Question: What was your introduction to Melville?
Answer: Through Shakespeare. I left high school after the 11th grade and for seven years was a railroad telegrapher in Louisiana and Texas. I caught tuberculosis and took only one book to a sanitarium, a one-volume Shakespeare. By the time I read "Moby-Dick" and "Pierre," I was astounded that an American writer had absorbed Shakespeare so profoundly.
In 1962 at Northwestern University, I wrote a paper for the Melville scholar Harrison Hayford on "The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating" in "The Confidence-Man." I am a quarter Indian (Cherokee and Choctaw), but this was not an exercise in victimology. With my Baptist background and knowing the analysis of the practicability of Christianity in "Pierre," I saw that in his allegorical depiction of Indian-hating, Melville was contrasting absolute and nominal Christianity. Hayford demanded publishable articles, so I sent that paper to a literary journal published at UCLA and in 1963 found myself with a new career, that easy.
Q: What was the most exciting discovery for you in this volume?
A: Finding that Melville had completed a book called "The Isle of the Cross" around May 22, 1853. I had the privilege of telephoning two old masters, Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, to tell them Melville had finished the story about the abandoned wife he had tried to persuade Hawthorne to write. Then it was even more exciting to try to imagine what Melville had learned while writing "The Isle of the Cross," next after "Pierre," and had then brought to his writing of "Bartleby."