Archive for the 'Writing Sample' Category


Sep 21 2009

The Much Anticipated Cecelia Tichi Article…

by at 11:31 pm

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Cecelia Tichi could have stolen my orals/thesis thunder. Tichi got to Volney and Brown before I did, but have no fear, she is a great writer and thinker and this actually helps. A lot.  So, drumroll please, I give you  important snippets from Tichi’s article that will inform my orals/thesis:

Notice the  first sentence of Tichi’s article. I knew she had it from the first line. First line!

In his lifetime Charles Brockden Brown translated one work only: C.F. de Volney’s A View of the Soil and Climate of the United States. For the novelist-editor-critic and, as of 1803, political pamphleteer, the translation of Volney in 1804 seems an odd choice. Although he was America’s foremost litterateur, Brown rendered into English no romantic tale in the tradition of Chateaubriand’s Atala but “the first book to give an organized synthesis of the physiographic and geologic regions of the United States and of the climatology of the continent” (Tichi 1).

Some important things to note about the above passage:

  1. I like that Tichi calls Brown a “novelist-editor-critic.” I like the hyphenation. I wonder if “translator” or even “naturalist” would be appropriate additions?
  2.  I wasn’t able to include the footnote here, but that quotation in the last line of this paragraph is from George W. White’s “Introduction” to his 1968 facsimile of Brown’s translation. I know White’s “Introduction” well. I came across White’s facsimile long before I ever knew about Tichi’s article. I’d say it’s a good sign when you start recognizing random critics in obscure footnotes….
  3. Tichi makes an excellent point: why didn’t Brown translate into English a romantic tale or something more literary? It is kind of strange that CBB would translate this work on American geology and climatology, no?

Next passage:

The choice for translation seems doubly puzzling when we consider that a London English language edition was already available in America even as Brown labored at its American counterpart (Tichi 1).

Cecelia Tichi, I like the way you think! I’ve seen the original London English edition at the Library of Congress and remembered being puzzled myself. I was looking for the CBB translation because that’s why I was interested in the Volney addition in the first place. But the book I looked at wasn’t what I expected. I remember thinking, “Is this the CBB edition?” Nah, it just couldn’t be, because the CBB edition was clearly marked as such, with CBB as translator and annotator, and a translator’s preface, all of which were missing in the edition I looked at, which turns out to be the one Tichi is referring to. I make note of this first edition in an endnote in my writing sample. Hmmm, I should probably reference Tichi now that I’ve got more information…

And here it comes, Tichi’s argument:

But while his biographers have viewed Brown’s effort as an anomalous quasi-literary interlude between his novels and his political-historical activities, such easy dismissal of the translation may leave neglected a significant aspect of Brown’s thought. The Monthly Anthology reviewer had denounced Brown’s alterations of Volney as “wholly unpardonable,” both dishonorable and unjust. Yet a close look at the eccentricities of Brown’s translation suggests that Volney stimulated the Philadelphian both to define the American in relation to his nation and continent, and to attempt actuation of the territorial expansion which, as of his first political pamphlet, Brown evidently believed would insure national progress. Indeed, the special biases Brown reveals in his translation make it quite clear that the effort was no perfunctory exercise in a language self-taught, nor a task undertaken only at the urging of Brown’s fellows in the Friendly Club. Rather, Brown’s translation of Volney appears to be the work of a mind bent upon using the pen for specific nationalistic purposes (Tichi 2).

Tichi’s aligns Brown’s translation of Volney’s naturalistic work with Brown’s personal politics. Brown makes significant changes to Volney’s appendix; Tichi’s argument depends on these modifications. During the course of this essay, Tichi elaborates on Brown’s politics, specifically his endorsement of American expansionism (aka: the creation of an American empire). Brown’s translation, Tichi argues, is informed by such political aims.

