Discovering Melville in Gansevoort, New York

By Daniel T. Weaver

Note: This is the last of a series of articles celebrating the 200th birthday of New York State writer, Herman Melville.

When I started my used and antiquarian business, the Book Hound, in 1993, one of the first upstate New York booksellers I heard about was John DeMarco in Saratoga Springs. I got to know DeMarco a little as he purchased a number of beautifully bound sets of books I had for his clientele, many of which were part of the carriage trade. DeMarco established Lyrical Ballads on Phila Street in 1971 and quickly established himself as one of the top booksellers north of New York City. What clinched his reputation as a top bookseller was his involvement in 1983 in the discovery and sale of 30 pages of the first draft of Herman Melville’s Typee in Melville’s handwriting, a few pages of The Confidence Man and more than 400 letters to and from Melville.

Typee_1st_editionUp until 1983, no known manuscripts of Melville’s writings were known to exist other than Billy Budd which had been discovered and published in 1924. In February 1983, Jack Guerrera, an antiques dealer came across two boxes of papers about a family named Melville in the barn of an elderly woman in Gansevoort, NY. Guerrera knew he had heard the name somewhere and began looking for someone to help him evaluate what he found. Someone refereed him to DeMarco, who had majored in literature in college and knew a lot about Melville.

DeMarco bought the papers and then the question for DeMarco was what to do with them. More money could be made by auctioning or selling the papers individually or in small lots, but then the collection would be lost to researchers. DeMarco decided to keep the papers together. He approached the New York Public Library, which already had some Melville papers. The library was very interested and eventually a sale was brokered with DeMarco, Guerrera and the anonymous lady splitting the half million dollars the library paid for them.

It is not difficult to comprehend how the papers ended up in Gansevoort. Gansevoort was founded by, and named after, Melville’s grandfather and Revolutionary War hero, General Peter Gansevoort. Melville had spent some summers in the Gansevoort home. The lady who possessed the Melville material had owned the Gansevoort mansion in recent times. Gansevoort was Melville’s mother’s maiden name and the name she gave to Melville’s older brother.

The discovery and sale of the Melville papers was a once in a lifetime event, and an event that most booksellers never experience. After a long and distinguished career as a bookseller, DeMarco died on March 26, 2019.

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