Twenty-First Century Melville.
KelleyWyn. 2008. Herman Melville: An Introduction. Maiden, MA: Blackwell. $94.95 hc. $34.95 sc. xv + 228pp.
Stuckey, Sterling. 2009. African Culture and Melville's Art: The Creative Process in "Bento Cereno" and "Moby-Dick." New York: Oxford University Press. $27.95 hc. 154 pp.
Navigating Herman Melville's work in the early twenty-first century increasingly implies passage from mouse to whale. At websites such as Powermoby.com, which aspires to attract students, teachers, and general readers alike, hyperlinks guide browsers not only to annotated chapters from Moby-Dick but also to the myriad eruptions of Melville in global popular culture: a teenager's crocheted Moby Dick hat; a puppet version of Moby-Dick in Erfurt, Germany; the story of Moby Dick rendered in fifteen haiku. A proposed Melville Electronic Library (MEL), conceived by Melville scholars John Bryant and Haskell Springer, will digitize Melville's letters, journals, manuscripts and published works as well as a wide array of secondary sources. The Library, "one large fluid text, still evolving," will provide "more access than ever before to the Melville Text in its entirety" (Bryant 2006, 565) and might well assist in bridging the gulf between scholar and tyro that postmodern literary scholarship has probably exacerbated--a gulf that seems like "the many cubic feet of solid head" that for Melville divides the whale's eyes (Melville 1988, 330). Although the three studies by Sterling Stuckey, Kevin J. Hayes, and Wyn Kelley discussed here presume different audiences, the accessibility of Stuckey's scholarship and the suggestiveness of Hayes's and Kelley's introductions also bridge the divide and contribute tellingly to readerly accessions of Melville--and indeed to some larger fluid and evolving "Melville Text."
Central, in fact, to historian Stuckey's important and provocative African Culture and Melville's Art is his delineation of Melville's "fluidity of cultural thought and practice" (5). Positing Melville as a "serious student of black culture" in the book's introduction, Stuckey argues that crucial aspects of Melville's art "are based on his intimate knowledge of descendants of Africans in America" (7). For Stuckey, both Moby-Dick and Benito Cereno "largely turn on an African cultural axis" (18). Likely exposed in his youth to African song and dance in both New York City and Albany, Melville incorporated these elements of slave artistry into his own texts, where, in the case of Moby-Dick, they function both as overt influences on the narrative and as "subterranean forces" (8) that intensify the work's complexity and value. According to Stuckey, Pinkster music and dance and the Ring Shout, "the most influential slave dance in nineteenth-century America" (33), served as particularly important black aesthetic touchstones for Melville. In his "demonstrations" (a word he pointedly emphasizes) of how Melville used his African and African American sources to forge his aesthetic, Stuckey offers a particularly cogent reading of the "Midnight, Forecastle" chapter of Moby-Dick. This chapter, which follows the Pequod crew's frantic acquiescence to Ahab's quest for vengeance on the whale, is written as if it were a scene from a play and emphasizes the geographical diversity of the sailors, all of whom are singing in chorus. The superintendent of the chapter, however, is cabin boy Pip, technically "the most insignificant of the Pequod's crew" (Melville 1988, 411), whose tambourine playing anchors and directs the singing and dancing of the chapter. Pip's music itself generates a Melvillean Ring Shout among the sailors, despite the "marked insularity" (32) and prejudice of some of them. That Melville's sailors attempt "black dance steps" (33) suggests the "universal appeal of African dance and music" (31), as "African culture reaches beyond the black community to dazzle even those not particularly friendly towards blacks" (31).
Stuckey also locates a number of imaginatively recomposed Ashantee sources in Melville's fiction, especially Benito Cereno. He finds, for example, a new genesis for the character Atufal in Joseph Dupuis's 1824 Journal of a Residence in Ashantee, probably read by Melville as a teenager; Melville is understood to have reconfigured a slave figure from Dupuis's book into the African king Atufal of his own story. Similarly, the hatchet-polishers and forecastle bell of Benito Cereno also derive, at least in part, from Melville's reading of Dupuis. Moreover, the seriousness with which Melville regards Ashantee culture and the "indispensability" (13)--as Stuckey puts it--of Ashantee values to the design of the slave revolt in Benito Cereno, challenges and revises the racism of Dupuis, who, observes Stuckey, "has virtually nothing good to say about blacks that is not watered down to an insult" (66). The dense referen-tiality of Benito Cereno is not confined to subtle allusions to the Ashantees, however. Stuckey also proposes the overlooked chapter 16 from the real life Delano's Voyages and Travels as a crucial element in Melville's crafting of Benito Cereno, one that interweaves with the Ashantee sub-text and intensifies the complexities of the story. Moreover, because of his recognition of Melville's engagement with African and African American culture, Stuckey is able to draw illuminating connections among Melville's works: Benito Cereno and Redburn; Benito Cereno and The Encantadas; Moby-Dick and Omoo; and, most importantly, Moby-Dick and Benito Cereno. Deepening his own reading of Atufal, for example, Stuckey links Daggoo, the African harpooner aboard the Pequod, with an Ashantee warrior in Dupuis who sings a song of death to suggest in turn that Atufal might be patterned after Daggoo. Through such demonstrations, Moby-Dick and Benito Cereno come to be seen as "profoundly related, with the same African influence central to each" (50). More broadly, such syntheses aim to transform "our way of perceiving" each text, and by extension "radically" alter "our understanding of Melville's aesthetic" (43).
