Thursday, March 5, 2015

Questions for Debate in Melville's Albany, 1837-8

Albany Evening Journal - February 2, 1838

Herman Melville resided with his family in Albany, New York from 1830 to 1838. Early in 1838 Melville got himself elected as president of an Albany debate club then calling itself "Philo Logos." Published letters full of high-sounding snark, mostly to and from Charles Van Loon (1819-1847), indicate Herman Melville's brief but intense period of involvement with the debate club, reportedly starting in 1837. These Philo Logos letters are collected in the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville's Correspondence.

As pointed out a few years back on Hershel Parker's blog, published 1858 recollections by newspaper editor William J. Moses supply additional details. Thanks to Fulton History archives (the legible parts) anyone can see that Moses remembered Philo Logos as a club of two dominant antagonists, Van Loon and Melville:
"they being a tight match for each other, and delighting in nothing more than in being pitted against each other in intellectual combat."
--Auburn [New York] Daily American, January 4, 1858; found at Fulton History.

Moses freely admitted to having been stumped when Melville asked him to define "Philo Logos." Searching Fulton History for "Philo Logos" also gets you to the Albany Evening Journal for October 27, 1836, where then "President" Charles Van Loon submits an earlier 1836 exchange of letters on that tendentious topic of the meaning of Philo Logos. Critic "HERODITUS" (said to be a lawyer) judged Philo Logos ungrammatical and meaningless, and specifically recommended the term Philologean as an intelligible alternative. In the reply dated October 24, 1836, the writer signed "PHILOLOGIST" defends Philo Logos as traditional and grammatically sound. This published (but previously unknown?) 1836 exchange complements the 1858 recollections of William J. Moses in supplying background for Melville's Philologos correspondence, including his long-known use of the pseudonym "Philologean" / "Philologian."

Herman Melville like his older brother Gansevoort belonged for a time to the Albany Young Men's Association, but Philo Logos was a kind of upstart, intended apparently to rival the older and more formally organized debating society of the YMA. Before 1840 the YMA debating society met in the Association rooms at Knickerbocker Hall, which "then stood on Broadway between Maiden Lane and State Street" (Young Men's Association). Philo Logos met in Stanwix Hall.

Image Credit: drinkdrank

The Northwestern-Newberry Correspondence volume seems mistaken in a headnote equating the two debating societies (18). Herman Melville's final published letter in the Albany Microscope of March 31, 1838 (headed YOUNG MEN'S ASSOCIATION) only promotes the unnamed debating society of the Albany Young Men's Association and never names the Philo Logos Society.

Before now, the only known question for debate by Philo Logos was the definition of Philo Logos. A few more topics for debate by the Philologos Society are uncovered in Melvilliana posts on the Philo Logos Society in 1837 and Philo Logos Society debate on abolition of slavery. As it happens, however, the debating society affiliated with the Albany Young Men's Association (not Philo Logos) advertised some wonderfully appealing and controversial questions for debate during the period of Melville's known involvement with Philo Logos. Presumably Herman would have been interested in these questions even if he did not participate in or attend the actual YMA debates:

"Should the administration of oaths be abolished?" -- Albany Argus, January 16, 1837

Albany Argus - January 31, 1837

The question for debate this evening is, "Has the general diffusion of knowledge a tendency to diminish crime?" Meeting at 7 o'clock in the Lecture Room.
T. W. LOCKWOOD, Sec'y. -- Albany Argus for Tuesday, January 31, 1837se

"Ought the Elective Franchise to be restricted to property qualifications?"
--Albany Argus, December 7, 1837

"Should capital punishment be abolished?"
-- Albany Argus, Thursday, December 14, 1837

Albany Evening Journal - December 22, 1837
“Is the mind of woman of equal capacity with that of man?” --Albany Evening Journal, Friday, December 22, 1837

"Have the public laws of the U. States been, and are they beneficial to the country?" -- Albany Evening Journal, December 29, 1837

"Should Representatives be bound by the will of their Constituents?"  --Albany Evening Journal, January 11, 1838
“Should the benefits of the copyright law be extended to foreign authors?” --Albany Evening Journal, Thursday, January 18, 1838
"Are prose works of fiction beneficial?” --Albany Evening Journal, February 1, 1838
"Does an individual on entering into society, surrender any of his natural rights?"
--Albany Argus, February 22, 1838
“Is the removal of the Indians beyond the Mississippi by the U. S. Government, politic or just?” --Albany Argus, April 12, 1838
"Was the banishment of Napoleon by the allied powers justifiable?" --Albany Evening Journal, Thursday, April 26, 1838

Herman Melville was elected President of the Philo Logos Society on February 9, 1838, as announced in the Albany Evening Journal on February 13, 1838. By the end of March he was urging support for the debating society of the Young Men's Association. For an earlier letter with the same aim of endorsing the YMA debating society, see the Melvilliana post on the December 1837 letter by Juvinis. 

Albany, New York: Broadway from Maiden Lane, 1863
Image Credit: new york heritage
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