Brown as cultural archivist; Brown’s translation as an indication of his politics:

Brown’s interest in, and encouragement of, American national self-consciousness in varied areas of life has been well documented. For example. his brief editorial tenure at the Monthly Magazine and American Review (1799-1800) had found him reviewing “more or less critically” some “one hundred and fifty American publications.” And his later journalistic ventures in editing the Literary Magazine and American Register (1803-1806) and then the American Register, or General Repository of History, Politics, and Science (1807-1809) reveal by their contents–and even by their titles–the value Brown placed upon preserving the current record of the growing nation. Moreover, as a novelist Brown had used fiction to define the American experience […] But Brown published no fiction after 1801, and Warner Berthoff finds in the “feebleness” of his last two novels an anticipation of Brown’s “abandonment of the novel as a literary instrument” […] Certainly one of Brown’s major ideas concerned American nationalism, a term whose political ramifications are perhaps best revealed in the kinds of liberties Brown took with Volney’s text in the cast his marginal notes gave that work (Tichi 2).

No responses yet | Categories: Charles Brockden Brown,Constantin Volney,Orals,Thesis,Writing Sample

Sep 17 2009

Talking Back: Charles Brockden Brown, Jefferson, and Scientific Dissent

by at 1:10 pm

My orals have been shaping into something over the past couple of days. Nice surprise, I know, but I think I need to backtrack a little to show how I got to where I am now.

James Delbourgo cites Charles Brockden Brown’s translation of Constantin Volney’s A View of the Climate of the United States of America in A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders. I read this a ways back, but never sought to find it.  Over the summer, I went to the Library of Congress and was able to see Volney’s work. Apparently, Lauinger Special Collections has a copy as well. I have to get on that.

In any case, I thought that this translation had never really been discussed, at least in relation to Brown explicitly (Delbourgo mentions Brown, but never acknowledges that he was an early American author). Well, I was wrong. I just found an article by Cecelia Tichi, published in 1973, and called “Charles Brockden Brown, Translator.” I know what you’re thinking, Cheryl is freaking out because her great, original idea has already been taken. Hold it, not so fast. Things are fine. Great actually. I’m not only writing on Brown and his connection to Volney. I’m actually more concerned with how Brown fits into a wider early American community of thinkers, like Jefferson, who counter European generalizations about their continent. Professor Rubin informed me that Jefferson translated Volney’s Ruins. Although Jefferson does not annotate Volney’s work, Jefferson does refute Buffon’s generalization about Americans and the American continent in Notes on the State of Virginia. In these examples, Brown and Jefferson engage with European scientific dialogue by assuming a scientific form. I would like to expand this approach to include the novelistic form. I am interested in how American authors embrace and contest conclusions made about the American climate in European discourses of science. Given this framework, I plan to look at Melville’s Pierre and Israel Potter, which, although 50 years later than Brown and Jefferson, invoke the language of the atmospheric sciences.

So, Cecelia Tichi, wherever you are, thanks for your article. Really. A write-up of this article is soon to follow.

2 responses so far | Categories: Charles Brockden Brown,Constantin Volney,Herman Melville,Orals,Personal Statement,Thesis,Thomas Jefferson,Writing Sample | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Aug 25 2009

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

by at 9:04 am

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).

No responses yet | Categories: Orals,Writing Sample

Aug 15 2009

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

by at 11:13 am

“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).

No responses yet | Categories: Orals,Writing Sample | Tags: , , , , , ,

Aug 12 2009

Samuel Otter’s Introduction to Melville’s Anatomies

by at 7:07 pm

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

by at 2:01 pm

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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Jul 29 2009

Paul Gilmore’s Aesthetic Electricity Chapter and Pierre

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Because Paul Gilmore’s chapter is so long and contains a such wide variety of information, I’ve decided to portion out the important quotes into two separate blog posts. The first post, which precedes this one, includes more general quotes on Percy and the lightning rod. These will undoubtedly feed into my thesis and orals work. This post will include the passages from the very same chapter of Paul Gilmore’s Aesthetic Materialism that deal with Melville, more generally, and Pierre, more specifically.

