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A Political Companion to Herman Melville

A Political Companion to Herman Melville

Edited by Jason Frank
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 456
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    A Political Companion to Herman Melville
    Book Description:

    Herman Melville is widely considered to be one of America's greatest authors, and countless literary theorists and critics have studied his life and work. However, political theorists have tended to avoid Melville, turning rather to such contemporaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to understand the political thought of the American Renaissance. While Melville was not an activist in the traditional sense and his philosophy is notoriously difficult to categorize, his work is nevertheless deeply political in its own right. As editor Jason Frank notes in his introduction toA Political Companion to Herman Melville, Melville's writing "strikes a note of dissonance in the pre-established harmonies of the American political tradition."

    This unique volume explores Melville's politics by surveying the full range of his work -- fromTypee(1846) to the posthumously publishedBilly Budd(1924). The contributors give historical context to Melville's writings and place him in conversation with political and theoretical debates, examining his relationship to transcendentalism and contemporary continental philosophy and addressing his work's relevance to topics such as nineteenth-century imperialism, twentieth-century legal theory, the anti-rent wars of the 1840s, and the civil rights movement. From these analyses emerges a new and challenging portrait of Melville as a political thinker of the first order, one that will establish his importance not only for nineteenth-century American political thought but also for political theory more broadly.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4389-7
    Subjects: Political Science, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Series Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Patrick J. Deneen

    Those who undertake a study of American political thought must attend to the great theorists, philosophers, and essayists. Such a study is incomplete, however, if it neglects American literature, one of the greatest repositories of the nation’s political thought and teachings.

    America’s literature is distinctive because it is, above all, intended for a democratic citizenry. In contrast to eras when an author would aim to inform or influence a select aristocratic audience, in democratic times public influence and education must resonate with a more expansive, less leisured, and diverse audience to be effective. The great works of America’s literary tradition...

  4. INTRODUCTION: American Tragedy: The Political Thought of Herman Melville
    (pp. 1-20)
    Jason Frank

    Melville has not received as much attention from political theorists as some other major writers of the American Renaissance—especially Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. His work is left out of anthologies of American political thought, overlooked on syllabi, and very rarely engaged in professional research. Various explanations for this neglect come immediately to mind. Unlike the others, for example, Melville was never a political activist; he was not overtly engaged in the momentous political struggles of his time over slavery and white supremacy, industrialization and class conflict, western settlement and Native displacement, national unity and sectional discord, self-governance and imperial...

  5. 1 Who Eats Whom? Melville’s Anthropolitics at the Dawn of Pacific Imperialism
    (pp. 21-41)
    Kennan Ferguson

    “From where?” asks Melville, in story and novel. What is the source of justice, of desire, of revenge, of human experience? When someone arrives at a new destination, what brought him (for the narrator is always male) there? How do we attempt to escape our pasts and how does their return compromise us? The role of the past in the present and the demand for causation and those resistances to that demand constitute both literature and humanity within Melville’s corpus.

    But the question should be asked of Melville himself as well. From where did his authorship arise? What dynamics of...

  6. 2 “The End Was in the Beginning”: Melville, Ellison, and the Democratic Death of Progress in Typee and Omoo
    (pp. 42-69)
    Sophia Mihic

    Drawing a distinction between the savage and civilized inTypeeandOmoo,Herman Melville demonstrates the contrastive nobility of the Marquesan Islanders. He does not, however, to force a verb, noble savage them out of their humanity. They are hospitable but cunning, indulgent, and controlling. Likewise, the critique of progress inaugurated in Melville’s first two novels is not a simple reversal. The relationships among past and future, archaic and modern, are too complicated to allow for an easy trade-off between progress and regress. InTypeeandOmooevents and revelations that do not fit the progressive world picture prompt its...

  7. 3 Chasing the Whale: Moby-Dick as Political Theory
    (pp. 70-108)
    George Shulman

    My aspiration in this essay is to read Melville’sMoby-Dick; or, The Whaleas a work of—not simply as a supplement to—political theory. By its dramatic form and content,Moby-Dicktells a story about politics and about theory; and through it, so will I.¹ Just as ancient tragedians were interlocutors to the polis, dramatizing inescapable heteronomy, haunting pasts, and irremediable conflict to a community avowing self-rule, so Melville retells dominant romances of liberal emancipation and national redemption as tragedy-in-the-making. Whereas Sophocles created an alter-city—what James Baldwin called a disagreeable mirror—Melville is among American literary artists who...

  8. 4 Ahab, American
    (pp. 109-140)
    Susan McWilliams

    When scholars talk about the dilemmas of American political life inMoby-Dick,they tend to focus on the dilemmas faced by the ship’s crew: the narrator who wants us to call him Ishmael, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, and so on.¹ Captain Ahab, in the literature, is largely approached as a monarchical or autonomous force—someone who comes in and exposes the weaknesses of the American polity by imposing on it, from above or outside. For C. L. R. James, for instance, Ahab is the “embodiment of the totalitarian type,” a man “by nature a dictatorial personality” who is thus able to...

  9. 5 “Mighty Lordships in the Heart of the Republic”: The Anti-Rent Subtext to Pierre
    (pp. 141-161)
    Roger W. Hecht

    In the “Enceladus” section of book XXV of Herman Melville’s novelPierre,the titular hero of the book, Pierre Glendinning, has a dream. Physically and morally exhausted from his unsuccessful attempt to write a “great, deep book,” Pierre slips into a trance in which “a remarkable dream or vision came to him”:¹ “The actual artificial objects around him slid from him, and were replaced by a baseless yet most imposing spectacle of natural scenery. But though a baseless vision in itself, this airy spectacle assumed very familiar features to Pierre. It was the phantasmagoria of the Mount of Titans, a...

