“Mira dances, how can her ankle bells not dance?/…I am at Hari’s feet; I give him body and soul./ A glimpse of him is water: How thirsty I am for that!” – Mirabai (as translated by Robert Bly)

Living is full of thirsts, our drawn days of summers, the body aching for company, soul-witness, democracy, justice. When I am thirsty, I sip on Mira, imagine her playing the ektara, diving into devotion, into lines that would become poetry, would become song, would become holy.

How do we make a moment holy? How do we live in the moment? How do we live on in the moment?

One way through is song. When I imagined my book launch for Miracle Marks, I dreamt of garba, dance & poetry – lyrics alive – an interaction, a twining traditions of poet-saint Mirabai, a threading of body & language, spirit & heart, lineage & now. I’m grateful to Aditi Dhruv and Kuldeep Singh, two exquisite dancers who brought my poems to life on June 29. Our work together was not echo but thrum, an ecstasy I like to conceive Mira would have enjoyed, would have delighted, would, too, have sung.

In more ways than one, the Miracle Marks book launch was collective song. As a social practice artist, interaction and engagement is vital to me. After pooling songs from friends & community, I created a Spotify playlist riffing on themes in Miracle Marks – goddesses, rivers, women, liberation. This playlist, River – Miracle Marks Book Launch, threaded the evening, weaving a community of voices through the launch. To everyone who added to the collective play, I am grateful.

These days, when I am thirsty, I go back to this playlist, to the river of time & feeling before, and drink anew from what may be possible, what art makes possible, what community makes possible, what songs of liberation make possible.

If you’d like to experience my work & share song, reach out for book readings, events, and workshops at purvipoets@gmail.com. Find Miracle Marks here and more on my work at http://purvipoets.net and @PurviPoets on social media.

Excerpt: ‘The Meaning of Harold’ from SACRED GROUND

sacred-ground.jpgIn 1968, when Dr. King was killed, Harold was in the Illinois House. He introduced a bill in the Illinois legislature to create the Martin Luther King Holiday. Illinois became the first state in the Union to create this holiday, long before it was a federal law. Harold had to gain the support of a mixed group to pass it. It took a person with the charisma, the intellect, and the political skills of a Harold Washington to make that happen. He took pride in this particular legislative accomplishment.

Harold had immense political know-how, serving in the Illinois House from 1964 until 1976, when he was elected to the Illinois Senate. Following the death of Mayor [Richard J.] Daley, Harold made an early attempt to run for mayor of Chicago in 1977. I worked hard on his campaign, but he was trounced in the Democratic primary that time around. He only carried two wards, even in his own community. But we still knew the time was getting ripe. After Daley died in office, and Wilson Frost was prevented from assuming his duties by the white politicians, the black community was coming together. Jesse Jackson brilliantly mobilized black entertainers to boycott ChicagoFest as a demonstration of black outrage at the white power structure.

After Jane Byrne won the Democratic primary for mayor of Chicago, I worked for her. She couldn’t go anywhere in the black community without one of us; we decided to support her because we felt this would be an opportunity to break the old machine. I personally had to walk Jane Byrne into public housing projects and orient her and advise her on the issues. Of course when the time came for her to take office, all her appointees to the housing authority and the school board were conservative and white. Although Byrne ran as a feminist, and became the first female mayor, she was not interested in equity. African Americans remained shut out.

Meanwhile, in 1981, Harold made a successful run for the United States House of Representatives, representing the Illinois First Congressional District until his election as mayor in 1983. Now, it was during the 1980s that I served on the First Congressional District Office’s Education Task Force, with local and national political implications. And because I was close to Harold, I played a role in managing his mayoral campaign, helping to register voters through groups like the People’s Movement for Voter Registration and United Black Voters of Illinois.

During that period, I met Zenobia Johnson, a member of Harold’s First Congressional District Housing Task Force. Zenobia was also a Chicago public school teacher, active in the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an organization addressing civil rights issues on the labor front. I did not overlook her beauty or her vivacious personality.

Again, at that time I was co-chair of Harold’s First Congressional District Education Task Force. Those were intense times, packed with wall-to-wall meetings, rallies, and strategy sessions. We ran countless trainings, knocked on innumerable doors. Zenobia says that we courted, married, and honeymooned during the height of the voter registration campaign and mayoral race in 1982. Happily, she recalls my being very gentlemanly and courteous in my courting of her. We’ve now been married for more than three decades.

Making “Atmospheric Embroidery” by Meena Alexander


atmospheric-embroideryWhat goes into the making of a book?  Memory, dream, desire and always the pressure of the present whether overt or as undersong, lacking which composition could not come into being. And each time it feels like a new beginning, starting from scratch.

I wrote the first draft of the title poem in Provincetown, during a summer of violent storms, sunshine and sudden senseless deaths. The poem is underwritten by migrancy, worlds cut and coupled that one carries around in one’s body. And it is here that the art of Alighiero Boetti with its uncanny doublings comes in. Haunted by his embroidered art work ( ‘I mille fiumi piu lunghi del mondo’) that hung on the wall at MOMA, I kept seeing the names of rivers I had known, the Ganga of my birthplace,  the Nile in Khartoum, the Mississipi – Missouri in Minneapolis. The title is an homage to my father who taught me to love and respect the atmosphere, so threatened now. From my earliest childhood appa taught me the names of clouds, winds and waters.