Background on electricity, revolution, and the electric myth:

 Percy Shelley’s interest in electricity as signifying that the relationships among the individual mind, language, and society are unstable yet possibly productive of political change may have also derived from his hope in the revolutionary potential of electric technology. As Thomas Jefferson Hogg recalls in his remembrance of Shelley at Oxford, he contended that ‘The galvanic battery is a new engine; it has been used hitherto to an insignigicant extent, yet has it wrought wonders already; what will not…a well arranged system of metallic plates, effect?’ Linking Voltaic electricity to the balloon, Shelley concludes that such inventions would virtually emancipate every slave, and would annhilate slavery for ever.’ As I described in chapter one, with the invention of the telegraph, the emancipatory effects of electricity were elaborated at length as it either emblematized humankind’s ability to conquer nature (and primitive humans) and create a harmonious world or mirrored a spiritual community in which all were already one. James W. Taylor’s The Useful and the Beautiful perhaps best illustrates this point, demonstrating  how figures of art as electric merged with techo-utopian spiritualist accounts of the telegraph to produce a kind of aesthetic utopianism where all humankind would be joined together both by the network of wires encircling the world and by the cultivation og an enlightened, universal taste (Gilmore 77).

How Melville engages with the electric myth in Moby Dick:

Taylor’s lecture epitomizes the view of the telegraph as an emblem of American inventiveness and American promise, yet some dissenting voices, echoing Carlyle’s critique of the mechanical age, began to suggest that this network would destroy the individual self, with its particularized history, interests, and perspectives, by subsuming the self into a larger group. Thoreau’s comments in Walden are perhaps the most famous dissent from the nearly universal acclaim for the telegraph, but more to the point here is Herman Melville’s use of electric imagery in Moby-Dick. In ‘The Quarter-Deck,” Melville describes Ahab as attempting, by ‘some nameless, interior volition,’ to ‘have shocked into them [his crew] the same fiery emotion accumulated within the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life,’ going on to have Ahab refer to ‘mine own electric thing.’ The aesthetic nature of Ahab’s power over the Pequod’s whalers, hinted at throughout the text and especially in this scene, recalls Melville’s positive use of electric imagery in is celebration of Hawthorne’s genius as providing a ‘shock of recognition [that] runs the whole circle round’ the ‘brotherhood’ of genius. Ahab seems ot suggest the dark side of electric genius, the possibility of a charistmatic, magnetic personality leading the easily swayed for his own ends. With this attention to Ahab’s ability to manipulate the sailor’s economic interests, Moby-Dick emphasizes how the capitalist revolution tended to reinforce hierarchies instead of producing radical equality. Rather than creating a universal harmony based in human commonality, aesthetic electricity will transform the masses, as the imperialist language of techno-utopian discussions of the telegraph similarly hinted, into merely a reflection of one controlling personality, parts of a body controlled by one central authority, or as Ahab megalomaniacally puts it near the end, ‘Ye are not other men, but my arms and my legs; and so obey me’ (568) […] Electricity, in this way, not only served to represent the potential of aesthetic connection; it also registered fears about the aesthetic’s coercive potential to subordinate individuals in a league against their own interests (Gilmore 78).

Pierre, gaps, and aesthetic electricity:

…Parker’s story reiterates the importance of the mind/body, soul/physical self distinction to both spiritualist and techno-utopian readings of the telegraph, while suggesting that it is in the gaps themselves that we might find an alternative understanding of the telegraph’s potential. Those gaps, I want to argue, gaps created by the very materiality of the bodies, technologies, and codes involved in any sort of communication but shaped by the specific historical forces producing any cultural event or aesthetic experience, are at the center of what I am calling aesthetic electricity. No text I know of more fully invests those gaps with meaning (and indeterminacy) than Herman Melville’s Pierre, or the The Ambiguities (1852). In fact, the only ninteenth-century text that I’ve ecountered that employs electric language and imagery more than Pierre is John Neal’s Logan (1823), a bizarre gothic novel featuring multiple Byronic heroes, whose stories unveil the troubled foundation of Anglo-American claims to North America while featuring oedipal violence and incestuous desires. Pierre shares much in common with Neal’s nvoel, and in this and the following sections, I focus on Pierre in order to flesh out the ways that, despite the dominant faith in its reliability and speed and its ability to link the world together, the telegraph gave rise to questions about the limits of communication and sympathy. While Melville, often seen as the most Byronic of the canonical American renaissance writers, emphasizes those limitations, I return to Thoreau at the end of this chapter to outline how those limitations actually enable a re-reading of the telegraph as figuring the problematic of aesthetics, of what Kant defined as its subjective universality (Gilmore 86).

