Saturday, January 17, 2015

And you think YOU have problems...

Another perfect day at the Bancroft Library perusing Captain Charles Melville Scammon's papers.  The Bancroft librarians were kind enough to provide the actual letters to me today, which are far easier to read than the microfilm.  The letters also really beautiful in and of themselves, especially in this era of digitized everything.

Among all the telling ephemera surrounding the great man's life, this letter caught my eye - it's a nausea-inducing letter from Scammon's publisher, John H. Carmany, regarding the total lack of profitability of Scammon's (posthumously successful) landmark study, "The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America".  It was sent May 29, 1877, nearly 138 years ago.

You can imagine Scammon - growing frail from an undiagnosable ailment and tormented by money troubles - going slightly mad when he opened the letter. Scammon was an enormously talented man, and it appears from his early correspondence that he was a model captain. But in his later career, there are multiple accounts of his losing his temper when he ran into yet another stumbling block, and his outbursts typically only made things worse.

These accounts of his temper appear not when he is a young captain, before his whaling days, but afterward, during the really interesting, thrilling and difficult parts of his career.  I've often wondered if the additional time on the crowded whaling ships may have exposed him to some sort of bacterial infection or virus that affected his brain chemistry, and therefore, possibly, his behavior.  Or maybe he just became ill-tempered as his accomplishments grew greater, and his money troubles grew.

Carmany's letter is provocative.  He starts by claiming that Scammon was in town but declined to see him: "Having see you in town, it strikes me as rather strange that you did not call on me. As apologies are usually looked at as excuses for wrong doing, I certainly need not make any in matters between us, simply relying on facts." Nice intro. 

Carmany goes on: "All attempts to sell your book have failed me, even with the copyright included, and of course I have the 500 copies in sheets on hand, which I will gladly hand over to any person - copyright included - who will liquidate the balance of indebtedness due on publication account."

That's it - no recognition of what a great work Scammon's book was, and no understanding that it would, sometime soon, be recognized as the landmark study in marine mammalogy. (The book also set a precociously modern standard for biological studies in general by focusing as much, if not more, on observation of animals in their natural habitat, rather than relying largely on specimens and skeletons.)

Scammon's own take on the letter is written in pencil, and signed by him, in the space left over on the second page.  You can almost sense Scammon's onset of decrepitude by the worsening script.  In a later letter to Carmany, Scammon's penmanship was so poor that Scammon chose not to mail it, as if he were too proud to reveal how decrepit his condition had become.