There is a moment I have turned over and over in my head. I am standing on deck on the SS Jehangir, deep green waves of the Indian Ocean crashing all around. I have broken free of my mother and stand clutching the white railings of the ship. I am dressed in a pink frilly frock with embroidery on the yoke and skirt. The dress whirls about my legs, a froth of organza and lace, wind whipped. Amma had brought it along and tucked it in at the bottom of her leather suitcase, all ready for my fifth birthday. A week and a half earlier we had set sail from Bombay and were bound for Port Sudan where my father a meteorologist would meet us. This was just after Bandung, the historic Afro-Asian Congress of non-aligned nations that met in that Indonesian City. There was an accord between India and Sudan for technical assistance which was how my father ended up traveling to Khartoum. For almost the next decade a half, I travelled back and forth between continents. At eighteen I flew to England to study at a university there. Still that first sea voyage marked me forever, its hieroglyphs of loss and longing filled with meanings I am still trying to decipher.




On board the ship my mother tongue Malayalam and the Hindi I knew from earliest childhood shot out of one ear and the English around me changed utterly. There were white people, clusters of them speaking the language in a strange way. They kept away from us, almost as if the brown of our skin would spread and sully them. When we landed Arabic poured in and later I had friends who also spoke French. In this mingling of languages I understood dimly that there was so much that could not be spoken and that rich, even sorrowful awareness of the unsayable has been with me ever since. Out of this, poetry comes. This fine art of distilling language is also one that is predicated on silence.

I wanted to add that my handwriting can border on the illegible, much to the annoyance and perhaps fascination of others. I attribute this to my attempt as a teenager to perfect a script that would flow in between the borders of the Roman script, the Arabic script and the curvatures of Malayalam, the language of Kerala. It was as much calligraphy as anything else and how well its served me in my adult life is an open question.

Perhaps my poems are like that too, slipping between the lines of separate nations, continents of migration and settlement. Perhaps poems make up steadfast places for me. My body on the other hand is marked as that of a person of color, someone who is bound to a difficult and fractious existence, constantly drawn in, longing to be part of a whole, yet time and again cast out, till that tension has come to coexist with and seems inextricably bound to the idea of belonging.




I think back to mapmaking this book involved.  There are poems that like sign posts stand out for me. ‘Moksha’ evokes the gang rape in Delhi of the young woman Jyoti Singh Pande. Those who did not know her name and those who did called her ‘Nirbhaya’, which means ‘without fear . There is the cycle of Darfur poems based on drawings by children from the war zone. Growing up in Khartoum I had friends from Darfur. Where are they now, I wonder? The poem ‘Univocity’ opens with an epigram from Whitman, Word over all, beautiful as the sky! It starts in Provincetown, flows into my childhood in India and back again into the present of composition.  The last poem is ‘Crossroad’. I wrote it in the immediate aftermath of the presidential election. In its first version, it had the title ‘Winterlight’. I read it out standing on the steps of the New York Public Library as part of ‘Writers Resist’ gathering organized by PEN American Center, January 15, 2017.

The spine of this book of poetry is ‘Indian Ocean Blues’. At its simplest it was triggered by that childhood ocean crossing. I could not have composed the poem without the inspiration of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un Retour Au Pays Natal. Time and again I heard the waves beat in his lines. One sea leads to another I wrote in response. Perhaps our migrant selves are the true marks of being and a steady place, what we constantly long for, is nothing but a palimpsest of time, on which we scrawl ourselves through these vulnerable moving bodies.

I started  the poem at home in the north of New York City, in my apartment not far from the edge of Fort Tryon Park with its exquisite heather garden and winding green passages. I completed the poem in Shimla, in the foothills of the Himalayas in what had been the summer palace of the British. Raj Shimla an old town of wood and stone filled with bustling villas and chock full of tour buses, cars and pedestrians, still bears a certain melancholy charm.

In childhood I learned the story of Sita, heroine of the Ramayana, cast out by her lordly husband Rama. The earth her mother tore open to give her refuge. In my imagination she slips into the earth of Manhattan island, through the crevices of Inwood marble and appears in metamorphic form, on the other side. Time whorls into space, disparate worlds merge in a shimmering whole which is what memory mingling with desire can sometimes grant us. In just this way a child crossing the Indian Ocean encounters Bras Coupe, the brave African American who escaped slavery, organized others to resist and had his arm chopped off in punishment


He rises

Cloaked in amaranth petals

A big man, his wounds



In the course of  composition, over the space of a year or so, I kept listening to the music of Vijay Iyer, in particular his album ‘Solo’ which I had carried with me to India. Through the miracle of email I sent drafts of my poem to Quincy Troupe, all the way in Harlem. He bore patiently with me as I chopped and changed lines. When it was done the poem was published in the journal Black Renaissance/ Noire. The poem is now woven in separate sections through the whole book. While `Crossroad’ is the last full poem, a tiny final section of `Indian Ocean Blues’ which I have called `Lyric Ego’ makes for a fragile, provisional closure.


