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  • Charles Olson’s American Studies:Call Me Ishmael and the Cold War
  • James Zeigler (bio)

One of the central themes of American historiography is that there is no American Empire. Most historians will admit, if pressed, that the United States once had an empire. They promptly insist that it was given away. But they also speak pertinently of America as a World Power.

William Appleman Williams
"The Frontier Thesis and American Foreign Policy," 1955

Curiously . . . so influential has been the discourse insisting on American specialness, altruism, and opportunity that "imperialism" as a word or ideology has turned up only rarely and recently in accounts of United States culture, politics, and history.

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1993

For accounts of the foreign policy and political culture of the United States today, "imperialism" has become all the rage. As Amy Kaplan details in her 2003 Presidential Address for the American Studies Association, the secret of U.S. imperialism is out. Commentators "across the political spectrum . . . are embracing the term" (2). It has become fashionable, she explains, to debate whether the authority of the United States around the world is imperialistic or merely hegemonic, to assess it relative to earlier empires, and to discern if it is emerging, dominant, or declining. Advocates of empire no longer obscure the term with the euphemisms of American Exceptionalism.1 Instead, they explain the nation's imperialism as the extension, even the expression, of that "specialness" Said describes. The political rhetoric emerging after 9/11 has made Said's complaint about the omission [End Page 51] of the term "imperialism" out of date. Moreover, in a more salutary development from the early 1990s to 9/11 and after, a great deal of work in the discipline of American Studies has been committed to rectifying the oversight he identifies.2 In her introduction to the anthology Cultures of United States Imperialism (1993), Kaplan explains that the historic "Absence of Empire in the Study of American Culture" is a result of American Exceptionalism and its disavowal of an imperial past (3–21). The United States has been touted as special for its lack of an imperial history, a dynamic reversed today by politicos willing to proclaim without apology that empire is the nation-state's virtuous future. It is this reversal that gives Kaplan's Presidential Address such urgency; recent work in American Studies is so invested in uncovering imperialism that she wonders how the discipline will handle an imperialism that announces itself unabashedly. Of course, today's explicit talk about empire is not without precedent. The last years of the nineteenth century up to the entry of the U.S. into WWI were also a time in which public debate expressed imperial interests. One of the enduring accomplishments of mid-century American Studies was the successful portrayal of this earlier period as anomalous to the history, culture, and politics of the United States. Facilitating this accomplishment were the institutionalization of the field in formal academic programs starting in the late 1930s and the "myth and symbol" school's further consolidation of the discipline around the theme of American Exceptionalism during the early years of the Cold War.3

This essay concerns the American Studies scholarship of Charles Olson. Begun in the 1930s, his unfinished dissertation for Harvard's Ph.D. program in American Civilization was published in a radically different form as Call Me Ishmael (1947). An idiosyncratic treatment of Melville's Moby-Dick, Olson's text was conceived and written over a span of years that coincides with the "absenting" of empire from American Studies. Defying the normative constraints of the discipline, Olson insists on recollecting "America's" imperial history, electing throughout his analyses to interject further evidence of empire into the narrative of Melville's best-known novel.4 My reading concentrates on three features of his unconventional text. First, Olson commits the longest and most discursive section of the book to an interpretation of Shakespeare's importance to Melville, a subject he first addresses in his 1938 essay "Lear and Moby-Dick." Call Me Ishmael reiterates much [End Page 52] of the original essay, but revises its significance by reversing the central thesis and...


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