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Clarel and the American Centennial
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Clarel and the American Centennial CODY MARRS University of Georgia W hile on the road to Mar Saba, the motley group of pilgrims in Melville’s Clarel (1876) stumbles across an ancient, crumbling— indeed, nearly disintegrated—monastery in the middle of the desert. The sight of this temple turning into dust leads Rolfe to reflect on the meaning of this vision “[p]ale as Pompeii disinterred”: “New things elate so thrust their birth Up through dejection of the old, As through dead sheaths . . . The reserves of time seem marching up. But, nay: what novel thing may be, No germ being new? By Fate’s decree Have not earth’s vitals heaved in change Repeated?” (Clarel 1.34.38-50) Rolfe’s questions—insisting on the lasting influence of “the old,” casting doubt on the very possibility of newness—hinge (as is so often the case with Melville) on their semantic ambiguity. The “New things” to which he refers could include the recent political revolutions that had erupted throughout the Atlantic world (in 1848, 1861-65, and 1871), emerging technologies and inventions, scientific discoveries, religious reforms, or a number of other “change[s].” However, a common thread that connects these different levels of reference is the suggestion—issuing from the troubled soul of Melville’s poem—that regress rather than progress might be the shared horizon of human experience. History, in fact, might constitute nothing less than a process of violent decay, one that will eventually turn all of us, as well as the groups and institutions to which we belong, into analogues of this obliterated monastery, now almost indistinguishable from the sand that surrounds it. This notion of a universal “slide into . . . degradation” does not haunt Rolfe alone (Clarel 2.8.40). More generally, it is of pivotal importance in Clarel, which is both fascinated and repelled by the idea of progress. Indeed, this most tantalizing of nineteenth-century historical paradigms, promising a forward movement through time, continuously materializes in Melville’s poem in different forms. Over the course of their journey, the poem’s wayward c  2011 The Melville Society and Wiley Periodicals, Inc. 98 L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S T H E A M E R I C A N C E N T E N N I A L pilgrims discuss the Darwinian model of biological evolution, the Hegelian theory of historical sublation, geological narratives about the earth’s deep time, socialist ideas about political revolution, and archaeological findings that were reframing humanity’s sacred history as a secular tale. Although these different narratives of progress make their way into Clarel, the poem also condenses them into a single paradigmatic instance, which it revisits again and again: the American Centennial. The Centennial was a topic of wide-ranging conversation long before its actual celebration in 1876, and during the years of Clarel’s composition , innumerable artists, poets, journalists, and politicians used the coming commemoration as an occasion to discuss pressing political, historical, and aesthetic issues in the United States. Yet Melville was less interested in the Centennial’s national significance than in its broader historical suggestiveness. In Clarel the Centennial emerges as a malleable figure for modernization, a process that, as Reinhart Koselleck reminds us, involves a “temporalization of history,” a cognitive shift that allows the present to be lived as a moment of absolute transition (Koselleck 11). Melville’s poem unfolds against the grain of this modernizing impulse, emphasizing instead the long histories of transition and the lasting claims of violence. Invested more in regress than progress, Clarel is a story of broken returns: arguments that continuously reappear but rarely terminate; spiritual pilgrimages, both individual and aggregate, that end not in enlightened rebirth but in loss (spurring so many variations of the question: “is He fled?” [Clarel 1.5.37]); and, for the eponymous character, a passage through the Old World wilderness, beginning in Jerusalem and ending in Bethlehem (the site of the Old Testament’s ostensible renovation), that concludes with the death of his betrothed rather...