Electric power and its ambiguities:

Earlier, I described Melville’s use of electric imagery in ‘The Quarter-Deck’ to figure Ahab’s power over the sailors on board the Pequod. But that chapter in Moby-Dick not only indicates the dangers of a kind of aesthetic, charismatic electricity; it also begins to reveal the ambiguity of this electrical power. Ahab attempts to ‘shock into them [his crew] the same fiery emotion accumulated with the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life’ (165), yet he recognizes, when his mates refuse to return his gaze, that has not fully succeeded, commenting that ‘ ’tis well. For ye did three but once take the full-forced shock, then mine own electric thing, that had perhaps expired from out me’ (166). The danger, for Ahab’s monomaniacal quest, is that in electrifying the crew he may fully discharge himself. In a complete electrical circuit, a circuit wherein Ahab’s electricity is returned to him in full by his crew, Ahab’s Leyden jar, rather than serving simply as a kind of re-chargeable battery, will be somehow depleted of its energy. These passages suggest that human contact, true connection with another, threatans to weaken Ahab’s quest to prove himself invulnerable to the world. This possibility comes to the forefront in ‘The Symphony,’ where, for a moment, Ahab actually identifies with Starbuck and seems swayed from from his course, before again turning inward (literally ‘avert[ing]’ his ‘glance’) to ask ‘Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it God, or who, that lifts this arm?’ (545). A complete electrical circuit of hatred or any other sentiment jeopardizes Ahab’s attempt to strik through the mask” (164), to answer or erase the metaphysical questions that torture him, because it reminds him of “that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers” (471-472), a problem Ahab describes as intrinsic to having a body–“I would be free as air…and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with” (472). For Ahab, the solution seems to be to make the electrified crew an extension of his body, and in the final chapter, as the conclusion approaches, Ahab proclaims that his sailors are “not other men, but my arms and my legs (568). Yet, if the primary problem lies in his interdependence upon his body, his connection to the world of pain thorugh that body, then the crew, rather than solving his problem, exacerbates it. Electrifying the bodies of his sailors with his own hatred will extend his body, making him more vulnerable to pain, while fostering his recognition of his interdependence on the world and other men.

Isabel-Pierre’s relationship and the ambiguities in of telegraphic electricity:

Pierre uses the telegraph and electricity to materialize the broader fields of ambiguities at the center of the novel. After referring to Pierre as having a “heavenly magnet” which “draws all [her] soul’s interior” to him, Isabel describes the hurt she suffered at the words and insinuations of the other farmers’ “girls.” At this point, she speaks of Pierre looking ‘so sadly and half-reproachedly upon” her, which leads her to contradict what she takes him to be thinking by stating that “Lone and lost thought I have been, I love my kind, and charitably and intelligently pity them, who uncharitably and unintelligently do me depsite.” In response, Pierre claims that his looks are “vile falsifying telegraphs of me,” for his “heart was only dark with ill-restrained up-braidings against heaven that could unrelentingly see such innocence as thine so suffer.” In this scene, Isabel misreads Pierre as questioning her sympathy for others who may have harmed her, when instead Pierre reveals his own lack of sympathy for those people she identifies as her kind. The telegraphic reference reveals that, despite the electrical connection Isabel and Pierre feel, they remain equally unable to fathom the depths of each other’s hearts (Gilmore 88).

Pierre’s imagination and possible misreading of Isabel as electrical:

Melville sets up this telegraphic misreading by inundating this scene, Pierre and Isabel’s second encounter with one another, with electric imagery. Amidst “the mild heat-lightnings and ground-lightnings” (149) of a summer evening, Pierre comes to view Isabel as electric herself: […] Melville clearly draws on the discoruse of spiritualism and mesmerism that Hawthorne uses in The House of Seven Gables, but reverses Hawthorne’s gendering, as it is the mysterious Isabel who nearly “deprive[s]” Pierre of “consciousness” (150). As with Hawthorne, this spell seems to melt their two souls in an eroticized union, but, where with Phoebe and Holgrave Hawthorne describes the encounter as the domination of a stronger (masculine) soul over another, his penetration into the most inner reaches of her soul, Melville emphasizes the role Pierre’s imagination plays in producing the electrical sensation. Pierre’s reading of Isabel as his sister is based less on any firm data or on any confirmation her story really offers than on his own desires–erotic and otherwise–for a sister. With the repeated use of “seemed,” the “as it were,” and the allusion to Pierre’s enthusiasm, Melville refuses both Pierre and his readers any firm knowledge of Isabel’s electric self. The telegraphic nature of the false signals Isabel recieves a few pages alter, then, not only indicates their electric nature, but reiterates the fallibilty of the earlier electric signals Pierre has recieved, emphasizing their codedness, their status as a knd of language in need of interpretation and liable to be misinterpreted (88-89).

The paragraph above makes me wonder about the question of Isabel’s electricity. The reader never knows for certain if Isabel’s electric state is a mere figment of Pierre’s imagination, yet the heightened electricity in the surrounding atmosphere, spefically in the American landscape, seems to be true. That does not seem to be imagined. Electric storms seem to be occuring in these scenes, so what do we make of Pierre possibly transfering the outside environment onto Isabel in-doors?

Another important quote:

In this extended scene, [when Pierre reads Isabel as an electrical woman] Melville begins to hint at a very different picture of the telegraph from the one dominating antebellum American discourse and contemporary historiographical discussions. As described in chapter one, the spiritualist faith in the universal telegraph granting direct communication between disembodied souls corresponded with a techno-utopian idea of the telegraph creating a perfectly coherent, unambiguous, universal language that would enable a global commerce in ideas and goods, that would, in turn, lead to world harmony. But Melville’s figurative language suggests that rather than simply erasing differences and fostering the complete identification of interests and tastes, the telegraph and its network of bodily, technological interconnection were struck at the core by dissonance. If the telegraph potentially linked all of humanity in one network or one body, that network did not, as both utopian and dystopian accounts suggested, eliminate all noise, all miscommunication, all competing interests and interpretations (Gilmore 89).

Morse’s utopian idea that the code would eliminate all problems of miscommunication by reducing language to the most basic code:

Most historians of technology ascribe Morse’s success to his system’s use of just one line, rather than multiple ones as most plans called for. Morse’s one wire telegraph was advantegeous for it cut the largest cost in building a line–the expense of the wire itself. But this desire for cost-effectiveness came into tension with Morse’s republican-Enlightenment focus on perfect clarity, on eliminating all possible noise from the system in order to foster didactic ends. It quickly became evident that what made the telegraph revolutionary was its speed and its ability to reduce language through truncation, puns, suggestiveness, the fact that, like with instant messaging today, thoughts, ideas, data, could be transformed into an even more minimal code (Gilmore 90).

In actuality:

While the reliability of the telegraph became central to its success, stories of its unreliability, of the fact that reducing language and meaning to the opening and closing of a circuit increased rather than decreased possibile ambiguities, appeared with a regular frequency […] Fictive acounts similarly underlined the technology’s possible unreliability. Ella cheever Thayer’s herione-telegraphist in Wired Love (1879) repeatedly engages her over-the-wire interest in puns dependent on the fluidity of language Morse’s code was meant to circumvent, and her initial encounters, over the wire, with her eventual lover reiterate the technology’s limitations due to the human body and its senses, as she is simply not able to hear and respond to his message quickly enough. More significant, she tells her friends of a message that was supposed to read “John is dead. Be home at three,” but instead was read as “John is a deadbeat. Home at three,” a problem arising because “the sending operator did not leave space enough between the words” (Gilmore 91-92).

What developed, then, with the system of dots and dashes referring to different letters and numbers (as well as selected diacritical marks), while regulated and normalized by international conventions, was, despite its overall reliability, open-ended to possibilities for manipulating and transforming the code as well as more prone to miscommunication, misunderstanding, and misinterpretation (Gilmore 93).

