Herman Melville Collection of William S. Reese includes rarities like John Marr (lot 659), Timoleon (lot 660), the triple-decker first edition of Mardi (lot 616), and three different copies of the English edition of The Whale (lots 630, 631, & 632); Melville’s own copies of Obed Macy's History of Nantucket (lot 672) and Dante’s Divine Comedy (lot 677); Nathaniel Hawthorne’s very own copy of Redburn (lot 621); important presentation copies including Typee inscribed to Henry Smythe, the man who enabled Melville to turn his back on writing (lot 654); and, last but certainly not least, letters and family papers, among them a wonderful sign for Allan Melville's New York shop (lot 664) and a letter from Herman arranging his first meeting with publisher Richard Bentley (lot 619).
The sale will be on preview at Rockefeller Center from 9-14 September.