Interview: Second to None Series Editor Harvey Young

Welcome to Northwestern University Press’s blog, Incidental Noyes, written here at our home on Noyes Street in Evanston next to Lake Michigan. One of the most important niches that university presses occupy in the book world is that of regional publishing. University presses bring to light a panoply of local and regional American stories that would otherwise be unknown or soon forgotten, despite the fact that many of the most illuminating and emblematic of American stories are local ones. In the hands of gifted writers and editors, the lives of individuals and their local communities can reveal the sweeping landscape of American history. Few cities embody that sweep more than Chicago.

In this edition of Incidental Noyes, NU Press editor-in-chief Gianna Mosser interviews Harvey Young, editor of the Second to None series, which invites projects that spotlight the spirit of Chicago and its people in an engaging, widely accessible, and historically accurate manner. These alternative, underground, and yet-to be chronicled stories will reveal the connective tissues that make up the real Chicago.

What role does regional publishing play at a university press as opposed to mainstream publishers?

A university press differs from a mainstream publisher in that it commits to cultivating a lifelong relationship with readers who are also neighbors. It is the primary steward of their stories and histories. In addition, a university press, attuned to local complexities, can best present life in a city as a mosaic, comprised of individual but ultimately integrated stories.

What makes Chicago such a vibrant place to tell stories?

Chicago has swagger. It has always been and continues to be a destination city for hard-working people who are willing to do whatever it takes (legal or otherwise) to realize their dreams. The streets of Chicago were walked by an endless cast of characters who profoundly impacted the region and the nation: Al Capone, Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West, and more.



What kind of stories make for the best regional books?

The best stories spotlight the uniqueness of Chicago—its particular challenges and extraordinary blessings. In some cases, this engagement can be explicit such as accounts on the miraculous rise of the city and, of course, its rebuilding after the Great Fire. In most others, it is implicit, a background feature: how neighborhood settlement (and segregation) created particular experiences; how the sports passions and culinary tastes of residents create an identifiable regional identity.

What other university presses do you admire for their regional publishing efforts?

I greatly appreciate the work of The University of Michigan Press. Their regional books tell the story of that part of the Great Lakes and spotlight the pride of place that Michiganders have. I am grateful for the efforts of the University of Florida Press for their commitment to telling very local histories that have been overlooked.

You often write on scholarly topics for popular audiences. What strategies do you use to deliver your expertise in a way that keeps people interested?

Popular writing is public storytelling in a very traditional sense. A speaker stands before a community of listeners who want to be engaged. The aim, in writing, is to remove barriers that block absorption into the story. Feature distinct characters with bold voices. Paint a colorful picture of the city as a backdrop.

HARVEY YOUNG is the editor of the Second to None: Chicago Stories trade series. He is author of four books, including Embodying Black Experience, winner of “Book of the Year” awards from the National Communication Association and the American Society for Theatre Research, and coauthor of Black Theater is Black Life: An Oral History of Chicago Theater. Until January 2018, Young was Professor and Chair of Theatre at Northwestern University. He is now Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University. He is the current president of Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE).

Books that Celebrate and Complicate the Black Experience in Chicago

Black leaders, artists, and intellectuals have been instrumental in shaping the city of Chicago. As we celebrate Black History Month, we’ve curated a reading list that encourages engagement with Chicago’s history through the lens of Black ideas, culture, and resistance. With these previously published and forthcoming titles we hope to continue the work of enriching and reshaping Black history and intellectual traditions.

The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago

Edited by Abdul Alkalimat , Rebecca Zorach, and Romi Crawford


The Wall of Respect, beautifully designed and abundantly illustrated, is a book long overdue for an often overlooked milestone in American art and culture.” —The Chicago Tribune

The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago is the first in-depth, illustrated history of a lost Chicago monument. The Wall of Respect was a revolutionary mural created by fourteen members of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) on the South Side of Chicago in 1967. This book gathers historic essays, poetry, and previously unpublished primary documents from the movement’s founders that provide a visual guide to the work’s creation and evolution.

The Wall of Respect received national critical acclaim when it was unveiled on the side of a building at Forty-Third and Langley in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Painters and photographers worked side by side on the mural’s seven themed sections, which featured portraits of Black heroes and sheroes, among them John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and W. E. B. Du Bois. The Wall became a platform for music, poetry, and political rallies. Over time it changed, reflecting painful controversies among the artists as well as broader shifts in the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements.

