Archive for August, 2009


Aug 27 2009

Christopher Castiglia, Chapter 7 “‘I Want My Happiness!’ Alienated Affections, Queer Sociality, and the Marvelous Interiors of the American Romance,” From Interior States

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Precedent, Inheritance, and Limitations of Outer Physiological Signs to Signify Internal Nature:

(Related to Isabel and her inability to be read?–we still never know if she is, in fact, related to Pierre. There are hints, but we never know for sure.)

In the romance, the body’s outer signs are now in continual flux, and its inner meanings remain purposefully opaque. For Hawthorne and Melville, the supposed transparency between outer signs and inner truth or “nature” was deployed to establish a fiction of institutionalized inner truth or “nature” was deployed to establish a fiction of institutionalized genealogy (if bodily resemblance established family relations, those relations guarantee the passage of family “nature” from the past into the future). Precedent (in the form of family resemblance) was not simply a legal concept, then; it was a restrictive interior state, forcing citizens conceived as primarily members of privatized families into patterns of repeated “nature” that thwarted the possibilities of alliance with people outside the class position signified and ensured by family “nature.” The romance’s challenge to the transparency between external signs and inner truth–the assertion that similar looks cannot guarantee similar natures–leads, then, to a challenge to the legal logic of precedent in the form of as genealogical crisis. If outward resemblance cannot determine inner inheritance, the institutional logic of precedent–that the past will pass naturally into the future, whose character it determines–loses its foundational authority (Castiglia 258-259).

The unreadable, the unprecedented (the untraceable, the ungenealogical), and the romantic:

Freeing the present from the grasp of precedent not by challenging interiority, but by making the interior so deep that it becomes unreadable, so determinative that it cannot be reformed, the romance opens the innovative potential of the unforeseen, the unprecedented, the marvelous. And while these fantastic imaginings remain largely isolated in the intense privacy of the romantic interior, they also suggest new social arrangements, romanticism’s queer sociality. In calling the romance’s sociality queer, I do not mean necessarily to suggest anything about the sexuality of its participants, although their desires, affections, and pleasures are anything but heternormative. Rather, I am contending that romantic sociality, built on contingency, ephemerality, fantasy, and opaque and irredeemable innerness, runs counter to and distorts institutionalized sociality and its supplemental interior states, readable and reformable, that have become synonymous with public civility in the United States (Castiglia 259).

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Aug 25 2009

Bryan Waterman, “Arthur Mervyn’s Medical Repository and the Early Republic’s Knowledge Industries”

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Brown and his relationship to the medical sphere (could the same be said for Melville, at least as far as an awareness and engagement with medical science in his novels is concerned?):

The present essay’s task is, above all, to locate Brown’s authorial self-understanding as an observer, organizer, and exhibitor of such information in relation to the knowledge-producing projects undertaken by his associates who were medical professionals. To do so requires that we take seriously Brown’s statement, in the preface to Arthur Mervyn, that the novel is his “venture” into “medical and political discussions of [yellow fever]…afloat in the community” (231). This prefatory statement reminds us that Brown’s novel is only a small part of the flood of printed and spoken material that poured from early American yellow fever epidemics (Waterman 216).

Examining the Repository’s stores of “medical eloquence” opens new windows into the medical content of Brown’s fiction and reveals more fully than we have been conditioned to see the ways in which early Republican “literature” participates in broader cultures of information and knowledge production (Waterman 224).

Medical eloquence–the intersection between novelistic/poetical style and the rhetoric of medical literature in the Early American medical journal, Medical Repositories:

Emerging within a “literary” culture broadly conceived, the Repository shared with Arthur Mervyn an assumption that great nations are built on exemplary writing that explores in minute detail the unmapped terrains–cultural, geographical, geological–that confirm their distinction in novelty. Its creation of a national audience of medical readers depended, the editors believed, on a balance between imaginative form and informational content that Elihu Smith captured in a striking term “medical eloquence” (Diary 191). The concern for the poetics of medical discussion perhaps came naturally to Smith and his coeditor Samuel Latham Mitchill, both of whom composed poetry on medical and nonmedical subjects, but Smith’s diary entries frame “medical eloquence” as a deliberate strategy for creating a general, educated audience (Waterman 221).

