“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.

“Wonder of America and of the World”: The Great Chicago Lake Tunnel

By Benjamin Sells

I own one of the oldest sailing schools in Chicago, and for twenty years I have taken people out to see the water cribs off the Chicago shoreline. The water cribs are the intakes for the city’s water supply, and of the seven still in existence only two are in service today. My favorite has always been the Four-Mile Crib, which came into operation in 1892. It stands about 3.5 miles offshore, but when it was originally built it was 4 miles offshore.

The remarkable thing for me about the Four-Mile Crib is its beauty. Standing alone, milesSELLS_cov.indd from shore and appreciating eyes, the structure itself is at once imposing and lovely. Intricate brick-work and delicate curves are a testament to a time when craftsmanship and beauty were worthy goals in themselves, quite apart from accolades or awards. So after years of looking, I decided to find out more about these remarkable structures. In my research I became immersed in a story beyond my expectation that would become The Tunnel under the Lake: The Engineering Marvel That Saved Chicago. The cribs represent an existential struggle that has dogged Chicago from its origins, the dilemma of waste and water—what to do with the former and how to get the latter. 

Early Chicago was threatened in its infancy by a suffocating amount of human waste, garbage, and untold horrors dumped into its waterways by the burgeoning industries of the day. Chicago exploded onto the national scene, experiencing unprecedented population growth. And with that success came the looming specter of a city built too fast and unable to sustain itself.

In the beginning, Chicagoans got their water from wells and water carts. Later a rudimentary public supply was established that drew water from the nearshore waters of Lake Michigan. This was fraught with difficulty. Early narratives tell of turning on a tap only to have a minnow come wriggling into your glass. Unscrupulous bar owners were busted for watering down their wares when customers spied pickled minnows in the bottles. And things only got worse as the river and lake became, in the words of the Chicago Tribune, “the common receptacle for all the filth of the city.” Throughout the mid-1800’s Chicago endured repeated outbreaks of cholera because of its inability to supply its residents with clean drinking water despite being on the shore of one of the world’s largest supplies of fresh water.

Waste and water—what to do? To answer this question the city in 1855 turned to Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough, then city engineer in Boston. In Chesbrough the city found a man of singular vision and undaunted character. He first tackled the city’s waste issue by raising the city so that the first comprehensive sewerage system could be installed. His efforts to drain the city of its waste succeeded, but only at the expense of it waterways and nearshore waters. Chesbrough then faced the second horn of the dilemma—fresh water for a city in desperate need.

His answer was one of audacious simplicity, to dig a two-mile tunnel under the lake to a massive water intake crib offshore beyond the reach of the pollution. It would be the longest underwater tunnel of its kind, dug by hand and bricked up seventy feet below the surface and thirty-five feet below the seabed.

The naysayers were loud and many. The mere thought of having workers toiling beneath the waves was too much for those whose fear blinded them to Chesbrough’s carefully thought-out plans. But Chesbrough proved to be as talented in navigating the shoals of public opinion and Chicago politics as he was at being an innovative engineer. After years of cajoling and reassuring that his plan would work, it was approved and in March of 1864 ground was broken on what would come to be called the Great Chicago Lake Tunnel.

In the ensuing three-years the surveyors and diggers and haulers and masons pressed forward. They overcame challenges both scientific and human. A tunnel beneath the waves posed an unprecedented engineering challenge, as did the massive Two-Mile Crib at the tunnel’s eastern end. Nobody had ever conceived, much less built, a structure that was at once both a fortress and a ship, a structure the size of a courthouse that would be anchored to the seabed and have to endure the storms and crushing ice of Lake Michigan.

Like every great engineering project there were problems of a human kind too. Chesbrough had to deal with both the physical and psychological toil of the massive project. He would confront insanity and even murder among his staff and workers. But he never wavered, and in March 1867 the tunnel under the lake began providing the newly built Chicago waterworks with a supply of fresh water for a thirsty city.