The final chapter of Stuckey's book advances his argument by examining Moby-Dick's intertextual debts to Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Inspired particularly by the passages about slave songs in Douglass's Narrative, Melville suffuses his work with the "blues form and feeling" that Stuckey suggests is the "foundational" music of African American culture (82). For Douglass, "the cardinal feature of the slave musical aesthetic is that joy and sadness are continually fused" (84), and this fusing of contrasting tones suits Melville's style particularly well, especially in his description of Pip's tambourine as "'so gloomy-jolly'" (93). Revisiting the significance of the Ring Shout for Moby-Dick, which the majority of the Pequod's crew vilify, Stuckey underscores the racial discord chronicled by the novel. Generally, "the very music of Moby-Dick--despite and because of the attitude of the crew--reveals the paramount importance of slavery in American life" (97); both Douglass and Melville employ the "blues metaphor for the nation's racial divide," and in so doing reveal themselves to be strikingly "contemporary thinkers" (98). One of Stuckey's enduring cross-disciplinary methodological legacies should in fact be his nuanced evaluation of the literary value of song and dance.
Part of the considerable achievement of African Culture and Melville's Art has to do with its consolidation of many of the paramount concerns of twenty-first century literary criticism. In his attention especially to race and social history, to the global contexts for American authorship, and the interplay of American exceptionalism and transnationalism, Stuckey contributes significantly to an ongoing amplification of the boundaries of Melville criticism and of American literary studies generally. The deep appeal of Stuckey's his-toricized reading of Melville, however, also has much to do with his placement of reigning critical paradigms in the service of more long-standing humanist criteria. The book is a testament to "the sweep" of Melville's "creative imagination" and "the depth of his probing of the human condition" (3), and Stuckey commits himself to uncovering the "subtle magic" and "craft" (3) that imbue Melville's art. Stuckey, moreover, alleviates anxieties in some critical quarters that sweeping sociopolitical narratives in literary criticism are usurping the importance of specific textual analysis and that sustained study of individual authors has ceded to broader cultural explication. Stuckey's modus operandi, rather, invariably revitalizes the reader's experience of the primary text.
Given Stuckey's interest in the nature of Melville's imagination and, specifically, what he characterizes as Melville's tendency to"hid[e] vital aspects of his creative process" (4), it is somewhat surprising that he makes no use of Melville's essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses," which presents in part Melville's artistic credo. Here, Melville asserts that "the great Art of Telling the Truth" must occur "covertly, and by snatches" (1987, 244), an observation that would seem to bolster and complicate Stuckey's claims about Melville's curious writerly furtiveness. Furthermore, Melville's comments in the essay about the "great power of blackness," the "black conceit" that "pervades" Hawthorne (1987, 243), might also have usefully supplemented Stuckey's thesis.
Moreover, as groundbreaking as Stuckey's scholarship might be, he tends to cite Melville critics from earlier generations rather than contemporaries engaged in work complementary to his. In the book's introduction, for example, Stuckey cites Warner Berthoff from 1962, R. P. Blackmur from 1955, Newton Arvin from 1950, F. O. Matthiessen from 1941, and Lewis Mumford from 1929. Most obviously, Stuckey's work seems to align revealingly with Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark, and her well-known thesis that "an Africanist presence informs in compelling and inescapable ways the texture of American literature" (1992, 46): it would have been fascinating for Stuckey to set his remarks about Meville against Morrison's. It would also have been interesting if Stuckey had juxtaposed his argument with, for example, Anna Brickhouse's reading of the Franco-Africanism of Benito Cereno in her recent Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere (2004), or with Maurice S. Lee's questions about the nature of the cultural work that Benito Cereno performs and the text's ability to "pre-construct itself in the eyes of a future reader" in his Slavery, Philosophy, and American Literature, 1830-1860 (2005, 160). These are two of many examples of compatible studies from the work of current Americanists that Stuckey might productively have mentioned.