Information of information and knowledge production:

During the New York outbreak of 1795, Elihu Smith pointed in his diary to a concern he shared with cultural critics across the American landscape–that rumors about the fever, in their constant retellings, “acquired redoubled horro” until cities found themselves in a “violent state of alarm” (57). Unmanaged information yielded the worst possible audience responses. The unregulated flow of information, good and bad, made men whose tenuous social standing depended on being better “informed” than their “inferiors” anxious for “authentic intelligence” about the disease (Nord 25-26).

Septon, Oxygen, and the materiality of air:

Published in the Repository’s first volume, Mitchill’s poem contains both the basic principles of his effort to “account for nearly all disease” and his response to the reception issues at stake for his readers (Courtney Robert Hall 31). Mitchill’s Doctrine of Septon holds that “two natural forces”–Oxygen and Septon–exist “in the universe to balance each other” (35). Oxygen, following Priestley and Lavoisier, is the principle of life; “Septon” (a name Mitchill derives, like septic, from the Greek word for putrescent) is the “principle of dissolution” (35). When the two combine, he argues, they release “pestilential fluids” into the atmosphere–the noxious vapors that so concerned climatists and sanitationists because they were believed to generate yellow fever. In order to counter the progress of pestilence, Mitchill prescribed the use of alkalis–lime and potash in particular–to neutralize Septon. For this reason, Americans whitewashed the interiors of their homes with lime, and some even ingested the stuff (Waterman 225).

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Aug 15 2009

Samuel Otter, Melville’s Anatomies, Chapter 4: “Penetrating Eyes in Pierre”

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“For many viewers in the 1850s, the American land was not the site of historical struggle between competing interests but an Eden paradoxically urging its own manipulation and destruction. By contrast, the landscape of Pierre presents a hyperbolic version of the American picturesque, in which the tropes of visual possession are pressed to revealing–and rupturing–limits” (Otter 173).

Pierre, the eye, and the American landscape:

In the opening books of Pierre, Melville focuses on the eye, examining its structures while the pupil is dilated under the stimulation of the American landscape. Continuing his cognitive inquiries, he shifts emphasis in Pierre from the faculty psychology in Moby-Dick, which imagined that the powers of the mind were embedded in the brain, to an associationist psychology, which saw the contents of consciousness as linked by principles of relation, such as similarity, contiguity, and frequency. Associationist ideas influenced nineteenth-century painters, writers, and nationalists who exalted the American scene. Turning to landscape, Melville expands his scrutiny of the links between the individual, the natural, and the national (Otter 173).

In Pierre, Melville delves behind the eyes and deep into the cavity of the chest. He further tests the epistemology of character and characteristics, first in the body of the landscape and then in the hidden landscape of the body. In the end, the narrator and author pull back from their intimate exposures. Pierre begins by gazing outward, at Saddle Meadows, and ends by staring inward, at the seared landscape of Pierre character and writer. Ultimately, Melville turns the figure of the eloquent body inside out. In the most encumbered prose of Melville’s career, his narrator reads the lines written not on Pierre’s face, skin, or head but on his own heart. In the next two chapters, I will chart these movements outward and inward and suggest how such unfolding concludes the first phase of Melville’s career (Otter 174).

Landscape Painting and the Antebellum Period:

In examining representations of the land in the antebellum period, we need to remember that the very terms of the discussion–“landscape,” “scenery,” and “picturesque”–are aesthetic constructions, particular orientations of perspective and detail that became current during the rise of landscape painting in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and in America during the early nineteenth century. They are painters’ terms, separating observer from view and abstracting land from labor or occupancy. E. H. Gombrich argues that landscape painting is more a conceptual than a visual art, privileging aesthetic attitude over subject matter an requiring “some pre-existing mould into which the artist could pour his ideas.” The rise of landscape painting marks what Dieter Groh and Rolf-Peter Sieferle call “an epochal transformation” in the cultural meaning of nature: nature is made alien while the capitalistic manipulation of the world is naturalized. As the natural world was objectified and contracted, nature appreciation was discovered and manifested in landscape painting, prints, and gift books, travel literature, lyric poetry, prose sketches, and fiction (Otter 175).