At the intersection of African American culture, politics, and Chicago art history, The Wall of Respect offers, in one keepsake-quality work, an unsurpassed collection of images and essays that illuminate a powerful monument that continues to fascinate artists, scholars, and readers in Chicago and across the United States.



you-need-a-schoolhouse“A moving, inspirational story about an important link in the historical chain that led to the civil-rights movement and a new, more truly democratic chapter in American history.” —Kirkus Reviews


Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, and Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck, and Company, first met in 1911 at a Chicago luncheon. By charting the lives of these two men both before and after the meeting, Stephanie Deutsch offers a fascinating glimpse into the partnership that would bring thousands of modern schoolhouses to African American communities in the rural South in the era leading up to the civil rights movement. Trim and vital at just shy of fifty, Rosenwald was the extraordinarily rich chairman of one of the nation’s largest businesses, interested in using his fortune to do good not just in his own Jewish community but also to promote the well-being of African Americans.




The End of Chiraq: A Literary Mixtape

Edited by Javon Johnson and Kevin Coval

end-of-chiraq“Because this book focuses on the lived experiences of Black and Brown Chicagoans, it draws on the voices, literary cues, and artist expressions that are part of their lives. As a Black Chicagoan, I was thrilled to see the rhythms and use of Chicago slang (tha’ go and Chiraq) used in this book. It captures a unique voice, which readers (especially Chicago readers) will find compelling.” —Rashad Shabazz, Associate Professor, Social Sciences at Arizona State University


The End of Chiraq: A Literary Mixtape is a collection of poems, rap lyrics, short stories, essays, interviews, and artwork about Chicago, the city that came to be known as “Chiraq” (“Chicago” + “Iraq”), and the people who live in its vibrant and occasionally violent neighborhoods. Tuned to the work of Chicago’s youth, especially the emerging artists and activists surrounding Young Chicago Authors, this literary mixtape unpacks the meanings of “Chiraq” as both a vexed term and a space of possibility.




Hog Butcher: A Novel

by Roland L. Fair


hog-butcher“If the novel were longer, and more naturalistic, it could become the final part of a Chicago trilogy, the first two-thirds having been written by James T. Farrell and Nelson Algren; for, like the work of these two men, Hog Butcher offers a view of the city’s shame.” —Saturday Review


It’s summer on the South Side of Chicago, and ten-year-old boys Earl and Wilford are frequently courtside watching their role model Nathaniel “Cornbread” Hamilton as he prepares to leave for college on a basketball scholarship. Their world comes crashing down in an alley when two cops—one white, one black—mistake Cornbread for a fleeing burglary suspect. What follows threatens to tear apart the community. Earl and Wilford know what happened, but will they stand up for their hero in a city in which power trumps justice, and each player must decide whether to fold to the system, or risk losing it all?




bridges-of-memory“Black has produced compelling oral history certain to stand alongside classics on black Chicago that start with St. Clair Drake and Horace Clayton’s Black Metropolis.
Library Journal


In their first great migration to Chicago that began during World War I, African Americans came from the South seeking a better life–and fleeing a Jim Crow system of racial prejudice, discrimination, and segregation. What they found was much less than what they’d hoped for, but it was much better than what they’d come from–and in the process they set in motion vast changes not only in Chicago but also in the whole fabric of American society. This book, the first of three volumes, revisits this momentous chapter in American history with those who lived it.




bridges-of-memory-volume-2“Black has captured the voices of the near past, and they tell a story as contemporary as our own: that success only comes with struggle, that progress is possible only when our history is both reflected and recognized in our contemporary lives.” —Booklist


In the second volume of Bridges of Memory, historian Timuel D. Black Jr. continues his conversations with African-Americans who migrated to Chicago from the South in search of economic, social, and cultural opportunities. With his trademark gift for interviewing, Black–himself the son of first-generation migrants to Chicago–guides these individual discussions with ease, resulting in first-person narratives that are informative and entertaining.




Harold! Photographs from the Harold Washington Years

Photographs by Antonio Dickey and Marc Pokempner, text by Salim Muwakkil


harold-“This wonderful book of Marc PoKempner’s and Antonio Dickey’s photographs of Harold Washington and the rocky road he traveled to the Mayoralty, plus the perceptive commentary of Salim Muwakkil — is a natural for any thoughtful Chicagoan to have around the house. It has everything: charm, wild kicks in the groin by his opponents, and hope. It is a winning book, not only for African-Americans but citizens of all complexions and faiths.”—Studs Terkel

This handsome book captures in words and pictures the powerful emotions that circled around one man in Chicago in the early 1980’s: Harold Washington. More than one hundred pictures, from candid shots on the campaign trail to triumphant public appearances, give readers a window onto a man who won over an entire city. Washington’s mayoral win represented a faltering of the previously all-powerful Chicago Machine, and his campaign was a part of a larger civil rights crusade that forged unity in the black community in Chicago.




Where I Must Go: A Novel

by Angela Jackson


9780810151857“A novel of deep humanity, tenderness, and wisdom, a delight to read, and a work of great significance for American literature.” —Reginald Gibbons, author of Creatures of a Day, 2008 National Book Award Finalist for Poetry


Lyrical, penetrating, and highly charged, this novel displays a delicately tuned sense of difference and belonging. Poet Angela Jackson brings her superb sense of language and of human possibility to the story of young Magdalena Grace, whose narration takes readers through both privilege and privation at the time of the American civil rights movement.