The city never looked back and continued to grow exponentially, as did its need for fresh water. After enduring the catastrophic impact of the Chicago fire in 1871, the city built a second tunnel to the Two-Mile Crib in 1875. After finding that it needed to reach even farther offshore for unpolluted water, the city built the Four-Mile Crib and its tunnel that went into service in 1892.

When I began to research the Four-Mile Crib I thought I would learn a little about engineering and maybe a smattering of art and architecture. Where I ended up was with a story about an engineer and his remarkable ideas that saved Chicago from itself. More than the politicians and industrial magnates that tend to overshadow Chicago history, it was an engineer, and the tunnel hailed as “the wonder of America and of the world,” that made possible the Chicago we know today.

Woman Has Never Been a Cis Category

by Emma Heaney

new-womanThe Hemingway house on Key West is a sunny square house surrounded by a wrap around porch on both the ground and second floor. It was built in 1851 for a ship builder and wrecker who would become an ardent Confederate during the Civil War. I have visited twice: The first time was during high season for Florida tourism. On that visit all the tour guides and ticket takers were Hemingway look-alikes. Ours was a Hemingway in his white-bearded Papa phase. The second time was out of season and our tour guide was not a look alike.

Both tours emphasized Hemingway’s constitutional vigor and athletic prowess, telling his life story as an arc from his ambulance driving days during WWI to his later life as a fisher of big fish in Cuba and a hunter of big game in Utah. Both tours emphasized what a ladies’ man Hemingway was, a story that was woven through with comments about the necessity of moving from woman to woman as each spouse became a nag. The first guide mopped his sweaty brow and held up a flask that he told us was full of rum and drank a toast to Hemingway’s second wife, or as our guide addressed her in absentia “Pauline, you bitch” who, he informed us, had replaced the house’s ceiling fans with imported crystal chandeliers and consigned generations of her husbands’ doppelgangers to unnecessarily sweaty work.

Both guides also emphasized the close relationship between Hemingway and his youngest child, Gregory Hemingway, who, our guides told us, was also a “ladies’ man” and like Father Hemingway enjoyed sport and hunting. What our guide did not tell us is that this child was, in fact (and not in the Hemingway House’s revisionist fiction) a trans woman who often went by the name Gloria Hemingway and pursued and attained gender-affirming surgery shortly before her death in 2001. The fact that surgery came toward the end of Gloria’s life does not mean that her female identity was only revealed at that late point. Gloria Hemingway’s female identity was known to her father from the time of her youth and he experienced great anguish when faced with this fact. In fact, Pauline Hemingway died of an aneurysm while fighting with Ernest about the arrest of their then nineteen-year-old child for using a women’s restroom in a movie theatre in Los Angeles in 1951.

I bring up the Hemingway House tours as a segue into my newly published book, The New Woman,  because this experience helped me to identify the process of  the daily cultural erasure of the trans feminine existence. The trans woman has always been, for the entire duration of time that trans womanhood has been recognized as categorically distinct from cis womanhood, new. From the tones of discovery and disbelief in the sexological texts of the nineteenth century to the couches of Maury Povich and Ricki Lake: trans women’s existence has consistently been presented as a factor that disrupts a supposedly established set of rules concerning sex. The fact is, however, that what has been historically consistent is this routinized erasure, the insistence on the impossibility or nonexistence of trans women, which is the condition of that supposed universality of cis experience in history. This historical erasure makes the trans feminine available for cis people to discover again and again and imbue with totalizing meaning, again and again.

Modernist  literature was a particularly dense site for the process of erasure and rediscovery of trans femininity. Writers often posited a link between the formal and thematic newness of their work and the existence, posited as shocking and quintessentially modern, of trans femininity. Trans femininity as a new concept is made to represent a way of working out the ways sex and gender are changing, again a premise of newness that takes for granted that previously gender had been simple and fixed. Second, the experience perfectly reflects the fact that misogyny (Pauline’s status as a bitch) is often one of the social facts that trans femininity is evoked to investigate on the conceptual level: cis women have real experiences of denigration, so how can the idea of “a woman trapped in a male body,” of “sex change” help us to explore that claim on the conceptual level in the works of say, Joyce, Eliot, and Barnes?