In America, it is the first decades of the nineteenth century that we find such an “epochal transformation”–what the influential New York City editor and writer Nathaniel Parker Willis referred to as “a direct revolution” in American perspective. In the northeastern United States, and especially among New York academicians in the 1840s and 1850s, there was an urgent call for American viewers to turn their attention to the distinctive, defining qualities of American scenery (Otter 176).

Mind-eye connection, landscape painting:

Both British and American understandings of the picturesque drew upon associationist psychology, following Hobbes and Locke. Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight argued that aesthetic ideas resulted from the transformation of sensory data through mental associations. Writers disputed the origin and quality of these associations. Agreeing on the predominant role of abstract visual qualities in shaping aesthetic response, Price argued that associations with line and color had their source in human feelings, while Knight maintained that the associations with light and color were defined and sharpened ed by the viewer’s experience of the art of painting. In contrast to Price and Knight, the landscape gardener Humphrey Repton stressed the role of personal or historical circumstances in determining aesthetic response. These theorists were interested in visual training. In a resonant passage, Knight described the complex act of perception: “The spectator, having his mind enriched with the embellishments of the painter and poet, applies them, by the spontaneous association of ideas, to the natural objects presented to the eye, which thus acquire ideal and imaginary beauties: that is, beauties that are not felt by the organic sense of vision, but by the intellect and the imagination through the sense.” Knight sought to analyze the ways in which the eye becomes a vehicle for the mind (Otter 176).

American Landscape:

The discussion of American scenery became comparative and nationalistic. European and especially British writers asserted that American scenery lacked the historical or cultural associations of high civilization and that the picturesque scenery of the eastern United States was insufficient to stimulate thoughts of the sublime. Americans debated the character of their landscape and nation. Some, such as Walter Channing, Jared Sparks, and George Bancroft, agreed that American scenery was wanting and hoped for future development. Others, such as William Tudor, Samuel Gilman, W. H. Gardiner, and William Cullen Bryant, felt that American national associations could stimulate aesthetic response and support literary and artistic production. Often such associations had a manufactured quality, such as the “fanciful associations” put forth by the contributors to The Home Book of the Picturesque (1852). In a powerful synthesis of the two positions, some observers validated the “absence” of historical associations and celebrated the American land as a divinely inscribed tabula rasa. In the redemptive Edenic landscape was written not the burden of the past but divine assurance of the nation’s glorious future. Spared the scars of the aristocratic Old World, Americans would write their own history. In these nationalistic visions, aesthetics, religion, and politics were conflated, and the sublime promise of the United States was seen as fulfilled in the cultivated scenery of picturesque America (Otter 176, 177).

Americans and their own views on their landscape (note contrast to Volney’s more cynical view of the varying climates in the American landscape!):

In the “Essay on American Scenery,” Cole [the American landscapist) provides a feature-by-feature gazetteer for American landscape appreciatation: mountains, lakes, waterfalls, rivers, and forests (102-108). These natural sights may not evoke the range of European historical allusions, but they are unmatched in their religous and moral associations. Cole asserts the American difference is an asset. He climaxes his catalogue with a paean to America’s “skies,” which out-Europe Europe’s encompassing the entire geographical and visible spectrum:

as we have the temperature of every clime, so we have the skies–we have the blue unsearchable depths of the northern sky–we have the upheaped thunder-clouds of the Torrid Zone, fraught with gorgeousness and sublimity–we have the silver haze of England, and the golden atmosphere of Italy. And if he who has travelled  and observed the skies of other climes will spend a few months on the banks of the Hudson, he must be constrained to acknowledge that for variety and magnificence American skies are unsurpassed (108) (Otter 181).

 …And, yet, Americans are still unsure about the landscape and their future there:

In “Essay on  American scenery,” the claims seem strained and the faith too fervent, as though Cole were attempting to talk himself into a confidence that he could not see. Such ambivalence about American prospects is on display in his famous 1836 oil painting of the Connecticut River 1836 oil painting of the Connecticut River, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Mass., after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow), composed at the same time as the “Essay” […] Yet as Angela Miller observes, the circle of land in the center of the painting forms not only a stage or yoke but also a question mark. The storm, like the river, might reverse its course. The clouds still cast shadows over the land. The divine writ may not be good news (Otter 182, 183).