Gaps in connection, again:

The analogizing of the nervous system with the telegraphic network resulted, for some at least, not in substantiating a mechanical model of the human body, of human communication, and of human society, but in problematizing any reading of the body communication, and society dependent on simple one-to-one correspondance or determinacy. The nerves, as media for stimuli to reach the brain, and the telegraph, as the medium for conducting thoguht from mind to mind, refused to disappear, insistently reuturning to give the lie to fantasies of complete identification, of sure communication of the mind with the world, of the individual with another self. The telegraph might render the United States one body, but that body, instead of being a unified whole, consisted of fragmented organs, nerves that never fully connected and inconsistent and unpredictable lines of communication, influence, and connection. Melville’s figurative uses of electricity to indicate both the possibility of connection and the incompleteness of that connection echo and build on these readings of telegraphy, as Pierre’s falsifying telegraphs and his electric presentiments foreshadow Benjamin’s [Walter Benjamin’s] account of modernity (Gilmore 99).

Some thoughts on Pierre’s aristocratic background:

Melville takes great care to establish the socioeconomic situation giving rise to Pierre’s (and Isabel’s) feelings of belonging and alienation. The last in a long line of artistocratic Americans, Pierre, in his youth at Saddle Meadows, seems to stand oustide the America “where all things irreverently seethe and boil in the vulgar caldrom of an everlasting uncrystalizing Present” (8). Echoing Marx and Engel’s description in The Manifesto of the Communist Party that in capitalism “all that is solid melts into air” (adter Pierre reads Isabel’s letter, in fact, “the physical world of solid objects now slidingly displaced itself from around him” [85], Melville contrasts the aristocratic veneer of the Hudson Valley patroons with the urban center of New York where “families rise and burst like bubbles in a vat. For indeed the democratic element operates as a subtile acid among us, forever producing new things by corroding the old” (9). (Gilmore 101).

Isabel’s lack of identity and ambigous history, in contrast to Pierre’s known lineage:

For Pierre’s mother, his marriage to Isabel constitutes “Mixing the choicest wine with filthy water from the plebian pool, and so turning all to undistinguishable rankness” (194). Yet Melville suggests this “undistinguishable rankness” already reflects the reality of American society, a fact embodied by Isabel’s very existence–if we beleive her claims about her paternity–as well as by Charlie Millthorpe, Pierre’s childhood friend who is a product of the “political and social levelings and confoundings of all manner of human elements in America” (275). Pierre delineates an American society in flux, where the social, economic, and political upheavals of the age destabilize any and all individual identities. Isabel’s constant feeling of “vacant whirlingess of the bewilderingess” (122) of her life is, in fact, a product of her flotsam life of being tossed back and forth across her near lack of identity as an orphaned working-class girl, who barely discerns the difference between herself and the object-world around her. In accepting Isabel as his half-sister, Pierre recognizes that the “Revolutionary flood” (11) reveals his life in Saddle Meadowns to be a lie, and this it is Pierre’s willingess to cross those class boundaries–boundaries enforced by sexual standards–and his mother’s unwillingess that finally leads to his leaving Saddle Meadows and despairing over the”heart-vacancies of the conventional life” (90). (Gilmore 101, 102).

 Aristocracy versus Democracy:

Pierre empahsizes the damage of literal and figural deterritorializatin, as it is Pierre’s removal from his ancestral home, the anachronistically feudal structures there, and the libidinal flows unleashed by breaking from his mother that lead to his, Isabel’s, and Lucy’s deaths in the topsy-turvy urban environment of New York. Yet the moral center of the nvoel guides us to sympathize with Pierre’s Quixotic journey to becoming a “thorough-going Democrat” (13) and to view his mother and Glen Stanly, the most through-going aristocrats in the novel, as the chief villains. Drawing yet again on electrical imagery, Melville fleshes out this tension between a democratic erasure of boundaries and an aristocratic defense of them most fully in his famous letter to Hawthorne from May, 1851. There, he muses that one can be “earnest in behalf of political equality,” while still believing in an “aristocracy of the brain,” an idea he associates with Schiller.  Melville believes he can see “how a man of superior mind can, by its intense cultivation, bring himself, as it were, into a certain spontaneous aristocracy of feeling…” (Gilmore 103).

