Pamela Schirmeister. The Consolation of Space: The Place of Romance in Hawthorne, Melville, and James.
Pamela Schirmeister's book is about the sense of place as perspective and allusive ground in the romances of Hawthorne, Melville, and James. Schirmeister treats in greatest detail Hawthorne's A Wonder Book and The Marble Faun, Melville's Moby-Dick and "The Encantadas," and James's New York Edition "Prefaces," although there are interesting comments on other works as well. More than half the book is on Hawthorne, and his story "Feathertop" is an interpretive touchstone throughout.
Schirmeister is interested in transumption, a class of trope which is both allusive and elusive at once: "Allusive because the transumptive figure must always refer to an earlier figure, and yet that figure will itself contain a revisionary movement, that is, an allusion to yet another figure, which ... passes unmentioned and remains elusive." Transumption is "a kind of referring over; the transumed material is precisely that which is not mentioned in an allusion, and yet which is refashioned" (35). What concerns Schirmeister in her book is the way an author can take up the transumptive relation with prior figuration by representing a literal place in a romance.
Schirmeister's book thus asks us to understand the American romance writers as always reworking their important literary forebears (notably Shakespeare and Spenser) and always questioning the possibilities of the romance form. Schirmeister's important critical forebear, and transumed master, is of course Harold Bloom. Her finding that Hawthorne, Melville, and James's anxiety of belatedness is not a sufficient explanation of their ways of romance is both alluding to and eluding of her teacher's influence.
The same transumption exists in the relationship between Hawthorne and his great English literary "teachers." Schirmeister's reading of A Wonder Book provides a fascinating example of her complicated thesis. The fogged-in porch at Tanglewood where the classical stories are retold for the children is made the place of romance by allusion to A Midsummer Night's Dream, to Paradise Lost, to The Faerie Queen. For example, Hawthorne names his children after Berkshire flowers (Sweet Fern, Dandelion, Clover, Huckleberry ...) and so "not only suggests Shakespeare's fairy world but also duplicates the rhetorical gesture with which Shakespeare moves his potentially tragic drama out of Athens and into the backyard ... by naming his fairies after local English blossoms" (39). Hawthorne alludes, but he also stakes out a specifically American version of romance by appropriating the revisionary tendency [A Midsummer Night's Dream's backyard Athens, for example] of the allusions themselves. Hawthorne thus takes the very ground out from under his models. "Hawthorne uses earlier texts to romanticize the American landscape but then transumes those texts by way of the landscape, as if it had been self-empowered all along" (53). Actual place (a Berkshire porch) functions to make literal the conventions of the romance.
The American use of place also makes the romance itself review the possibilities of representation. In The Marble Faun, for example, Hawthorne's deployment of specific Italian places functions to question his own romance enterprise until it is as if he were saying farewell to romance altogether and finding himself, like his character Kenyon, on the outside "beyond the illusory hope that romance might successfully mediate common daylight and rich miracle, present culture and past influence" (89). In Hawthorne's "Feathertop" the power of illusion collapses the instant the scarecrow creation sees itself, Narcissus-like, in the mirror. In Melville's Moby-Dick, on the other hand, the Narcissus myth is reworked with more sympathy to the solipsistic visionary, although here too the possibilities of the romance are queried again and again. In Pierre Melville arrives at a blank in, for example, the parodic characterization of Lucy Tartan in which convention vies with convention, surface with surface, until there seems no way for Lucy to be anything other than construct. In "The Encantadas" the Spenserian epigram s which precede the descriptions of the desolate island places as well as other allusive devices are Melville's forms of transumption in which he attempts to appropriate the words of others with total disregard for their original property: "In his elisions, he consistently ironizes and substitutes his own meaning for that of the material he fails to quote" (123).
Schirmeister's culminating comments on the difference between Moby-Dick and Melville's story "The Piazza" are instructive, although not all unfamiliar in the history of Melville criticism: "In the later story Melville is at pains to expose the conventional nature of the aspiration toward a transcendent self, and indeed, as the story makes quite explicit, it is that very conventionality that enables and allows a transcendent metaphysical perspective" (136). I think Schirmeister reads Melville and the "The Piazza" very well, but I am not convinced here, as I am not always elsewhere, that her analysis is notably aided by her own thesis of transumption and place.
The "Prefaces" Henry James wrote for the New York Edition of his works revise James's own earlier sense of the novels. He makes that revision by concentrating on remembered places where he wrote, the "scene[s] of my response" as he says. The remembered muse haunts those places and James remakes his earlier realistic sense of his novels into a sense that they are romances. He writes in the "Prefaces," then, his own romance of romance, glorifying the artist's ability to make connections between himself and experience and between experience and form. "This is a strange determinism that bases genuine choice on the recognition of absolute possibility, only to show that the choices inherent in that possibility are omnisciently made in every case" (165).
Schirmeister's "Conclusion" reviews Hawthorne, Melville, and James and notes that in the twentieth century Thomas Pynchon's romance invests the world with meaning through paranoia. Paranoia's "overdeterminative quality ... duplicates the structures of romance" (181). But Pynchon makes clear that the places of romance are no longer our own; they no longer represent transcendent potential within the self.
Schirmeister's book is often hard to sort out. It is hard to hold onto the possible meanings of transumption while one is trying to follow how the use of actual place is part of the argument. It is hard to sort out the difference between a writer's rewriting of one particular anxiety-producing influence (Shakespeare, say, or Spenser) and the rewriting or writing within a whole complex of minor and major influences that constitute that writer's "culture." This is another way of saying that Schirmeister is not at all influenced by the "new Americanists" or by the new (and old) cultural studies theories which do address some of the issues she struggles with. It is hard not to note as well that the argument seems an expansion of a discussion of Hawthorne--with the result that one feels shortchanged in the Melville and James discussions. The book's interpretive complexities are often genuinely productive and interesting, however, and the discussions of allusion and elision in individual texts of Hawthorne are important.
George Mason University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1990|
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