The novel moves from the privileged yet racially exclusive atmosphere of the fictional Eden University to the black neighborhoods of a Midwestern city and to ancestral Mississippi. Magdalena’s story includes a wide range of characters—black and white, male and female, favored with opportunity or denied it, the young in love and elders wise with hope. With and through each other, they struggle to understand the history they are living and making. With dazzling perceptiveness, Jackson’s narrator Magdalena tells of the complex interactions of people around her who embody the personal and the political at a crucial moment in their own lives and in the making of America.




In the sequel to Where I Must Go, Angela Jackson continues the remarkable story of Magdalena Grace. As a black student at the predominantly white Eden University, Maggie found herself deeply involved in conflict. Now, out in the wider world, she and her beloved Treemont Stone evolve into agents of change as they become immersed in the historical events unfolding around them—the movements advocating for civil rights, black consciousness, black feminism, the rights of the poor, and an end to the war in Vietnam. Rendered in prose so lyrical and luminous as to suggest a dream, Roads, Where There Are No Roads is a love story in the greatest sense, celebrating love between a man and a woman, between family members, and among the members of a community whose pride pushes them to rise up and resist. This gorgeously written novel will resonate with readers today as incredibly relevant, uplifting hearts and causing eyes to water with sorrow and delight.


earl-b.-dickerson“This biography sheds welcome light on the man who sat to the left of Martin Luther King at the 1963 March on Washington. Blakely’s straightforward biography makes a meaningful contribution to African-American and Chicago history.” —Publishers Weekly

At fifteen, Earl Burrus Dickerson stowed away on a train in Canton, Mississippi, fleeing the racial oppression of his native South. But Chicago, the boy’s destination, was no haven of racial fairness and equality. His flight north was in fact the beginning of a journey that would last a lifetime–and would forever pit Dickerson against the forces of racial injustice. Earl B. Dickerson’s story, told here for the first time, is one of courage and character, of remarkable accomplishment in the face of terrible odds; it is also emblematic of the twentieth-century struggle for civil rights–a crucial chapter of African American history as it was lived by one uncompromising individual.



The Hippodrome

by Cyrus Colter

hippodrome“In the tradition of his fictional ancestors, Dostoevsky and Faulkner, [Colter] has produced a work which uses the world of everyday reality in a manner beyond the scope of journalism or sociology–as an entrée to the soul.” —


James Park Sloan, Chicago Sun-Times

Set in a Chicago seething with physical and psychological violence, Cyrus Colter’s The Hippodrome is an examination of power and exploitation and their entanglement with sexuality. Yeager has murdered his wife and her white lover. Fleeing the police, he is both offered refuge and held captive in the Hippodrome, a ghetto house where a troupe of blacks stage sexual theater for white audiences. Colter’s subtle treatment of the subject matter, and his careful delineation of his character’s motives, make The Hippodrome a classic of modern fiction.


2017 Year in Review: Bestsellers

We published seventy titles in 2017! We honed our historical strengths in areas like continental philosophy, translation, poetry, and literary fiction while renewing our commitment to socially engaged scholarship and critical inquiry.  This year also saw the launch of our new series Second to None: Chicago Stories which spotlights previously untold histories of the city of Chicago, and the completion of the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of The Writings of Herman MelvilleSo, without further ado, and in no particular order, these titles make up our top ten bestsellers of 2017:

2017 Year in Review: Top Tweets

In 2017 our authors were honored for their commitment to social change, featured in media outlets from The New York Times to Bitch Media and the Chicago Tribune.  They made television appearances, gave TED talks, and received scholarly, accolades.

While our top five tweets only capture a small fraction of what was noteworthy in 2017, these were our most popular:


2017 Year in Review: Events

Here are just a few highlights of the hundreds of events from 2017 hosted by the press and our authors:

In March editors and contributors Kwame Dawes, Matthew Shenoda, and Chris Abani gathered at the Block Museum for a reading and discussion of Romare Bearden’s power and influence in the contemporary artistic world.

In May we hosted a celebration of the life of Gwendolyn Brooks with Toi Derricotte, Nikky Finney, Vievee Francis, Angela Jackson, and Patricia Smith for the landmark poetry event Black Women As Giants.

In December, editors Abdul Alkalimat, Romi Crawford, and Rebecca Zorach discussed The Wall of Respect, social justice, and the power of public art in celebration of the release of The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago.

We’ve got much more in store for 2018! To see past and future events you can check out our events calendar.

“The coiled fish of the sea”: A brief history of the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of the Writings of Herman Melville

By Meaghan Fritz

The fifteen-volume Northwestern-Newberry Edition of The Writings of Herman Melville, completed in fall 2017 with the publication of “Billy Budd, Sailor” and Other Uncompleted Writings, originated in the early 1960s. It was initially part of a Modern Language Association project to create authoritative editions of the works of eight classic nineteenth-century American authors. Backed by a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, the MLA project at first involved 150 scholars and eight university presses working on new editions of works by Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Dean Howells, Washington Irving, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, with the goal of presenting “texts of published writings that are free of typographical and editing errors that have developed over the years.”