While Gilmore doesn’t track the materiality of the atmosphere in Pierre (which I find surprsing, by the way, given that this is ALL over Pierre), this passage on Thoreau and the materiality of the atmosphere particularly relevant to my argument in my writing sample and overall thesis, in which I’ve become particularly interested in the “invention” of the “air” or “atmosphere” for understanding Americaness:

Speaking, in “Sounds,” of the trains as “bolts” shooting to “particular points of the compass,” Thoreau contends that these bolts make the people of Concord “steadier,” a positive effect because “The air is full of invisible bolts. Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then” (118). This idea of invisible bolts humming through the air calls to mind images of the spiritualist invisible telegraph, an image Thoreau more explicitly invokes in his journal on the occasion of the first telegraphic message conveyed through the Concord: “The atmosphere is full of telegraphs equally unobserved. We are not confined to Morse’s or House’s and Bain’s line.” “Atmosphere,” here, seems to correspond with its use in spiritualist conceptions of the universal teleraph. Yet the quotation form “Sounds,” where there is something “electrifying” in the “atmosphere” of the train depot, hints that that atmosphere might be the physical product of the actual technology and its commercial uses” (Gilmore 108).


Creating new desires, extending the body out in new directions, the telegraphic system within capitalism defies the idea of the natural, contained self; becoming a model for exploring the diffusion of the self through material forces, language, commodities, the body itself, electricity represents the potential of this new self. It is this new self and its reconfigured relations of body, society, and world, that lie at the heart of what I call aesthetic electricity. By recognizing how that aesthetic electricity unites figures as various as Percy, Shelley, Herman Melville, and Henry David Thoreau, we can begin to recover American romanticism, specifically transcendentalism, asn an endeavor at grounding transcendence in the material, social, biological realities, and can thus open up our long-standing definitions to see the influence of American romanticism in new ways (Gilmore 110).

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Jul 20 2009

Tracking Sam Halliday’s Ideas on Pierre

by at 9:14 pm

“The predominant means whereby most characters in realist novels resemble themselves is undoubtedly physiognomy, the influential ‘science’ of human nature formulated by Johan Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) and others in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In Kant’s useful definition, physiognomy is the ‘art of investigating the human interior through external, involuntary signs.’ Physiognomy, we can therefore say, assumes the legibility of the body, and grounds the possibility of judging character in the body’s availability for inspection. And though the scientific credentials of physiognomy were often queried–Kant, in fact, dismisses them–its assumptions continued to inform the artistic and literary practice long into the nineteenth century […] Throughout nineteenth-century fiction, then, characters typically ‘represent themselves’ and are represented to the reader by means of their bodily appearance: the stances they adopt, and the expressions of their faces” 79).

Physionomic accuracy, the ability to read the interior through the exterior, is intimately tied to portraiture, where the physignomic exactitude is thought to be the stamp of an excellent portrait. Portraits are, of course, often not what they seem (as depicted in Pierre: Halliday brings the example of the contradictory portraits of Pierre’s father: one of a sinful womanizer, and one of an older patriarchal figure, 80):

“The ways in which nineteenth-century novelists represent their characters thus occasionally contain autotheorizations of the dialetic of truth and deceit, credence and suspicion, and disguise and revelation that the imperative of self-resemblance sets in motion. Many such cases center on the subject of portrait paintings, where the artifice involved in fashioning representations is placed in the foreground […] an apparently irreducible gap is opened up between the character one really is, and the representations fashioned of it” [79-80]

In the following passage, Halliday draws links between portrait making, self representation, and communication technologies (in this particular case, the telegraph):

“By now, the complex of anxieties surrounding ‘the imperative of resembling oneself’ should be clear. It may be far from clear, however, how this has anything to do with the telegraph, or indeed any other communication technology. The connection does exist, however, and again, Pierre allows us to locate it. In one of the first interviews between Pierre and his half sister Isabel, the latter reproaches the former for the looks he casts upon her, and the feelings these betray (an inference, incidentally, grounded in the logic of physiognomy). Pierre answers that these looks do not represent him as he truly is but correspond instead to ‘vile falsifying telegraphs’ (157). Melville alludes here to a practice that had, by the middle of the nineteenth century, become sufficiently prevalent to attract attention: the use of telegraphy for the dissemination of lies. By virtue of the very time and space-effacing qualities that made it useful, it was discovered that the telegraph lent itself easily to ‘falsification,’ since it could convey information, and inspire action based upon it, before this information could be empirically verified. The telegraph thus became the technology of deceit; or, in Pierre’s words, a means of ‘falsifying’ people, and thus more particularly a technology of misrepresentation” (81).