The book also attends to things written by trans women—from the early twentieth-century memoirist Jennie June to Janet Mock’s recent writings—that have likewise been minoritized or erased, allowing these regular rediscoveries across the twentieth century. I hope my readings of trans feminine life writing and political writing from the early twentieth century and the late twentieth century will spark further investigations and shakings of archives to find more. Just as I went to The Hemingway House and found Gloria there, despite efforts to hide her from historical view.


What We’re Reading

Diverse and eclectic book choices from Northwestern University Press staff. 

JD Wilson, Director of Sales and Marketing

What book(s) are you reading this week?

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?

I’m a voracious reader of periodicals, and I saw this book mentioned as an aside in one. I don’t remember which. “Times Literary Supplement” maybe? I found the book at the Northwestern University library. I had no idea the book was so new. Cudos to the NU libraries for acquiring a copy so fast.

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.

I’m grateful that the NYT’s Pamela Paul came out as a “slow reader.” I’m one too, and it makes me appreciate slim novels like this one. This is an Icelandic novel by a writer named Sjón, a frequent collaborator of Björk’s. It’s an imagined year in the life of an Icelandic teenager in the late nineteen teens around the 1918 flu epidemic. It’s not a plot-driven novel, but Sjón’s crisp, detailed images will transport you back to Reykjavik.

Greta Bennion, Marketing Manager

What book(s) are you reading this week?

I’m currently reading Horse Heaven, by Jane Smiley.

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?

I picked it up at the Printers Row Lit Fest this past June. Jane Smiley is one of my favorite authors, and the book looked interesting to me because it centers on the horse racing world, something I know very little about.

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.

I love how the book revolves around so many different characters, and Smiley does such an amazing job at bringing them to life. I feel like I’m right there next to them, experiencing what they’re going through.

Anne Gendler, Managing Editor

What book(s) are you reading this week?

I’m reading Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy and Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe by Charles Glass.

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?

I’m reading Hadji Murat for my book group and Syria Burning Glass because I realized I was confused about what was really going on in Syria, which is in such a humanitarian crisis.

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.

Hadji Murat is a short book with an extremely contemporary story of Russians fighting Chechen rebels in 1851. Based on firsthand accounts that were known to Tolstoy, it’s almost like a journalistic piece of creative nonfiction. He wrote it late in his life, and it came very easily to him.

Syria Burning is a brief recap of changing motives and alliances in the region is a helpful guide to sorting it out.

Liz Hamilton, Intellectual Property Specialist

What book(s) are you reading this week?

I’m reading The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr.

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?

I’ve read Mary Karr’s books all out of order; I started with her second volume of memoir, Cherry, and loved it so much that I immediately read Lit, the most recent installment of her story. Now I’m circling back to find out how it all started, instead of trying to piece together allusions from the later volumes. Note to potential readers: maybe begin at the beginning.

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.
The writing is gorgeous, the characters are already familiar, and I can’t wait to read what happens next.

Marianne Jankowski, Creative Director

What book(s) are you reading this week?

Perfectly Imperfect: The Art and Soul of Yoga Practice

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?

I was a yoga junkie in my 20s—then came kids, home and job responsibilities, and my yoga ritual faded away. Ever since, my attempts to return to the same degree of mind-body practice have failed, most recently due to my own body restraints.

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.

I luckily ran across this book and find that I have merely reached a plateau, my true north has always been with me—it was my attention and energy that have drifted away and I only need to bring myself back, begin again, and ‘be’ again.

Maggie Grossman, Acquisitions Coordinator

What book(s) are you reading this week?

This week I am reading the Saga series. I just finished Book One, which collects issues #1-18.

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?

