Some years back I had the pleasure of visiting Joyner Library at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina where I looked at the William S. W. Ruschenberger Papers. Since that research trip I have been holding on to fifty pages of photocopies kindly furnished by the friendly and professional library staff from Ruschenberger's 1848 journal. Incredibly, the whole thing is now available online here "for use in research, teaching, and private study."
What's Herman Melville got to do with it?
Well, Melville in Omoo (1847) cites "Ruschenberger, an intelligent surgeon" of the navy by name, footnoting Ruschenberger's Voyage Round the World.
Ruschenberger in his article "Education in the Navy" for the Southern Literary Messenger (September 1850) at 524-526 quotes copiously (all of chapter 27) from Melville's recently published White-Jacket (1850).
In between Melville's footnote and Ruschenberger's borrowings (plus critical commentary), came Ruschenberger's 1848 voyage on The Plymouth with the colorful and controversial (and sadly alcoholic) captain Tom Gedney, and journal which Ruschenberger wrote in the form of letters home to his wife, Mary. As the manuscript journal indicates, Ruschenberger intended for Mary to make edited copies of all his letters with the idea of publishing them in book form.
Ruschenberger's 1848 journal was copied, edited, and serialized as "Notes and Commentaries on a Voyage to China" in the Southern Literary Messenger (1852-1853).
Reading Ruschenberger's published "Notes and Commentaries" in the Southern Literary Messenger a long time ago, I noticed close correspondences to a couple of passages in Melville's White-Jacket. Certain parallels were so close that Ruschenberger would have seemed a likely source, except that White-Jacket was written in 1849, three years before Ruschenberger's edited journal appeared in print. Impossible, obviously, for Melville in 1849 to make use of Ruschenberger in 1852-1853. From the other end, Ruschenberger was describing daily life on board The Plymouth and had no reason or need to crib details from Melville.
However, after going to Greenville and reading Ruschenberger's manuscript 1848 journal, and seeing the doctor's repeated instructions to his wife (along with the handwritten notation "copied" at the top of many pages), I realized that multiple copies of the 1848 journal, or parts of it, might have been circulating in the Boston area for months and months, even before Ruschenberger's homecoming and well before 1852-1853 when the Southern Literary Messenger published Ruschenberger's 1848 journal as "Notes and Commentaries on a Voyage to China."
So one question is, could Melville somehow have procured Ruschenberger's 1848 journal in manuscript form, perhaps one of the copies made according to plan by Ruschenberger's wife Mary, the former Mary B. Wister?
Now that Ruschenberger's 1848 journal is digitized and online for research and teaching, I find myself freshly motivated to re-examine those weird correspondences to Melville's White-Jacket. Stick around, this should be fun.