 Antebellum Alchemy:

The “aptness” of the analogy between “the democratic element” and a “subtle acid” lies in its apparent incongruity yet functional success. Progress is linked with corrison in a narrative of “natural law.” Out of revolutionary “Death” comes new “Life” for old institutions. Pierre is steeped in language of such antebellum alchemy (Otter 196).

The American Landscape and American Spectres:

The landscape of Saddle Meadows, then, is not merely embellished with images of Pierre’s ancestors–“on thsoe hills his own fine fathers had gazed; through those woods, over these lawns, by that stream, along these tangled paths, mnay a grand-dame of his had merrily strolled when a girl” (8)–nor cloaked in the qualities of “this new Canaan” (33). It is saturated with reminders of those who were dispossessed […] These associations thicken the atmosphere of Saddle Meadows. They seep into the soil. They point to the past, not to the future” (Otter 201).  

Facial Landscape parrallels the physical landscape (IMPORTANT!):

The analogies between facial and landscape features are not accidental or occasional in these sections of Pierre. Such analogies structure the representation of character. Lightning forks upward from Pierre’s brow. Pierre sees stars and clouds in Lucy’s eyes and the seasons in her face. Lucy’s eyes contain unparalleled scenic wonders: “All the waves in Lucy’s eyes seemed waves of infinite glee to him. And as if, like veritable seas, they did indeed catch the reflected irradiations of that pellucid azure morning; in Lucy’s eyes, there seemed to shine all the blue glory of the general day, and all the sweet inscrutableness of the sky” (35). Like Cole’s American skies, Lucy’s eyes reflect the unique variety and magnificence of America. Lucy is a walking encyclopedia of landscape features–clouds, seasons, waves, seas, lakes, skies. In Melville’s picturesque twist on the sentimental effictio, or “fashioning” of a female figure, Lucy is an overstocked embodiment of individual, natural, and national characteristics. The land does not merely lie before Pierre; it rises up and embraces him in the form of an inordinate, geomorpic angel (Otter 203).

The eye, escaping pupils, and savage, animalistic love:

(My Note: I wonder if the escaping pupil is in anyway connected to Laura Otis’s work on membranes? The eye is the place where outside and inside meet–light from the outside penetrates the pupil into the retina, but what does it mean for the pupil to attempt to escape? Does this rupture the safe and comforting idea of the eye as receptacle–the body here is actively penetrating the environment, instead of the environment penetrating the eye, as nature usually works):

When Pierre observes the atmospheric effects in Lucy’s eyes, he cannot contain himself–or, to be more precise, he cannot contain their pupils: “Then would Pierre burst forth in some screaming shout of joy; and the striped tigers of his chestnut eyes leaped their lashed cages of fierce delight. Lucy shrank from his extreme love; for the extremest top of love is Fear and Wonder” (35). Here, the pleasures of perception are rendered disturbing through the insinuating amalgam of adjective and noun (“screaming shout of joy,” “fierce deligh,” “extreme love”). The love in Pierre’s eyes is given a savage shape and appetite. Melville represents the blinding fulfillment of the picturesque goal of feeling through the eyes, as Pierre’s eager pupils threaten to rupture the acqueous humor, tear through the lashes, break out of their ocular confinement, and pounce upon their victim. The extremes are taken to their extremity, as Melville maps the contours of the sublime and ambivalent peaks of love (Otter 203, 204).

Active Eye in Pierre:

As eyes look into eyes in Melville’s defamiliarizing passage, the intervening medium is filled with ridiculous creatures. In this heightened and revealing version of the “loving gaze,” the eye is not at all a receptive organ but becomes an active, violating force, and its projections are absurdly literalized. Neither particle nor wave, the “light” from the lover’s eye is composed of “strange eye-fish with wings.” The mood is broken here. The mystifications are materialized. Love’s eyes are “holy things,” Melville insists, after representing them as profane fish ponds. The eye is “Love’s own magic glass,” he proclams, and then he shatters the delicate vessel. Visual penetration is compared to the sinking of mine shafts, and visual transaction threatans to become a literal “driving through”: when eyes bore into eyes, the shaft, one assumes, must be sunk through the cornea (Otter 204, 205).

