Tuesday, February 13, 2024

1885 check "endorsed by Herman Melville for deposit"

As previously shown on Melvilliana 
Herman Melville's 1885 poem The Admiral of the White, later printed in John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) as "The Haglets," was syndicated by Allen Thorndike Rice for publication in more newspapers than we knew, including the Cincinnati Times-StarAdmiral of the White appeared in the weekly edition of the Cincinnati Times-Star on May 21, 1885, "Copyrighted by Allen Thorndike Rice."

Today (Happy Mardi Gras y'all 🎉🎉🎉) I stumbled on a documentary record of what might well have been Melville's payment for the poem in the form of a check from "A. Rice" dated May 2, 1885 and "endorsed by Herman Melville for deposit." Said check (no longer extant?) was included as a signed Melville item with "Literary Letters and Manuscripts" in the auction catalog of Anderson Galleries for Sale Number 2298. A brief description appears on page 89 of the Anderson Galleries catalog, Autograph Collection of a Late American Author (New York, 1928). Listed as item #658, the check with Melville's signature was offered in the Third Session on December 4, 1928:

658 MELVILLE (HERMAN). Printed and written D. s., 1 p., oblong 8vo. New York. May 2, 1885. Check by A. Rice endorsed by Herman Melville for deposit. 

Less than two years later, the check resurfaced in the Plaza Art Galleries, Inc. catalog of Noted American and English authors of the last 150 years, in first editions from the library of Philo C. Calhoun. Evidently Bridgeport, Connecticut lawyer and book collector Philo Clarke Calhoun (1889-1964) had acquired the May 2, 1885 letter (at the 1928 Anderson auction?) and stuck it in the front of his highly collectible 1st edition of Moby-Dick, "Rare in any form, and particularly so in BLUE cloth."

Calhoun's first American edition of Moby-Dick is listed #320 in the Plaza Art Galleries catalog for "Public Sale No. 776," held on March 20 and 21, 1930. According to the description on page 44, the date of the attached cheque with Melville's signature is May 2, 1885, same as the date of the check described in the 1928 Anderson Galleries catalog.
"... Affixed to the inner front cover is a cheque dated May 2, 1885; bearing MELVILLE"S SIGNATURE as an endorsement. Melville autograph material is seldom met with."
The 1930 Plaza Art Galleries catalog does not name the issuer of the "cheque" that Melville endorsed, but it bears the identical date and thus would appear to be the same "check" from "A. Rice" described in the 1928 Anderson Galleries catalog. This "A. Rice" I take to be Allen Thorndike Rice who had arranged for the newspaper syndication of Melville's poem "The Admiral of the White" later on in May 1885. 

Allen Thorndike Rice was still paying authors by check in November. On November 29, 1885 Rice wrote a check for 120 dollars to author Harriet Prescott Spofford. Signed "A. T. Rice" and endorsed by Spofford on the back, this item is now in the Abernethy collection at Middlebury College Special Collections & Archives.

So now we at least have some reason to believe Rice paid Melville, and a better idea of when. Who knows how much? Or what happened to the physical check from Rice that Melville endorsed? If you now have or ever happen to see a 1st American edition of Moby-Dick in blue, take a look. 

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  1. This may simply be incidental and nothing more. On 5 April 1865, Allan and Jane Melville sold their home on east 35th street to a George S Rice, a treasurer at180 Broadway living at 15 London Terrace, along with lawyers Edwin T Rice and William A Rice. One never knows about connections. John Gretchko

    1. Interesting, thanks John. I did not know about the Rices on Broadway. Another angle, possibly: Melville retired at the end of 1885 from his Custom House job. How they paid him his $4 a day I never heard. If there was an "A. Rice" there or somewhere in the Treasury Dept we might have an alternative candidate. Meanwhile I like ATR, especially in light of the Cincinnati printing of "Admiral of the White" under the statement, "Copyrighted by Allen Thorndike Rice." Which reminds me I still want to check the St. Paul Pioneer Press (maybe microfilmed?) for a printing of Melville's "Admiral" there, on or about May 17, 1885.