Scholars of American literature from around the world had been calling for new editions of classic works, especially after an unfortunate incident in which renowned scholar F. O. Matthiessen wrote an entire article turning on a typographical error in his copy of Moby-Dick. The article explored the meaning of the phrase “the soiled fish of the sea,” when it was subsequently discovered that the phrase Melville intended was “the coiled fish of the sea.”

American literature professors named Melville as the writer whose works most urgently needed scrutiny. An early grant proposal for the project stated, “The reasons for the urgency in Melville’s case are readily stated. Melville is now widely regarded as our greatest imaginative writer . . . . Yet there is no scholarly complete edition of his works. Indeed, the only relatively complete edition, published in London in 1922–1924, is available only in the major libraries, and is in any case not textually reliable; its textual principles are indeterminate, and no effort was made to find and follow Melville’s own intentions—spelling, for example, was completely Anglicized. At present, scholars, along with classroom teachers and the common reader, must piece together Melville’s works from a motley assortment of uncertainly reliable separate editions. The respectably scholarly editions among them were prepared on various textual principles and are not in any case readily identifiable by non-specialists. Teachers are likely unwittingly to assign a bowdlerized Typee, an abridged Moby-Dick, or a garbled Billy Budd.”

By 1963, the MLA established the Center for Editions of American Authors (CEAA), of which Harrison Hayford served on the Executive Committee. An outstanding Northwestern University English professor, Hayford was a serious Melville scholar who had just published a groundbreaking edition of Billy Budd, Sailor with Merton M. Sealts Jr. Their extensive study of the incomplete manuscript that Melville left behind when he died in 1891 established a reading text based on a transcription that was far more accurate than previous editions. (Hayford had also already begun work on the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick with Hershel Parker; it was published in 1967.)

Hayford’s work with Sealts on Billy Budd and with Hershel Parker on Moby-Dick was grounded in the strict methodology of textual analysis that prevailed at the CEAA. The organization’s Statement of Editorial Principles and Procedures, first published in 1967, adopted a strategy developed by Fredson Bowers based on Sir Walter Greg’s “The Rationale of Copy-Text” (1950), which had originally been proposed to study Elizabethan texts. In order to make editions that “the authors themselves would have approved,” the process involved “a heavy load of textual comparison . . . done by a trained operator at a Hinman Collator—a semiautomatic machine that superimposes images on pages from the same plates for comparison—and by sight collations of newly-set editions. It demands from the editor, faced with choices of readings, a thorough knowledge of the writers’ thought and sensitivity to his expression. With the use of the Hinman Collator, editors know that they must search out every possible relevant text of a work, and that in editing the work they must submit their evidence as well as their conclusions to others.”

Between 1966 and 1975, the Center allocated more than $1.5 million in funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to various scholarly editing projects, which were then required to follow the guidelines (including the structure of editorial apparatus) as Bowers had defined them. Each volume was rigorously inspected for conformity before receiving a seal denoting that it was “An Approved Text” by the CEAA.

Simultaneously, Hayford developed plans for an MLA and CEAA–approved complete edition of the works of Herman Melville. A three-way agreement was set up between Northwestern University, the Newberry Library, and Northwestern University Press. The original assumption was that it would take five years. An advertisement in Publishers Weekly in 1966 promoted the edition with a subscription price of $150 for the entire set: “They will be bound in black library buckram, stamped in gold with red ink panels.”

Hayford employed a full editorial team, a full-time secretary, and two contracted graduate assistants to work on the edition. With the help of initial grants from the U.S. Office of Education, preparatory work (including assembly and collation of relevant texts) was done on all volumes, culminating in six books published between 1968 and 1971: Typee (1968), Omoo (1968), Redburn (1969), Mardi (1970), White-Jacket (1970), and Pierre (1971). There was a scholarly paperback edition as well as the advertised hardcover for each. Most of the reading texts were also released in trade editions, minus the scholarly editorial apparatus.

To keep the volumes uniform and to take advantage of the newest editorial technologies and techniques, it was decided that the texts would be produced at Northwestern University Press under the general editorship of Harrison Hayford, along with Hershel Parker as Associate General Editor and G. Thomas Tanselle as Bibliographical Editor, both of whom went on to distinguished scholarly careers while continuing to contribute their expertise to the Melville project. (Parker’s two-volume Melville biography appeared in 1996 and 2002; Tanselle has published many influential books and articles on scholarly editing and book history.)

In addition to the central group working on the texts, a recognized Melville scholar was assigned for each volume to serve as the “Contributing Editor.” Though not responsible for the text itself, these editors would contribute several essential services, including a sizable afterword of a “factual, historical ‘verifiable,’ sort”—decidedly not critical so as not to date the volumes. This “historical note” should “cover such things as the circumstance of composition, use of sources, publication (non-textual aspects), reviews, and subsequent critical history including a brief account of the main lines of interpretation.”