The Emersonian “transparent eyeball:”

In the first section of “Nature” (1836), Emerson, too, joins an absurd visual figure with praise of the landscape. After an exalted account of the poetic possession of the land (“There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all th eparts, that is, the poet”) and immediately following the assertion that the visual faculty is the sine qua non of human existence–“In the woods…I feel that nothing can befall me in life,–no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair”–Emerson offers his famous catachresis: “I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Yet the bizarre physicality of Emerson’s “eyeball” does not interfere with the metaphorical dynamics of the passage. The “transparent eyeball” stands as a desire for all-encompassing vision, for the removal of barriers to visual participation in the world, for the ultimate “integrity of impression made by manifold objects” (Otter 205).

 Isabel’s unreadable face :

(My Note: THIS PASSAGE IS REALLY IMPORTANT. Like Pierre and Lucy, Isabel’s face does synch with the landscape–think of the electrical storm moment when Isabel is actually described as being electrical–and yet her face remains an enigma throughout the text. In the beginning, before her identity is known, she is even described as “the face.”  Pierre’s fixation on Isabel’s unreadable face is undoubtedly due to her ambiguous beginnings–she is raised on a ship, the most transitory space possible–and yet her body appears as if it’s beginning to “become” American. Additionally, Isabel represents the foriegn and the familiar: she is both foriegn, but has Glendingning blood and resembles Pierre’s father as a young man, which may be another reason for Pierre’s fixation. She is unreadable but also very familiar. I must, MUST address this in my writing sample):

The phaeton ride ends abruptly, when Pierre and Lucy flee the hills encircling Saddle Meadows to the level safety of the plains. Fearing that “too wide a prospect” meets them on the slopes, Lucy insists they descend (38). Lucy’s anxieties are spurred by her thoughts about the mysterious face Pierre saw at the Pennie sister’s sewing circle. Remembering, she loses the inspiration of the morning and sheds some tears. This is the first of Melville’s many references to the “riddle” of Isabel’s face (37). Associated with Europe, with the lordly sins of the fathers, and with ilegitimate acts of possession and dispossession, Isabel’s features weigh on Pierre’s mind. Under their pressure, the enamel of Saddle Meadows cracks. The “discovery” of an abandoned sister cases Pierre’s patrimony in a new light (Otter 206).

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Aug 12 2009

Samuel Otter’s Introduction to Melville’s Anatomies

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Typee, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick, and Pierre:

At the center of Melville’s texts in the first phase of his career is the human body, tangled in lines of knowledge and desire. In Typee (1846), a sailor hiding in a valley on one of the Marquesan islands is troubled by the tattoos on the bodies of his hosts. He violently recoils at the prospect of having his own face marked. In White-Jacket (1850), a sailor serving on a regimented naval vessel wears a white cloak that becomes unedurably scarred and burdensome. He slices himself out of his own skin. In Moby-Dick (1851), all eyes focus on the massive corpus of the whale. Associating cetology with ethnology, and especially of the head, which engrosses narrator, characters, and writer. In Pierre (1852), the narrator links the exterior landscape of the nation to the interior landscape of his young American heir. This narrator holds out his character’s heart to his readers, and crushes it (Otter 2).

Melville and the ninteenth-century imagination:

While benefiting from the invaluable work of Melville scholars, I also extend the notion of sources to include patterns of representation in which Melville participates, even if we have not been able to demonstrate that he owned or read particular volumes. I press the relationship between Melville and his sources as Melville himself does, treating them not as informal ballast or dross to be transmuted into literary gold, but as revealing structures that show how nineteenth-century Americans articulated their world (Otter 2,3).

Outline of Melville’s Anatomies:

In the first three chapters, I argue that the corporeal fascination in Typee, White-Jacket, and Moby-Dick are changed by nineteenth-century efforts to know the racial body. In these texts, Melville examines how the parts of the body–face, skin, and head–become invested with world historical meanings. In the last two chapters, I argue that in Pierre Melville explores the operations of ideology, in the visual education of the early chapters and in the narrator’s scrutiny of his protagonist’s heart and mind over the course of the book. Melville restages crucial scenes in antebellum United States culture, exposing and analyzing their characters, properties, scripts, and motivations. He brings exorbitant pressure to bear on the fraught figures of antebellum discourse. In Typee, the key figure is the sacred symbol of the Caucasian face, whose impeccable features secure identity; in White-Jacket, it is the analogy with slavery, the pivot upon which antebellum debate about individual rights turns; in Moby-Dick, it is the synecdoche of the head, seen as the key to politics, aesthetics, and history; in Pierre, it is the catachresis of the eloquent heart, the organ which comes to have a voice and to assume material form on the surface of the printed page (Otter 3).