One might also wish at points in Stuckey's book for more evidentiary certainty about Melville's knowledge of African and African-American cultural practices. The book sometimes relies rather on the conjectural phraseology of Melville "had to have known ..."(9) or "surely would have been aware of ..." (23). And Stuckey occasionally dances around his own paradoxes. On the one hand, Stuckey's Melville is almost notorious for "so often" withholding from view "so much of the process by which he fashions main elements of his art" (20). On the other hand, "he must have experienced lasting unhappiness in knowing that African cultural influences that join" MobyDick and Benito Cereno "were not only invisible to critics but foreign to what they considered worthy of attention" (61)--an unhappiness that would seem to be a function of his own withholding. However, in its bracing demonstration of how Melville's art is "unexpectedly refracted through the experiences of slaves in the United States" (80), its dramatization of--to borrow a formulation of Cornel West's--Melville's '"improvisational New World sensibility"' (Anderson 1994, 48), and in its larger meditations on art, America, and Africa, Stuckey's book is indispensable.
Melville noted in an 1849 letter that "some of us scribblers ... always have a certain something unmanageable in us" (1993, 132), and some idea of unmanageability might well encapsulate the response of students coming to Melville's work for the first time. For the newcomer bedeviled by the treacherousness of Melville's art, both Kevin J. Hayes's Cambridge Introduction to Herman Melville and Wyn Kelley's Herman Melville: An Introduction, published by Blackwell, make Melville and his texts inviting. Each contributes effectively to what Robert Paul Lamb, in an essay on teaching Moby-Dick to undergraduates, has identified as the need for "demystifying" the author, the text, and, at least for Lamb, the college classroom itself (2005, 45). The Cambridge series is designed "to introduce students to key topics and authors" (ii); "Accessible and lively," continues the manifesto, "these introductions will also appeal to readers who want to broaden their understanding of the books and authors they enjoy" (ii).The Blackwell series, perhaps even more ambitiously, "sets out to provide concise and stimulating introductions to literary subjects," and even "to inspire newcomers and others" (ii). Like the Cambridge series, it reaches beyond an audience of students to "readers of whatever kind in their pursuit of wider reading" (ii). Not only do Hayes and Kelley fulfill the editorial imperatives of their respective presses, they also laudably articulate, as Stuckey did in a more self-consciously scholarly fashion, the distinct pleasures of reading and absorbing Melville.
Buoyed by his sense of Melville's "resilience" (90) and his own "multi-faceted approach" (25) to Melville's texts, Hayes manages to be rewarding for beginners and seasoned Melvilleans alike. From the outset of the introduction he insists on the "thrill of discovery from reading Melville for the first time" (x), and this insistence on the "thrill" of Melville as a worthwhile pedagogy is the root strength of Hayes's study. First-time Melville readers will benefit from Hayes's exemplary close readings of Melville, which provide pragmatic ways of approaching this challenging author. In the "Contexts" chapter, for example, Hayes uses details from the first chapter of Moby-Dick, "Loomings," as a "useful framework" (12) for understanding the novel and Melville's work in general from a variety of angles. Given the propensity in Melville to imagine the "whole universe" as a "vast practical joke" (1988, 226) and Melville's claim, enunciated in an 1851 letter, that "the joke is passed round pretty liberally & impartially, so that not very many are entitled to fancy that they in particular are getting the worst of it" (1993, 203), Hayes's attention to Melville's humor is also commendable. Undergraduates often find the mordant wit and ribaldry of Melville surprising and appealing, and Hayes is wise to call attention to the many "hilarious episodes" (50) in Melville's texts. Hayes also charts a compelling series of cinematic parallels to Melville's writings (Moby-Dick and Joseph Losey's film Monsieur Klein; Pierre as a "prequel" (61) to Moby-Dick; Pierre and Leos Carax's film Pola X), which are fascinating for long-time readers while heightening Melville's accessibility and relevance for newer ones. Moreover, the study provides the Melville novice with a sure sense of the range and magnitude of Melville's oeuvre. Consistent with recent developments in Melville scholarship that have insisted on the significance and complexity of Melville's poetry and late writings, Hayes pays thoughtful and generous attention to Battle-Pieces, Melville's Civil War poems, and Clarel, Melville's Holy Land epic.