I have been exploring the world of comics and graphic novels over the last couple of years and I pretty much couldn’t go any longer without reading Saga

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.

Saga is a Hugo Award-winning series penned by Brian K. Vaughan and inked by Fiona Staples.– it’s a modern classic of the genre. I love the depth and originality of the story, the art is breathtaking, and the concept of two eternally warring peoples whose conflict has taken over an entire universe – without anybody questioning the premise of the fight – is just mind-blowingingly brilliant. Looking forward to picking up the next installment!

Gianna F. Mosser, Editor in Chief

What book(s) are you reading this week?

I am reading Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra.

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?

It was a big award nominee when it came out in 2006, and I have had it on my list of postcolonial novels to get to when I had a good chunk of time. This tome is almost 900 pages and the type is pretty small!

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.

What I like about the book is that it is framed as a detective thriller but it really works as novel invested in social critique. The caste system, local politics, the legacy of Partition, and organized crime all mix to keep readers guessing about who is at fault, only to postulate that perhaps everyone is culpable.

Netflix announced this year that they will sponsor a series based on the novel, which didn’t influence my decision to read it, but it’s notable nonetheless!  

Emily Dalton, Digital Content and Systems Coordinator

What book(s) are you reading this week?
The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?
I read The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya last winter and wanted to find another contemporary Russian book. This probably could not have been more different.

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.
The Blizzard might be the weirdest book I’ve ever read. It’s a genre bending Russian allegory that I don’t think I fully understand, complete with tiny horses and a hallucinatory drug that comes out of a pyramid. What’s not to like?

Parneshia Jones, Poetry Editor

What book(s) are you reading this week?

The Light of the World: A Memoir by Elizabeth Alexander

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?

What does it mean to speak the ones we’ve lost? How do we carry their light forward? In a quest to reckon with my own personal reveries about a singular, paramount soul suddenly becoming an ancestor, I turned to Ms. Alexander’s memoir about the sudden death of her artist husband to find solace and symmetry with my own feelings and writing.

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.

Elizabeth Alexander is a conjure poet who let her poet-self expand in opulent lines of prose. She buoyed my search of how we can evoke and celebrate our lights whom now live amongst the stars.  

AAUP Blog Tour: People in Our Neighborhood

A cozy Midwestern town with touches of New England sailboats and lighthouse charm, the eight square miles of Dutch elms and sycamores are home to seventy-five thousand Evanstonians.

of the most accomplished citizens of Evanston was Charles Gates Dawes,
recipient of the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize and Vice President of the United States
under Calvin Coolidge from 1925–‘29. A banker, politician, and military general,
Dawes was something of a Progressive Era Renaissance man known for his mercurial
wit and for the salty language he used in Congressional hearings. He and his
family occupied a lake-facing home just south of the university. Built in the chateau
style—though in its rural form—the home was donated by Dawes to the university
with the understanding that it become the home of the Evanston History Center (EHC).

year, Northwestern University Press has enjoyed a growing partnership with the
Evanston Historical Society, centered around the publication of Charles Gates Dawes: A Life, the
definitive biography of America’s thirtieth vice president. Annette Dunlap, the
author of a biography of first lady Frances Folsom Cleveland, penned the book.

2016, the EHC has organized a series of events aimed to restore wider
recognition of Dawes’s contributions to the history of the city, nation, and
world. As part of this “Year of Dawes,” the EHC held a twilight gala titled Melody in August at the Dawes home where
North Shore history buffs feted the release of the book.

The cooperation
between EHC and the press that facilitated the creation of the book fostered multiple
new points of contact between the two organizations as well as fresh momentum
to find new ways to collaborate. In 2017, EHC is planning a series of events
titled “Meet the Press.” Bringing together the press, the EHC, and the public,
the events will create new opportunities for Evanston’s avid reading community
to engage with literature, reading, and ideas.


Head on over to Goodreads, the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations, and enter to win a copy of Paula Whyman’s debut short story collection that Publishers Weekly called “honest and sharply observed.” 