Otter and his departure from previous trends in Melville scholarship:

I discuss the attractions but resist the formulations of Melville as outcast, the “isolato” striving for original expression against the constraints of conventional antebellum America (the traditional critical view of Melville), and of Melville as the product of circumstance (the newer “historical” view). I argue for a Melville fascinated with the rhetorical structures and ideological functions of antebellum discourse. Melville offers neither a transcendent critique nor a symptomatic recapitulation, but an inside sense of the power of ideology, its satisfactions and its incarcerations. Thus I argue for a notion of verbal doubleness in Melville that is different from the deus ex machina of irony too often used to redeem him from the taint of his culture or from the too-easy ambivalence used to describe an author said to see “both sides.” Melville is critical but does not claim, or rather realizes that he cannot sustain, an outsider’s privilege. Instead of dismissing contemporary beliefs about race, nation, and self, he acknowledges their appeal and probes their sources and sway (Otter 4).

What Otter means by “anatomy:”

I offer the term “anatomy” to invoke the literary genre whose forms and gestures Melville drew upon, to describe Melville’s concerns with ideology, and to emphasize his examination of the body and its parts. The first Melville critic to use the term “anatomy” was Fitz-James O’Brien, who, in a sympathetic but exasperated review in 1857, laments that Melville had demonstrated that he was capable of writing “good, strong, sweet, clear English” but persists in “distorting the images of his mind, and in deodorizing the flowers of his fancy; a man born to create, who resolves to anatomize; a man born to see, who insists upon speculating.” O’Brien argues that Melville’s works register “the conflict between resolute nature and stubborn cultivation,” with nature calling for an unobtrusive representation of “the realities of life and man” and cultivation responding “No! you shall dissect and divide; you shall cauterize and confound; you shall amaze and electrify; you shall be as grotesquely terrible as Callot, as subtly profound as Balzac, as formidably satirical as Rabelais.” O’Brien’s insights about Melville’s conflicted impulses and formal mixtures will be developed by twentieth century-critics. He suggests a restless dissecting consciousness that will be the focus of this book (Otter 4).

Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and Melville:

“Ever since Northrop Frye revived scholarly interest in the genre of the anatomy in Anatomy of Criticism (1957) and identified Moby-Dick as part anatomy and part romance, critics have placed Melville’s texts in the tradition of Lucian, Petronius, Erasmus, Rabelais, Burton, Bayle, Swift, Voltaire, and Sterne. I am less concerned here with the history of genre than with the functions of the form in the antebellum United States. My claims about Mevlille have been shaped by theoretical accounts of the anatomy provided by Frye and by Mikhail Bakhtin: the hererogeneous, omnivorous, encyclopedic, rhetorically experimental, stylistically dense form, in which linguistic features–diction, syntax, metaphor–become the vehicle for intellectual inquiry. According to Bakhtin, these features express orientations toward society, time, nation, and tradition that are laid bare in the literary anatomy (Otter 5).

Anatomy and Meville, again:

I use the term “anatomy” to describe the material analyses of consciousness conducted by Melville in the first phase of his career. From Typee through Pierre, Melville attempts to provide what Antonio Gramsci has called an “inventory” of the verbal contents of consciousness. The relentless borrowings and turnings in Melville’s prose give heft to thought: the incorporate passages, incessant allusions, layered symbols, and eerie personifcations. The excess in Melville’s anatomies derives, in part, from the scope and reach of this task. Melville analyzes what Raymond Williams has called “structures of feeling,” the complex dynamics through which form and response shape meaning and value. Such an effort elicits the remarkable intimacies of Melville’s first phase–the theatrical confessions, exuberant embrace of readers, pressing of boundaries, and bodily exposures. “Race” is a key epistemological category for Melville, as it was for his culture and continues to be for our own. In his meticulous anatomies, Melville insists that readers acknowledge “race” not as an abstract property of others but as the grammar book of graded meanings that United States culture had assigned to the features of human bodies. He details what Focault has called “the nomination of the visible.” Melville shows how a world of definition, coherence, and difference became located in the skin and in the skull (Otter 5).