A steady crew of Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle, Richard Colles Johnson, Donald Yannella, Robert C. Ryan, Brian Higgins, and other scholars and graduate students dedicated themselves to this ambitious endeavor. There was also an advisory board of Melville scholars and representatives of institutions interested in the project. Crucial support during this initial phase came from the Newberry Library, especially in building up the collection of resources on which the editors relied.

Tasks included determining editorial principles to govern the whole edition; assembling all of Melville’s works in multiple copies, together with reproductions of all manuscripts, as well as auxiliary materials; preparing a comprehensive bibliography of Melville’s works and of secondary works (originally planned as a separate volume), as the basis for the authoritative texts and introductions; collating manuscripts and all editions in which Melville may have had a hand, in order to distinguish what Melville himself wrote from what is due to editorial changes and printing-house errors; establishing  “clear texts” as close as possible to Melville’s intention; preparing printer’s copy for each work setting forth its “clear text” with textual variants, a brief textual history, and the introduction and afterword; and insuring the intact transmission of the text into print (with editorial, design, and production work by Northwestern University Press).

Unfortunately, after the publication of Pierre, for a period of about a decade, Northwestern University Press ceased operation and editorial work on the remaining volumes was intermittent. It became clear that the editors had dramatically underestimated the time required to complete such a rigorous, multivolume project. This was especially true for the labor and time needed to prepare the volumes edited from manuscript, as was the case for portions of the Piazza Tales volume, much of the Published Poems volume, and especially the uncompleted writings in the Billy Budd volume. Several of the volumes were well under way (the reading text of Moby-Dick, for example, had already been set in type), but time for completing the editorial appendixes and other work was scarce for the now-scattered original crew members.

Publication of the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of The Writings of Herman Melville resumed in 1982 with Northwestern University Press back in business and the hiring of Alma A. MacDougall as editorial coordinator, with additional help from JoAnn Casey and graduate students Mary K Bercaw, Lynn Horth, Robert D. Madison, and Robert A. Sandberg. Eight more volumes were published in the eighties and early nineties: Israel Potter (1982), The Confidence-Man (1984), The Piazza Tales (1987), Moby-Dick (1988), Journals (1989), Clarel (1991), and Correspondence (1991). Along the way, there were many hurdles and problems with funding. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities under the auspices of the Newberry Library was awarded in 1986, the same year that Hayford retired from Northwestern University. After the grant expired, the Newberry Library and Northwestern University continued to underwrite the lengthy and complex volumes. But by December of 1993, the extremely high editorial and production costs associated with the complex, lengthy volumes forced Northwestern University Press to order suspension of editorial and production outlays pending further notice.

A conference was held between the leadership at Northwestern University Press, the Newberry Library, and Harrison Hayford, to consider next steps. Letters of support poured in. Cheryl Hurley, president of the Library of America, which had leased the texts of several of the Melville volumes, attested to “the unusually scrupulous and intelligent editing of the Melville volumes.” She considered the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of The Writings of Herman Melville to be “one of the most respected literary endeavors of the past twenty-five years.” John Bryant, editor of the Melville Society’s journal, claimed that his work on Melville “could not exist without your publications . . . a monument to excellent book making.” He wrote, “I insist that only NN editions be used for quotation. Critical works that do not use these texts, if any exist these days, are not likely to be taken seriously.” He argued in favor of keeping the Melville project; the edition is “not just a set of books; it is a cultural icon, and in the long run (and even in the short term) it brings high praise and repute to Northwestern University and its press.”

In 1997 Northwestern University received a $7,000 grant from the NEH, as well as a matching grant from the Newberry Library, to help with the production costs of Published Poems. But Harrison Hayford’s health was failing, and in December 2001, he died. Hershel Parker took over as General Editor and Robert D. Madison became Associate General Editor; the remaining team was able to complete Published Poems for publication in 2009.

The plan for the Billy Budd volume was always to prepare new reading texts from and to print corrected versions of Harrison Hayford’s 1962 literal transcription for Billy Budd, Sailor, Robert C. Ryan’s 1967 dissertation for the Weeds and Wildings pieces, and Robert A. Sandberg’s 1989 dissertation for the Parthenope (formerly “Burgundy Club”) poems and prose pieces. Nevertheless, scanning, checking, and correcting those transcriptions and then producing new reading texts took many more years than expected. G. Thomas Tanselle did the primary work on Billy Budd, Sailor and Weeds and Wildings, in addition to the textual appendixes that he had written for every volume of the edition. With funding from a Visiting Fellowship in the Study of Manuscripts at Houghton Library, Harvard University, and a travel stipend from Northwestern University Press, Robert A. Sandberg spent the summers of 2013 and 2015 producing fresh transcriptions of Parthenope and all the other pieces included in in the Billy Budd volume. In preparing the reading texts and literal transcriptions of these manuscripts, Sandberg benefited from collaborating with Robert D. Madison, who also worked with the manuscripts in the summer of 2013, and having on hand all of Hayford’s notes and original transcriptions. Hershel Parker contributed the Historical Note, as he had for many volumes, and Alma A. MacDougall shepherded the volume through the editorial and production process. These dedicated efforts enabled Northwestern University Press to come full circle back to Hayford’s work on Billy Budd, publishing the final volume of the edition in the fall of 2017.