In You May See A Stranger Miranda Weber hoards duct tape to ward off terrorists, stumbles into a drug run with a crackhead, and—frequently—endures the bad behavior of men. Miranda can be lascivious, sardonic, and maddeningly self-destructive, but, no matter what befalls her, she never loses her sharp wit or powers of observation, which illuminate both her own life and her strange, unsettling times.

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Goodreads Book Giveaway

You May See a Stranger by Paula Whyman

You May See a Stranger

by Paula Whyman

Giveaway ends May 31, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway


Find the Perfect Gift for the Thinking Woman’s Mother’s Day

Looking for a book to gift to mom on mother’s day? Here at Northwestern University Press we’ve got a number of titles that will make the perfect gift for the thinking woman in your life. Here’s a list of staff favorites and bestsellers that celebrate and explore the complexities of motherhood, parenting, and family.

Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in Nineteenth-Century Russia

Barbara Alpern Engel


The first psychosocial study of the female intelligentsia in Russia, Mothers and Daughters explains how and why women radicals of the nineteenth century diverged from their male counterparts, describes the forces that led women to rebel, and discusses their legacy to future generations. Throughout, Engel brings nineteenth-century women to life, humanizing history as she presents a case study of how the personal became political in a time and place different from our own.

The Distance Between Us

Valerie Sayers


Franny Starkey is a married mother of three that  no longer turns heads the way she used to. Sayers creates an engaging novel that follows Franny’s path from her early, poverty-ridden days to her hedonistic college life to her longings for an artistic career while changing diapers in a Brooklyn apartment. The constant in her life is Steward Morehouse, a well-to-do nerd from Due East, South Carolina who loves Franny. When Stewart and Michael, Michael, her drug-dependent playwright husband, collaborate on a play, the lives of these three become more complicated than Franny could have imagined.

Watercolor Women / Opaque Men: A Novel in Verse

Ana Castillo


Watercolor Women / Opaque Men is a wild and raucous narrative of a single, working mother, the daughter of Chicano migrant workers, and her struggles for upward mobility. Watercolor Women / Opaque Men contains episodes that range from the Mexican Revolution to modern-day Chicago and reflects a deep pride in Chicano culture and the hardships immigrants had to endure. With a remarkable combination of tenderness, wicked humor, and biting satire, the main character, Ella-or “She”-moves toward establishing her sexual identity (she has affairs with both men and women) and finding her rightful place in the world while simultaneously raising her son to be independent and self-sufficient.


Ellen Hagan


The poems in Hemisphere explore what it means to be a daughter and what it means to bear new life. Ellen Hagan investigates the world historical hemispheres of a family legacy from around the globe and moves down to the most intimate hemisphere of im¬pending motherhood. Her poems reclaim the female body from the violence, both literal and literary, done to it over the years.

Women with a Thirst for Destruction: The Bad Mother in Russian Culture

Jenny Kaminer


In Women with a Thirst for Destruction Jenny Kaminer examines how the typically noble and self-sacrificing image of Russian motherhood  is destabilized during periods of dramatic rupture in Russian society. Kaminer investigates the aftermath of three key moments in the country’s history: the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the fall of the Communist regime in 1991. She explores works both familiar and relatively unexamined: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovlev Family, Fyodor Gladkov’s Cement, and Liudmila Petrushevskaia’s The Time: Night, as well as a late Soviet film (Vyacheslav Krishtofovich’s Adam’s Rib, 1990) and media coverage of the Chechen conflict. Kaminer’s book speaks broadly to the mutability of seemingly established cultural norms in the face of political and social upheaval.

The Gift

Florence Noiville


In this novel, Florence Noiville draws the portrait of a grand and unforgettable lady, loving and unable to love at once. As the narrator heads home after a meeting regarding her inheritance her mother looms large in her psyche. Labeled “eccentric” or “Italian,” her mother in fact suffered from what was later found to be manic depression. Without understanding the disease, the fam­ily treated the unpredictable ups and downs of her condition as they struck. During periods of paralyzing depression she was hospitalized, and the family felt abandoned. During periods of manic productivity and overdrive, she was a dedicated pharmacist, an exemplary home­maker, and an unusually knowledgeable gardener.