Veteran readers of Melville will appreciate the ingenuity and suggestiveness of many of Hayes's observations about the writings. Particularly compelling is the reclamation of the unjustly neglected Omoo, which Hayes positions as an important and "very funny book" (33) in the Melville canon; in his discussion of the significance of the "flaneur" for the novel and in his careful distinction of the "beachcomber" and the "rover" (35), which clarifies distinctions between Typee and Omoo, Hayes opens up possibilities for further critical investigation. His pairing of texts, similar in their ingenuity to Stuckey's, also allows for new dialogic ways of thinking about Melville; Hayes's coupling of Israel Potter and Benito Cereno, and comparison of the "liberal use of source material" (74) in the two, is particularly revealing. Most intriguing, however, might be the apologia Hayes makes for Melville's letters. Melville, argues Hayes, has yet to be recognized as one of "the finest letter writers in American literary history" (67), and the letters themselves deserve to be "taken seriously as literature" (26). The argument has brilliant pedagogical potential as well, as assigning Melville's letters to undergraduates may help to make both the man and his philosophy more dramatically available for them.
An "Introduction" as concise as Hayes's obviously requires a high degree of selectivity, and other Melvilleans might conceivably make different choices than his. The ten "contexts" he engineers, for example, include the "historical," the "visual," the "psychological," the "context of slavery," the "world," and the "imaginative. "This is a good list, replete with instigative power for the undergraduate. However, some of the contexts, especially the "visual," are more fully worked out than others; the "imaginative" context, for example, comprises a mere paragraph. Although, as Melville observed in "Hawthorne and His Mosses," "it is hard to be finite upon an infinite subject, and all subjects are infinite" (1987, 253), an alternate catalogue of contexts might have given more play to some of the concerns of contemporary Melville scholars. Categories such as "gender," "postcolonialism," and "environmentalism" come readily to mind, and these are contexts that many twenty-first century undergraduates find engaging. Given Hayes's interest in film, a "popular culture" context might also have been desirable, or even the resurrection of a traditional category such as "religion." Similar qualifications might arise about Hayes's discussion of Melville's individual texts, since of necessity much of interest in Moby-Dick, for example, has to be excluded in a fourteen-page chapter. Still, that Hayes slights Moby-Dick's cetology sections, the notorious "Squeeze of the Hand" chapter, and the character Pip, so important to Stuckey's analysis, is surprising. Likewise, the discussion of Pierre, in concentrating on Pierre's arrival in New York City in chapter XVI, does not attend much to the remaining chapters of the novel, and Hayes's emphasis on Pierre as "one of the great tragic heroes in literary history" (67) perhaps does not sufficiently consider the degree to which Melville inscribes Pierre as a fool--"the Fool of Truth, the fool of Virtue, the fool of Fate" (1971, 358).
If there is a limitation to Hayes's Introduction, it would be its apparent reluctance to situate Melville more vigorously in a twenty-first century context. The book's final chapter on the reception of Melville does not venture much beyond the 1950s; some consideration of recent trends in Melville scholarship would surely be enlightening for the novice (no matter what the individual professor's assessment of that scholarship might be). Hayes's guide to further reading, moreover, suggests only eleven "critical studies," and only two of these have appeared in this century (one of the eleven is his 1999 study, Melville's Folk Roots). Of the four retrospective essay collections he cites, the most recent dates from 1995. Omitting Andrew Delbanco's Melville: His World and Work from the biography section is also a crucial oversight. Hayes is surely correct in asserting that Melville's works will continue "to offer readers many new and exciting opportunities for discovery" (123), but he might have provided a more concerted chronicling of the "new."
Wyn Kelley's introduction is more intent than Hayes's on considering Melville as "a writer very much of his time--but also, strikingly, of our own" (xv), and in justifying why Melville "might have felt very much at home in a digital age" (xiv). As if echoing Stuckey, Kelley makes her case in part by underlining Melville's "fluid habits of literary appropriation," which anticipate the digital environment's assumption that texts "are there for the taking," and are "less the property of the maker and more raw material for future users" (xiv). Such an environment might be particularly disconcerting to the academic world, acknowledges Kelly, which of course "levies harsh penalties for plagiarism" (xiv). But Melville's habits of appropriation also mark him as "inventive" in the nineteenth-century sense of the term, suggesting not only the making of something new but also "the ingenious recombining of previously existing elements" (xv). If the "porous" internet boundaries between providers and users of content "invite abuse and theft," they also "offer opportunity, exchange, creative learning, and flexible sharing" (189)--perhaps an exit out of the divide between the scholar and the undergraduate. As Bryant underscores in his prospectus for the Melville Electronic Library, enhanced access to the digital "Melville Text" will likely accelerate the process by which we "remake his text in our own image" and "rewrite him in our quotations, editions, and adaptations" (565). Congruent with Stuckey's scholarship, Kelley's introduction is fundamentally concerned with Melville's "creative process" (12)--and the inventiveness he cajoles in his readers.