Question: More generally, Isn’t Pierre really just a novel about misrepresentation? Halliday certainly hints at this, but never quite goes there. Isabel claims to be Pierre’s half sister but, even by the end of the novel, we never know if she is who she says she is.

More on the connection between the telegraph and the portrait and the separation of actual body to representation of a body (either via code or the image in a portrait):

“Physiognomy and portrait painting, two of the predominant techniques for ensuring adequation between self and representation in nineteenth-century culture, share an obvious similarity: their dependence on the body. As I suggested earlier, each assumes not only this, but also the body’s legibility, or ability to be ‘read’ by an observer” (81).

“With the advent of communication technologies, people become able to interact with each other in the absence of each other’s bodies. More specifically, people are faced with the need to ascertain the truth about other people, and their sincerity or lack of it, who may be many miles distant, and whose palpable, physical being is unavailable for inspection. It is obvious that such technologies suspend the operations of those physiognomic rules that govern the correspondence of persons and representations in the realist text. One consequence of this, to which we return shortly, is that alternative means must be found to verify the truth of people in the absence of such visual cues” (83).

All passages from: Halliday, Sam. Science and Technology in the Age of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and James. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

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Jun 30 2009

The Island Race and American Identity

by at 12:42 pm

I’ve, once again, decided to change my topic for my writing sample. I’m interested in exploring how Americans deal with 18th century scientific scholarship (particularly European scholarship) that emphasizes a difference between the climate of the Americas and Europe. In The Island Race, Kathleen Wilson cites Ben Franklin who claims that colonial Americans are the same race as the English, that Englishness is static–despite their location to a new climate, Americans are still Englishman. Franklin’s assertion is in direct opposition to eighteenth century climatic theory, which claims that physiognomy and behavior are affected by the surrounding climate, thereby making race much more fluid. 

I’m interested in looking at how American authors deal with European naturalists who emphasize American difference via climatic difference (ie: maybe beginning to talk about Volney’s assertion of the heightened electrical compositions, etc…I could use the Kathleen Wilson portion of Dominique’s paper to contextualize some of my arguments, showing how Americans both embrace and resist an othering of themselves). For my writing sample, I plan on looking at Pierre, but this analysis could be expanded, enlightened, developed, etc. by my research on the lightning rod and the paranoia that creates. For that, I would be looking at 2 short stories (Melville’s “The Lightning-Rod Man,” and Twain’s “Political Economy”), which both invoke American paranoia about a heightened electrical environment and the lightning-rod salesman figure, who banks on these fears (hrrrm….personal statement worthy?).

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May 14 2009

Some More Thoughts On Sheppard Lee

by at 12:59 am

Adam Smith sees the biological limitations of a pure sympathetic response. To Smith, lived experiences are very much tied to the individual body, so one can never fully understand another’s experience because one individual never occupy the body of another. Mesmer’s ideas on animal magnetism, I argue, solve this problem by creating networks of bodies (hmm…”networks,” like what Laura Otis is talking about?) that can be linked via electrical impulses. Sheppard Lee similarly solves the body barrier divide that is put forth by Smith by having Sheppard Lee’s soul occupy the body of dead corpses. In this way, Sheppard Lee enacts a purely sympathetic response….and, yet, these instances of body travel still seem to problematize successful sympathetic encounters. For one, the fact that Sheppard Lee’s body is restored at the end is extremely significant. The entire narrative is written by this restored Sheppard Lee, and thus it seems as if even as Sheppard Lee inhabits the bodies of others there is still a marked seperation between Sheppard Lee and the body he inhabits. This may, again, be a result of the narrative–Sheppard Lee is writing this in hindsight, but it still prevents any true sympathetic exchange.

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