Remembering Imre Kertesz


We are saddened to announce the passing of Imre Kertesz who died on Thursday at his home in Budapest. Kertesz was imprisoned at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and later worked as a journalist and a playwright before publishing his first novel, Fateless in 1975. Northwestern University Press is proud to have introduced his work to the English-speaking world with its translations of two of Kertesz’s novels, Fateless in 1992 and Kaddish for a Child Not Born in 1997.

Fateless is the story of 14-year-old George Koves’s experiences in German concentration camps and his attempts to reconcile himself to those experiences after the war. In the camps, George maintains a precarious semblance of normalcy by imputing human motives to his inhuman captors in a response to his situation that is curiously ambivalent.  Lacking emotional or spiritual ties to his Jewish heritage and rejected by his country, he ultimately comes to the conclusion that neither his neither his Hungarian nor his Jewish identity was at the heart of his fate: there are only “given situations, and within these, further givens.” The Washington Times called Fateless “an ornate and honest testimony to the human spirit.”

Kertesz received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. He was 86.

Benjamin’s Displaced Jewish Tradition

In his forthcoming book Postsecular Benjamin, Brian Britt analyzes Benjamin’s engagements with religious traditions as resources for contemporary debates on secularism, conflict, and identity. Below is an excerpt from “Benjamin’s Displaced Jewish Tradition ​that originally appeared as part of The Future of Benjamin, 7+2 Articles, edited by Nitzan Lebovic with Commentary  by Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings. 


Scholars who disagree sharply over the importance of Jewish tradition in Walter Benjamin’s work tend not to explore what Jewish tradition means for him. The publication of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life presents an opportunity to revisit and reframe this question.1 One thing Jewish tradition could mean is observant Jewish practice, which even casual readers of Benjamin realize does not apply. Consider how the story of his abortive attempt to attend Rosh Hashanah services in Berlin Childhood Around 1900 reveals a “suspicion [Argwohn] of religious ceremonies” and also somehow contributes to his sexual awakening (SW 3:386). For Benjamin, Jewish tradition, and tradition in general, survives in modernity through what I describe as mechanisms of displacement, the numerous ways in which traditions change and survive, even in the face of modern denials of tradition.

Secularist scholars typically consider religion, even Judaism, as a belief or faith, meaning, I suppose, a doctrine or set of doctrines.2 As a scholar of religion, I have always found this idea confusing, because I do not know how to observe or understand religion as belief: it could mean a public statement of belief, like a creed, but is that by itself a meaningful indicator of a person’s identity? Or it could mean some kind of lasting mental state. But even there I get lost: how do you hold a belief about invisible, supernatural realities in your head for any length of time? It reminds me of a magician who says, “Think of a card.” I think of a card, I hold the idea, the image, and the name of that card in my consciousness. But then my mind wanders—I think of a joke, an old friend, or my next meal. Will my attention deficit spoil the trick, or my religious identity?

Jacob Taubes argues for the idea of religion as belief when he argues that when Benjamin said Messiah he meant Messiah: “[T]here is a Messiah. No shmontses like ‘the messianic,’ ‘the political,’ no neutralization, but the Messiah.”3  Of course, defining religion simply as faith misses the point of Judaism and other religions, even Christianity. If religion means anything at all, it has to involve belief and action. But even belief and action together do not encompass Jewish tradition for Benjamin, whose thinking on tradition includes the kinds of subtle, displaced phenomena included in the category of displacement. Tradition survives through displacement in spite of modern intentions, as Gershom Scholem’s well-known letter to Franz Rosenzweig on modern Hebrew shows.4

Far from passively inheriting Jewish tradition, Benjamin theorizes the inheritance of tradition. This inheritance can be framed in terms of displacement, the shifting and transformation of religious beliefs and practices he identifies in his early and late writings.5 Drawn from Freud and Benjamin, the idea of displacement means that traditions change rather than go away, but the inheritance of tradition does not conform to simple grand narratives of decline, progress, or eternal recurrence. Writing from his German Jewish vantage point, Benjamin consistently engaged the problem of tradition, pushing against these grand narratives and affirming tradition even as he immersed himself in modernist of art and culture. Benjamin’s studies of language, thought, and culture restlessly disclose modern displacements of tradition.