Kelley's book is considerably longer than Hayes's, and she is thus able to give fuller accounts of Melville's writing, and she seems more concerned generally in speculating about social, sexual, and cultural issues in Melville: she makes the homoeroticism, for example, of Moby-Dick and Billy Budd much more legible than Hayes. Undergraduates might also find her condensation of Melville's biography engrossing because of her candor about some of the tensions and difficulties in Melville's life--his drinking, his marital problems, the possible suicide of his eldest son--about which Hayes is silent. Kelley also supplies a more extensive and current bibliography than Hayes. Particularly interesting and consistent with her meditations on Melville's status in a digital world are Kelley's readings of Moby-Dick and Pierre as "discontinuous" texts. Moby-Dick, frequently stepping off "the linear path" of its own plot, can "be read backwards as well as forwards, in pieces and in a whole" (77); the "joy" of this kind of discontinuous text resides in "the freedom of choice it offers" (77). Pierre contains "disturbing discontinuities" on the level of "structure and language" (92), and requires "frequent pauses for reconsideration" where the reader may find "unexpected wells of meaning" (93).
Like Hayes, Kelley provides guidance and provocation for innocent and experienced readers of Melville, and she is particularly adept at devising new categories of analysis for Melville beneficial to both parties. For example, borrowing from Pierre the term "povertiresque"--the making over of poverty into something aesthetic--Kelley uncovers a useful rubric for mapping out a number of Melville's short stories. Similarly, she extracts the idea of "latitudinarianism" from Melville's correspondence, and employs it as a lens through which to scrutinize Melville's writing practice in Israel Potter and The Confidence-Man. Her understanding of the "story of the reader" (116) in Benito Cereno potentially helps undergraduates puzzle out their relationship to the text, and also sits well with Stuckey's urgings that we need to perceive anew Melville's tale. Kelley's general frame in her study, the employment of Melville's "Agatha" letters to Hawthorne as the means for thinking about literary invention in the writer (a more elaborate version of Hayes's use of the "Loomings" chapter as a blueprint to Melville's writing), is also useful. However, it is possible that some undergraduates might experience Kelley's introduction as somewhat over-determined, her own readings of Melville so expert and searching that they produce student quiescence rather than creativity.
Kelley, in any case, has the good sense to deconstruct the genre of the Introduction itself, reminding us that "the books that purport to tell us about Melville (including this one) cannot replace one's own direct experience of Melville's works" (190). What unites the work of Stuckey, Hayes, and Kelley is their commitment to the inexhaustibility of the intricacies and pleasures of Melville's texts. Says Ishmael of the whale, "Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will" (1988, 379); Stuckey, Hayes, and Kelley apprehend this "undissectability" as a critical desideratum for Melville studies. In the words of Stuckey, to which I think Hayes and Kelley would fully assent, we always discover in Melville "more reasons to marvel" (80). In Delbanco's radiant phrase, Melville embodies a "continually renewed presentness" (2005, 15) that Stuckey, Hayes, and Kelley animate.
Anderson, Jervis. 1994. "The Public Intellectual." The New Yorker 69.46: 39-48.
Brickhouse, Anna. 2004. Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bryant, John. 2006. "The Melville Text." In A Companion to Herman Melville, ed. Wyn Kelley. Maiden, MA: Blackwell.
Delbanco, Andrew. 2005. Melville: His World and His Work. New York: Knopf.
Lamb, Robert Paul. 2005. "Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish: Teaching Melville's Moby-Dickin the College Classroom." College Literature 32.1: 42-62.
Lee, Maurice S. 2005. Slavery, Philosophy, and American Literature 1830-1860. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Melville, Herman. 1971. Pierre, or The Ambiguities. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library.
--. 1987. The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces 1839-1860. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, G. Thomas Tanselle and others. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library.
--.1988. Moby-Dick, or The Whale. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library.
--.1993. Correspondence. Ed. Lynn Horth. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library.
Morrison, Toni. 1992. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Michael Berthold is associate professor of English Villanova University, and has published numerous essays on nineteenth-century American literature and culture.
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|Title Annotation:||books on Herman Melville; The Cambridge Introduction to Herman Melville / Herman Melville: An Introduction / African Culture and Melville's Art: The Creative Process in 'Bento Cereno' and 'Moby-Dick'|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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