  10. 6 Melville and the Cadaverous Triumphs of Transcendentalism
    (pp. 162-193)
    Shannon L. Mariotti

    Generations of scholars have tried to solve the puzzle of Melville’s relationship with transcendentalism. There are many hints that Melville’s writings engage transcendental ideas in general and the works of Emerson and Thoreau in particular. This is not surprising, given that Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville (along with Hawthorne and Whitman) were often grouped together as rising figures making a name for American literature, had common friends and acquaintances, and published in some of the same venues. Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville were connected through figures in the literary world such as Horace Greeley, of theNew York Tribune,and especially Evert...

  11. 7 Language and Labor, Silence and Stasis: Bartleby among the Philosophers
    (pp. 194-228)
    Kevin Attell

    Is there a single short story of the American nineteenth century that has generated as much critical commentary over the last half century, and from such a wide range of disciplinary perspectives, as “Bartleby the Scrivener”? To mention just a few examples: Bartleby the impassive employee has been seen as an alienated proletarian laborer and his inertia in the law office as a figure for a revolutionary disruption of commerce and the capitalist system; Bartleby and his employer have been traced to various real people, including Melville’s friends Eli James Fly and George J. Adler and several of the many...

  12. 8 Melville’s “Permanent Riotocracy”
    (pp. 229-258)
    Michael Jonik

    Like “Bartleby” orBenito Cereno,Herman Melville’s “The Encantadas; or, Enchanted Isles” is part of his 1856 collectionThe Piazza Tales.Yet rather than cohering into a narrative like these other tales, “The Encantadas” is a series of “sketches”: they trace variously the topography, geology, and natural and political history of the Galápagos and, in so doing, aggregate fragments from a variety of source materials. One partTempestand one partVoyage of theBeagle, one part sardonic travel narrative and one part decolonial allegory, they resist representational closure or wholeness and gesture toward the ongoing, aleatoric processes for which...

  13. 9 What Babo Saw: Benito Cereno and “the World We Live In”
    (pp. 259-280)
    Lawrie Balfour

    In 1952, while awaiting possible deportation in a prison on Ellis Island, the Trinidadian intellectual and radical activist C. L. R. James wrote a book-length study of Herman Melville and the totalitarian reach of the cold war state. James’s book focuses onMoby-Dick,from which it borrows its title, and on Melville’s unfulfilled allegiance to the fate of thePequod’s polyglot, multiracial crew. Though Melville shrinks from embracing democratic revolt, James nevertheless looks to him as the poet of the “renegades and castaways and savages” who counter the sickness of modern existence with their humor and their deep sense of...

  14. 10 “Follow Your Leader”: Melville’s Benito Cereno and the Case of Two Ships
    (pp. 281-309)
    Tracy B. Strong

    The metaphor of a ship for the polity is, as the epigraph from Plato shows, as old as Western political thought. It was especially prominent in American political discourse in the middle of the nineteenth century: as Alan Heimert has pointed out, there was a widespread fear about the direction in which the country was going, most often expressed as the fear that the American ship of state was running aground or being sucked into a giant maelstrom.¹ President Polk’s provocation of the war with Mexico, the relentless expansionism, and the increasing tension over slavery all called into question the...

  15. 11 The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating Revisited
    (pp. 310-332)
    Thomas Dumm

    In his recent study of Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of American slavery, Eric Foner argues that by the concluding months of the American Civil War, Lincoln had undergone a sea change in his attitude toward African Americans. Once firmly committed to the idea of colonization, believing that the inferiority of blacks made their presence in a postslavery society problematic, Lincoln abandoned the idea, not only because of its impracticality, but because he no longer held such a firmly racist attitude toward blacks. Lincoln wasn’t the only one. The movement toward the abolition of slavery that culminated in the Thirteenth...

  16. 12 Melville’s War Poetry and the Human Form
    (pp. 333-357)
    Roger Berkowitz

    At the climax of Melville’sBilly Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative),Captain Vere is overseeing the trial and conviction of Billy Budd. Billy, Vere recognizes, is wholly innocent, a messenger of divine judgment. And still, for the captain forced to become judge, the necessary outcome of the impending trial is clear: “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!”¹

    Budd’s conviction is frequently read as illustrating the conflict between formal state laws and natural law.² The conflict between natural and state law, however, is not the intellectual or moral fault line ofBilly Budd.Vere’s reasoned...

  17. 13 The Lyre of Orpheus: Aesthetics and Authority in Billy Budd
    (pp. 358-385)
    Jason Frank

    Herman Melville worked onBilly Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative)for the last five years of his life—between 1886 and 1891—and since its posthumous discovery and publication in 1924Billy Buddhas often been read as Melville’s last will and testament, the most mature articulation of his social and political thought. There is, of course, little agreement over the meaning of this subtle and enchanting testament, although past interpretations typically cluster into two competing approaches. The “testament of acceptance” school associates Melville’s own position with Vere’s and emphasizes the novella’s concluding affirmation of necessity in this “moral dilemma...

  18. 14 Melville’s Law
    (pp. 386-412)
    Jennifer L. Culbert

    When we think about law, how often do we essay a portrait and fail to hit it? As the legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart observes, “Few questions concerning human society have been asked with such persistence and answered by serious thinkers in so many diverse, strange, and even paradoxical ways as the question ‘What is law?’”¹ Hart suggests that the difficulty of answering this question once and for all is due to the challenge of addressing issues raised when we think about law, issues like the nature of obligation, the relationship of law to justice, and the meaning of...

  19. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 413-414)
  20. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 415-422)
  21. List of Contributors
    (pp. 423-426)
  22. Index
    (pp. 427-444)
  23. Back Matter
    (pp. 445-446)