Monday, January 30, 2012

nuts and bolts of rewriting from sources: "owing to"

Some years back I began to scrutinize Melville's mechanics of revision. One thing I noticed was how much Melville liked to use "owing to" when rewriting his sources.  He evidently favored this device especially for explaining causes and supplying missing information.  Significantly, owing to occurs repeatedly in works where Melville is borrowing heavily from known sources, at least 13x in "Benito Cereno" and 17x in Israel Potter.

So, having taken the trouble to document some uses of owing to in my 2006 conference paper on traces of Melville in "Scenes Beyond the Western Border," I got a kick out of predicting then confirming another one in chapter 35 of Moby-Dick.  Easily amused, that's me alright.

Ishmael's comic take, or take-off, on the crow's nest of Captain Sleet is based on a passage in vol. 2 of William Scoresby's Account of the Arctic Regions.  Melville's debt to Scoresby for the comic bit on Sleet's crow's nest was first demonstrated by Frederick B. Adams, Jr., in Colophon (Autumn 1936).  In The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick Howard Vincent (citing Adams) comments:
Melville pounced upon Scoresby's long, prideful account, parodying its pedantry as well as its piety, its over-particularity.  Even without knowledge of the parody, one enjoys the mockery of Melville's paragraphs, but an awareness of the parodic intent, hidden to all but the source hunter or the student of whaling, enhances one's relish of the humor.  (159)
Now I did not have the Colophon article by Adams, but reading the above in Vincent prompted me to look closer at the text of Melville's parody in Moby-Dick.  Looking then in at Melville's re-write of Scoresby in chapter 35 I encountered that phrase again:
When Captain Sleet in person stood his mast-head in this crow's-nest of his, he tells us that he always had a rifle with him (also fixed in the rack), together with a powder flask and shot, for the purpose of popping off the stray narwhales, or vagrant sea unicorns infesting those waters; for you cannot successfully shoot at them from the deck owing to the resistance of the water, but to shoot down upon them is a very different thing.  (Classic Reader)
Mind you, it was only because of my earlier investigations that I even noticed "owing to."  I had not yet looked up the original source for the passage in Scoresby.  But seeing "owing to" again and recognizing it as a favorite device, I had a strong hunch it was Melville's contribution.  Next step, find the source in Scoresby, which I did at Google Books.

And (drum roll please).... Voila!  Here it is, in a footnote:
 The rifle has been occasionally used for shooting narwhales: when fired at from the deck, it is almost impossible to kill them, partly on account of the resistance of the water, which the ball must pass through, and partly on account of the deception in their position, produced by the refractive property of the water. Shooting from the mast head nearly perpendicularly downwards, in a great measure obviates both these inconveniences.  (Scoresby, Account of the Arctic Regions, vol. 2, p205)
 Yep, owing to is all Melville's doing. Melville likes "owing to" so much he has to change Scoresby's perfectly fine "on account of," while keeping "the resistance of the water."  Cool, huh?

Also Melville's (while we're at it) are
popping off (instead of tedious "shooting")
the stray in "stray narwhales"

more additions by to his source in Scoresby, along with "vagrant sea unicorns" for narwhales:

"a very different thing"

And for more on Scoresby, check out the Melvilliana post on Scoresby's crow's nest Melvillized

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