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Reviews273 Through the Custom-House: Nineteenth-Century American Fiction and Modem Theory, by John Carlos Rowe; 218 pp. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982, $18.95. Rowe's first sentence succinctly outlines the structure and purpose of Through the Custom-House: "This work is an experiment in intertextual criticism that reads six nineteenth-century prose texts in relation to six critical problems that exemplify the modern debate concerning representation and signification" (p. xi). Each chapter of the book matches one "prose text" with one "critical problem." Here is his all-star line-up: Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Heidegger's effort to "reconceptuadize " philosophic discourse vis-à-vis die nature of language, thinking, and poetry; Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance and Sartre's "phenomenological theory of the imagination as an autonomous mental function" (p. 2); Poe's Narrative ofArthur Gordon Pym and Freud's critique of consciousness as a unified process; Melville's "Bardeby the Scrivener" and Derrida's "conception of a decentered, psychic 'writing'" (p. 3); Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson and Nietzsche's concern over "people's bondage to their linguistic categories and sociohistorical situation" (p. 3); and James's The Sacred Fount and the "debate between structuralists and poststructuralists concerning the 'subject' as a grammatical fiction" (P- 4)· Compacting this ambitious project into one slim volume accounts for its feverish pace and breathless style. Fortunately, Rowe roots his prose firmly in each ofthese nineteenthcentury "marginal" literary works — "marginal" here meaning, in part, that the work stands outside both the traditional, critical mythologies (American Adam, American Renaissance, etc.) and the writer's more broadly accepted publications. Standing squarely on these neglected or abused texts, Rowe levels a nonhistorical, deconstructionist attack at these confining mythologies and all formalistic criticism. Looking to Derrida's neologism différance and its deconstruction of the paradigm of the sign, Rowe argues that these marginal texts are of particular value because they self-consciously disrupt the traditional, illusory unity of signifier and signified. As a result, these texts must be used to pose the philosophic questions ofmodernity that examine the "accepted conventions in the literary and cultural traditions" (p. 11). Through such use, or intertextuality, Rowe concludes that "we might hope to make intelligible the force of the literary without taming or rendering its provocations harmless" (p. 17). Rowe places "Bartleby" at the heart of his literary rescue mission. Unlike the five other marginal texts, "Bartleby" is seldom viewed by critics as seriously flawed; there is something "uncanny" about the story. In order to understand diis uncanniness, Rowe moves far beyond his initial controlling drought — matching "Bartleby" with Derrida's "decentered, psychic Sviiting1" — to consider other works by Melville (Redbum, Moby Dick, Pierre, The Confidence Man) and other theorists (Freud, Plato, Cicero, Hegel). Amidst all the confusion, however, there is embedded in his dense prose an insightful, though brief, reading of the short story. Rethinking the obvious, and oft-neglected, legalistic dimensions of the story, Rowe raises thoughtful issues involving, among other things, the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of copying legal documents, and Bartleby's enigmatic "preference." 274Philosophy and Literature In response to my letter expressing curiosity over die absence of any current, grand critical discoveries in American literature, Melvillean Merton Sealts recendy wrote that "die ground has virtually been pulverized, there can be few more Great Original Discoveries." Given Sealts's pulverized ground, is Rowe's intertextual strategy helpful? Judging from the fruits of his labor, specifically his critical readings of the literature, I would have to say yes. In each chapter, though I had to struggle dirough the jargon and numerous digressions, I found several thought-provoking comments. On the whole, however, despite diese refreshing oases of insight, I hesitate to embrace fully Through the Custom-House. My hesitancy arises in view of the apparent price Rowe's intertextuality must pay in order to link literature with modern dieory. The book makes few distinctions between the audiors or their work; they all appear to be writing the same "prose text." Does adi literature, American or otherwise, dove-tail widi modern theory? Rowe gives no reason to diink differendy. Certainly there is a way to avoid the undifferentiated...


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