What We Read This Summer

With the fall semester in full swing, Northwestern University Press staff members reflect on some of their favorite reads of the summer. 

Greta Bennion, Marketing Manager

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie

With a toddler and an infant, I don’t have a lot of time to read these days, but I did just finish We Should All Be Feminists by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie. She is one of my favorite authors, for a number of reasons, and this book was a captivating quick read in her beautiful, engaging style. As a mother to a daughter, I also found it very inspiring and relevant to what is going on in our world today. I just started diving into A Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I’ve heard mixed reviews about it, but so far it’s pulling me in, and I usually love Margaret Atwood’s writing. So we shall see!

Jane Bunker, Director

Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning by Claire Dederer

I loved this book because of its uncanny ability to summon the author’s fifteen-year-old self. I have an odd relationship to time (as we all probably do), and often feel as if I still am my fifteen-year-old self. That was a year of reckoning, as is fifty now. The author insightfully explores the choices we make and how we live with them. She’s great on marriage and intimacy. And she’s laugh out loud funny (because how could you not be if you’re that smart about those things?).


Anne Gendler, Managing Editor

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

It’s a novel that is written in the form of a memoir (or maybe the reverse?), loosely based on stories told by the author’s grandfather on his deathbed. The grandfather, who has always been the strong, silent type, talks candidly about his wife, a Holocaust survivor with a secret past; he married her after the war and became a father to the author’s mother. He also talks about his experiences in World War II, an obsession with the space program, and a late-in-life love affair that involves weekend snake hunting.

I also read The Essential Fictions, Val Vinokur’s new translation of stories by Isaac Babel and Kim O’Neil’s Fever Dogs, both forthcoming from NU Press.


Gianna F. Mosser, Editor in Chief

Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader

While I am not someone who follows music criticism outside of the weekly piece in the New Yorker, Tate’s writing taken together is a powerful analysis of black cultural figures and their resounding inspirations for all different kinds of artists, especially writers.

Finally Got the News: The Printed Legacy of the US Radical Left, 1970–1979, ed. Brad Duncan

This photographic history doesn’t attempt to get at all revolutionary groups or legacies, but the survey provided gives a tactile and testimonial record for how social movements grew, organized, and intersected during this period. Not your average coffee table book!

Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History by Rebecca Romney

I don’t know that anyone who isn’t an avid book lover and/or works in publishing would get the zany humor and air of archival mystery that this book’s anecdotes of infamous book mishaps conjures in me, but some of these stories felt like old wives’ tales of the book business. Fun and funny to see that many of them were really true!


Maggie Grossman, Acquisitions Coordinator

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

One of the best books I read this summer. It was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and for good reason. Every time I dipped into it I was totally entranced by the gorgeous writing and the uncanny worldbuilding. It was an incredible way to think about contemporary issues of globalization, migration, and the refugee crisis. 10/10 would recommend.


Marianne Jankowski, Creative Director

The Book of Books: 500 years of Graphic Innovation, ed. Mathieu Lommen

This is one of my special books–made more special because it was a gift from a colleague—it’s beautifully designed and masterfully produced! It’s heartening to read that even in today’s digital age, readers and designers are still attracted to the printed book as an object of beauty and fascination. This book covers five hundred years of graphic design work—it’s concise, inspiring, and provides a look into the featured designers’ thought processes.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

As a teenager, I was enthralled with Rebecca, an earlier book by du Maurier—filled with romance and mystery—I must have read it three or four times. The release of the movie My Cousin Rachel promped me to revisit du Maurier’s writing and eventually I will examine its faithfulness to the book. Du Maurier’s writing is bewitching—the suspicions and betrayals keep you guessing, and the ending is a shocker!


JD Wilson, Director of Marketing and Sales

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Said by many to be the best of all English-language novels, Middlemarch went to Cape Cod with me in the late ‘90s and a guest took it home before I read past the first few chapters. After a few hectic months of political reading during the winter (Shattered, Hillbilly Elegy, etc.), I indulged in a retreat to the nineteenth century to pick up what happened to ardent Dorothea Brooke and pedantic Mr. Casaubon.

It’s a long book, so long I would not scorn anyone who chose not to take this 800-page journey with George Eliot (Marianne Evans). She makes frequent stops to offer Solomonic aphorisms about life, like “the sore palate findeth grit.” But in the end, I grieved finishing it. Ask someone if they’ve read Middlemarch, and those who have smile like they’re welcoming you into a secret confraternity.

Next, I cleansed my palate with Cather’s My Antonia. I imagine that while writing Middlemarch Marianne Evans asked herself what else she might add, while Cather asked herself what else she might take away. What’s left in My Antonia is austerely beautiful, somewhat romanticized but not sugar-coated story of a Bohemian immigrant girl’s life on the Nebraska frontier.