SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- The value of 30 manuscript pages of Herman Melville's 'Typee' found this year in a musty barn can be appreciated only when it is realized there was only a single page in his handwriting known previously.
The New York Public Library, which called the find a miracle, announced this summer that it had paid about $500,000 for the 140-year-old portion of the first draft of Melville's first novel. plus a collection of hundreds of letters to, from and about the author.
The six-figure price was far beyond what Melville ever pocketed for his works. He died in obscurity in New York City in 1891 and it was not until decades later that his novels attained critical esteem.
It seems the troubled author of 'Moby Dick' had a penchant for burning what he wrote. Of all the works published in his lifetime, only a single page of 'Typee' and a few scraps of 'Confidence Man' had survived till now.
The find was perfectly timed, says Meville scholar Thomas Tanselle.
Regard for Melville among critics and general readers has never been higher, he says, and a 15-volume, definitive edition of his works by Northwestern University and Chicago's Newberry Libary is half-completed.
Tanselle notes the discovered material is a bonanza for scholars who can study Melville's compositional method by comparing the draft with published versions.
The precious pages were also a financial treasure for their finders: an anonymous woman in her 90s, a man rummaging for antiques, and a quick-thinking book dealer.
The story opens with Jack Guerrera, an antique 'picker' who occasionally bought bric-a-brac from an elderly woman in Gansevoort, N.Y. Last February, he entered her barn in search of modest saleables and came across two boxes of papers all about a family named Melville.
The name rang a bell, and Guerrera began asking for someone who could tell him what the stuff was worth.
He was referred to John DeMarco, a Melville student of nearby Saratoga Springs, who runs an antiquarian book business with his wife, Carolyn.
Guerrera called the DeMarcos and said he had 20 manuscript pages of 'Typee.'
An excited but skeptical DeMarco arranged to view the papers the next day and spent a sleepless night boning up on Melville.
'As soon as a I saw the manuscript I knew it was right,' he says.
He purchased all the Melville material from the publicity-shy woman for a small price, and agreed to sell them, with the eventual purchase price to be split evenly among the woman, Guerrera and the DeMarcos.
'His eyes were like saucers' when he returned home with the manuscript, Mrs. DeMarco said. 'I didn't even have to ask him.'
DeMarco later went back to Gansevoort and grabbed the remaining papers and two trunks of Melville family mementos from the barn.
Ten other pages of 'Typee' were found, the manuscript was transcribed and photocopied and transferred to a bank vault.
The DeMarcos then spent more than a month painstakingly poring over the 19th century script of Melville and more than 400 letters.
Among the letters were three written by Melville and four to him, including the only surviving letter Melville ever received from Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of 'The Scarlet Letter.' Another 141 letters referred to him.
The corners of many of the envelopes had been cut off. Someone apparently stumbled onto the treasured material earlier -- and decided its value lay in the stamps the letters bore.
The DeMarcos approached the New York Public Library first because Melville was a New Yorker, the library has an extensive Melville collection, and the DeMarcos did not want to see the material scattered at auction.
'They were shocked at the price,' DeMarco said of library officials, but they paid it. Don Anderle, the library's associate director for special collections, and DeMarco believe an auction of the papers could have brought considerably more, perhaps $1 million.
The money was split as agreed among the DeMarcos, Guerrera and the old woman, who refused to read the figure on her check aloud for fear she would have a heart attack.
The DeMarcos also managed to trace how the papers came to be in the barn.
Melville's mother, Maria Gansevoort Melville, and sisters lived in Gansevoort in the latter part of the 19th century.
The anonymous woman's family bought the Melville home and its contents around 1900. The woman moved to another home in Gansevoort about 1930 and the papers wound up in the barn on the new property.
Scholars searched the Melville home, but they were too late -- the treasure had been moved.
The library is still studying the material and readying it for perusal by Melville scholars.
'It's a very significant find,' Anderle said. 'He stands in 20th century estimation as one of the peaks of 19th century American writing.
'We've had an enormous number of letters from sholars who are anxious to get at it.'
The 'Typee' manuscript has a cover page written by Melville. The author notes it is a first draft written in the spring of 1845, 'after which much was added and altered.'
Another gem of the find is a letter Melville wrote to his brother in celebration of the birth of the author's son.
'Stocks rose and brandy fell,' Melville wrote of the supposed reaction to the birth.
Other letters document Melville's departure and return from his fateful three-year whaling voyage to the South Pacific in the 1840s, which spawned 'Typee,' 'Moby Dick' and other works.
The DeMarcos said their share of the sale would allow them to expand their rare book business. It already has funded a long-desired book-buying trip to England. 'It was tax deductible,' a smiling DeMarco said.
As Melville devotees, however, the DeMarcos are as thrilled with the literary significance of the discovery as with the financial return.
'If we found one Melville letter, we would have been very excited,' DeMarco said.