Melville, antebellum discourse, and shared structures of feeling:

In inhabiting the structures of antebellum discourse, Melville comes to occupy an increasingly precarious position. He is not transcendent but an immanent manipulator, subject to entaglement and complicity. Melville’s closest attention is not directed toward the form or features of another. The face whose contours he outlines, the skin whose substance he examines, the head whose contents he inventories, and the heart whose motions he traces are his own. Laying himself open, he exposes shared structures of feeling and belief. Across the chapters, I trace Melville’s development, climax, and retreat from his anatomy project (Otter 6).

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Aug 02 2009

Elizabeth Dill’s Pierre Article

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Dill, Elizabeth. “That Damned Mob of Scribbling Siblings: The American Romance as Anti-novel in The Power of Sympathy and Pierre.”

Elizabeth Dill argues that the sharp distinction between the sensational (sex/seduction) novel and the sentimental (family) novel in American literature is a faulty one. The incest romance, Dill argues, mixes genres by mingling sex with family. Dill brings The Power of Sympathy and Pierre as examples of the incest romance. That is the article in a nutshell. Now I’ll bring some important passages just to make it more clear.

It might be said that 1850s sentimentalism was the demure response to literary sensationalism that effectively unsexed the American woman. Admittedly, it may seem that the business of the sentimental novel is to rescue abandoned adolescent girls from the risky and lascivious life that was the downfall of their eighteenth-century sisters (Dill 707).

The false rift between the sensational and the sentimental overlooks the dark side of sentimentality: incestuous desires, murders, and seductions abound in sentimental literature, frequently sidewiping the neat trajectory of tearful happy endings that a gross overgeneralization of this genre would imply. Likewise, sensational texts like Charles Brockden Brown’s Weiland (1798) and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797) acquaint us with plenty of besought orphans and angelic children. The sensationalism of literature published after the Revolution, featuring seduction as a sort of gateway crime leading to suicide, bastardy, insanity, and murder cannot therefore be so easily divorced from those vanilla kinship dramas of the nineteenth century (Dill 707).

The incest romance proposes a haltingly forthright union between the sensational (sex) and the sentimental (family), a union that draws on the interrelatedness and ensuing volatility of these two genres (Dill 707).

Pursuit for equality really means a call for sameness, which is where the incest romance comes in:

The Power of Sympathy and Pierre are incest romances that explore the overlap between sensational and sentimental literature in order to expose the kind of heartfelt democracy the new nation at once seeks and fears. The pursuit of equality mutates into a call for sameness and finds an apt metaphor in incest, with orphans and aristocrats marrying only to discover that what brought them together was what Brown’s subtitle calls “the triumph of nature,” the draw of like to like. We thus witness in these two books the closing distance between equality and sameness (Dill 713).

Pierre and aristocracy:

Both tales openly track their protagonists’ desires as the catalyst that democratizes them; Harrington and Pierre are described in radical terms that reveal the need for rebellion in American society against the family as the institution that safeguards class hierarchy, and the call to erode social distinctions comes from the impoverished siresn to whom they are related. In Pierre, the narrator poses a question in the very first chapter that sets up this disassembly of the family as a national project: “With no chartered aristocracy,” he asks, “how can any family in American imposingly perpetuate itself?” (P, 8). Then the narrator indulges in an odd treatise about what sets American apart from the “monarchical world” of peerage and inheritance in Europe. For several paragraphs, he waxes egalitarian as he describes the false aristocracy of England’s “Peerage Book” and even suggests that royal blood is but a “manufactured nobility” (P, 10). During a lenghty explication of the American family, he says:

Certainly that common saying among us, which declares, that be a family conspicuous as it may, a single half-century shall see it abased; the maxim undoubtedly holds true with the commonality. In our cities families rise and burst like bubbles in a vat. For indeed the democratic element operates as a subtile [sic] acid among us; forever producing new things by corroding the old. (P, 8-)

