Charles Olson and “The Art of Fielding”

Charles Olson

The scholar’s dream: the finding of a rare text that illuminates an author or a period of history, or that allows us to reconsider something we otherwise thought well-established. Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding, which I recently reviewed, contains such an event—an event, as it turns out, that was probably based on a real (and quirky) story. So far, at least in my perusal of commentary online about TAOF, this connection has seemed to escape the Internet’s notice.

What Happens in TAOF

Guert Affenlight, the dean of Westish College, is a former English academic who made his name—and got his start—on Melville. One of the opening chapters reveals that Affenlight had, as a biology student at Westish, made a significant discovery. Working in the college library, he found a manuscript inserted between two ancient magazines. The papers turned out to be a copy of a lecture Melville had given at Westish during a visit (note that Westish is a fictional creation of Harbach’s, so Melville obviously never actually visited). The discovery becomes part of Affenlight’s lifelong obsession with Melville, prompting him to switch his studies to literature. (His find also prompts the college to change its mascot and reorient itself almost totally around Moby-Dick and its author.) Affenlight becomes famous writing a book called “The Sperm Squeezers,” which focuses on homoeroticism in 19th century letters. (The title being a reference to, you guessed it, a particular episode in Moby Dick.)

This all, when I read through TAOF, was an interesting backstory, but did not ring any bells. However, a few months later, reading through the book All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, I stumbled upon an intriguing parallel, involving the real-life discovery of a lost Melville document.

The Famous “Motto” Letter

To back up a bit: there is a rather famous 1851 letter from Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, where Melville extols the then-just-completed Moby Dick:

Shall I send you a fin of the Whale by way of a specimen mouthful? The tail is not yet cooked—though the hell-fire in which the whole book is broiled might not unreasonably have cooked it all ere this. This is the book’s motto (the secret one),—Ego non baptiso te in nomine—but make out the rest yourself.

Much of this “secret motto” is made of in All Things Shining, but that is besides the point for this post. The burning question, though, should be obvious: How was the motto supposed to be completed? The Latin (apparently) reads “I baptize you not in the name…” It was a rather mysterious omission.

Enter Charles Olson, who, before becoming a famous poet, found, as a 23-year-old graduate student in American history and literature at Wesleyan University, a complete version of the incantation on the blank flyleaf of the final volume of Melville’s collected works of Shakespeare. As it turns out, the incantation read: “I baptize you not in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, but rather in the name of the Devil.” Olson took this an some other marginalia to complete his own famous book on Melville, Call Me Ishmael.*

Did Harbach Base Affenlight’s Experience on Olson’s?

The parallels between the two stories are obvious, and as brimming over with Melville as TAOF is, it’s hard not to believe the Affenlight story was a reworking of Olson’s discovery. It is small things like this make me wonder if there really isn’t more to TAOF than I first considered.

*There is a rather more complicated later history to this discovery’s impact on Melville scholarship, but for the purposes of this post I’m keeping it simple.