German Men and Women (Deutsche Menschen, 1936)

The case of German Men and Women poses a paradox: here is a collection of letters from the 18th and 19th centuries celebrating German writers and thinkers, all of them non-Jewish, but when he inscribed copies for his sister, Scholem, and Kracauer, Benjamin described the book as a Jewish ark written when the fascist flood began to rise. And he published the book under the pseudonym Detlef Holz to conceal his Jewish identity. I’ve explored this puzzle elsewhere6, but I would only say here that the case of Deutsche Menschen makes it very difficult to disentangle German from Jewish identity, something Paul Mendes-Flohr, Georg Mosse, and many others have shown; in fact, Benjamin’s book inscribes their combination, even in 1936, as a kind of quixotic hope. But this mixing of German and Jewish identity only continues the centuries-long entanglements of Judaism and Christianity theorized by Daniel Boyarin and others. This hybridity need not be schizophrenic or divided in any way; as Benjamin and the Berlin Jewish Museum show, this is a positive historical identity no more or less authentic or complete than any other. To quote a popular saying about cultural trends: “It’s a thing.”

The idea of displacement fits Benjamin’s orientation to tradition, which opposes the modern secularist narrative of progress, traditionalist visions of decline, as well as Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. For Benjamin as for more recent “postsecular” thinkers like Talal Asad,7 tradition never just goes away; even the most iconoclastic modernisms bear the afterlife and traces of the past. The inversions, paradoxes, and formal experiments of Benjamin’s thought identify the displacements of tradition in ways that open space for critical thought, and, I would argue, agency.8

Against the grand historical narratives of progress, decline, and eternal recurrence, the displacement of traditions preoccupies Benjamin from his early studies of literature to his late work on modern culture. If his work insists on critical awareness of the complexity, multiplicity, and contexts of cultural forms, it reflects the complexity of his life, which no biographical formula (tragedy, heroic tale, mourning play) or simplistic label (Marxist, aesthete, theologian, melancholic, Jew, German) can capture. It is ironic that scholarship on Benjamin so often resorts to such formulas and labels when he devoted a substantial part of his work to their critical examination. It takes a Critical Life like the biography of Eiland and Jennings, one that resists generalizations, embraces complexity, and reads the life with the work, to recognize more fully the significance of Benjamin’s thought.9


1 Walter Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

2 See Beatrice Hanssen, Critique of Violence: Between Poststructuralism and Critical Theory (New York: Routledge, 2000), 23.

3 Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, trans. Dana Hollander (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 70.

4 Scholem, “Thoughts About our Language (1926),” in On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time and Other Essays, ed. Avraham Shapira, trans. Jonathan Chipman (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1997), 27-29.  Dipesh Chakrabarty makes a similar point in Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 115-137.

5 I derive the idea of tradition as displacement from Freud and Benjamin in Biblical Curses and the Displacement of Tradition (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011), 191-212.

6 Britt, “Identity and Survival in Deutsche Menschen,” Benjamin-Studien 3 (2014): 83-104.

7 Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

8 This is the argument of my forthcoming book, Postsecular Benjamin: Agency and Tradition (Northwestern University Press).

9 Eiland and Jennings lament how selective previous studies of Benjamin have been:  “The result has all to often been a partial or, worse, mythologized and distorted portrait” (Eiland and Jennings, 7).

Postsecular Benjamin: Agency and Tradition is available for preorder here.