Ideas on Pierre:

While the first American novel [The Power of Sympathy]is thus driven by ambiguity, its nineteenth-century “sequel” Pierre offers some generic upsets of its own. Promising Sophia Hawthorne a placid domestic talke, Melville privately billed Pierre as a guaranteed whaleless romance. “I shall not again send you a bowl of salt water,” he wrote to her. “The next chalice I shall commend, will be a rural bowl of milk.” Critics have rightly noted the astonishing nature of this claim to mild-mannered domesticity, given that the novel ends with a murder followed by a triple suicide. One can hardly think of a less apt description for the ends met by Pierre, Isabel, and Pierre’s former fiancee, Lucy, when they kill themselves in the “granite hell” of Pierre’s prison cell, where he awaits execution after killing his own cousin with “mathematicla intent.” “‘Tis speechless sweet to murder thee!” Pierre cries out in a rage against his last living blood relative, as he pulls out two pistols and starts shooting (P,361, 359)” (Dill 723).

Some bowl of milk. Yet the novel’s rift between sensational and sentimental language is sustained through even this bloody end. Pierre’s gloomy cell beocmes a startling scene of domesticity, where the cold and dank prison seems to weep as “the stone cheeks of the walls were trickling” (P, 360). The prison guard refers to himself as the “house-wife” of the place, and Pierre refers to death itself as a “midwife” (P, 361, 360)” (Dill 723).

Sentimental American landscape versus the America Gothic:

With her gothic black tendrils, her hauntingly fragile appearance, and her first speech act in the novel a piercing scream, Isabel would seem to be a frozen gothic stereotype in a sentimental landscape. She arrives at Saddle Meadows, where Pierre had been living out of an excessively idyllic domestic fantasy, and she does not fit into the sentimal schema (Dill 723).[My NOTE: hmmm, I would argue against this….the American landscape IS gothic….Isabel fits in quite well, actually…as her body synches with the electrical storms outside.]

Pierre and genre:

Like The Power of Sympathy, Pierre is forcefully unsure of its genre: in addition to a sensational tale of seduction, incest, suicide, and murder, it is also partly a domestic idyllic, a philosophical pamphlet, a didactic essay, and a political tract on the corrosive American class system, with several laspes into epistolarity and authorial intrusion. The incongruities are enhanced by the overtaxed sentimentalism of the novel’s first chapters, paralleled by Pierre’s own schmaltzy poetry and his later failure to become a serious writer (Dill 726).

Overview of Pierre criticism (how convienent!):

A survey of critical study on Pierre shows that just about all its readers feel pressed to address this genre question in one way or other. According to this mob of scriblling critics, Pierre is everything from autobiography to satire. Hershel Parker famously characterized Pierre as Melville’s autobiographical rampage revealing his personal failures as a publishable writer. More recently, critics have attempted to defend Pierre by redefining Melville’s purpose in writing it. Sacvan Bercovitch writes that it is a “rich and intricate piece of rhetoric, perhaps more intricate than necessary,” that represents “Melville’s American apocalypse.” David Reynolds reads it as a pop-culture jumble, and many critics have grappled with the sentimental presence in Pierre: Anne Dalke calls it “an attack on the female sentimental mode.” Samuel Otter writes that it is “a sentimental text taken to the nth degree,” and John Seeyle calls it an antisentimental embrace of “outcasts and renegades” fit less for domesticity than urban ruin. Beverly Hume sees Pierre as an attempt to “kill (at least metaphorically) sentimentalism.” For Michael Paul Rogin it is a “bourgeois family nigthmare” in which Melville’s “self-parodying language calls attention…to the text as a construction.” It is a “revisionist domesticity…based on fraternity rather than marriage,” according to Wyn Kelley. Or as Jennifer DiLalla Toner rather colorfully puts it, Pierre is an attempt to undo the genre of life writing with a book that deliberately fails to fit in with his other, saltier works, a “critique of American life writing” as “the bastard child” of the Melville canon. Nancy Fredericks adds, “Whether Melville means for us to take…anything he writes in Pierre, or the Ambiguities at face vaulue is an important question for every reader of the book to consider.” A personal favorite remains Day-Book‘s 1852 review of Pierre, headlining “HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY” (Dill 726).

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