Melville and Protest; Melville Occupies Wall Street
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Melville and Protest; Melville Occupies Wall Street

Melville and Protest; Melville Occupies Wall Street
Chair: Hester Blum (Penn State University)

On November 10, 2011, the self-described "nerdiest protest ever" took place as part of Occupy Wall Street in New York's Zuccotti Park: a group of writers, booksellers, and OWS participants gathered for a communal public reading of "Bartleby, the Scrivener," Melville's tale of Wall Street. While recognizing that the story is an imperfect analogy to the OWS movement's protest against economic inequality, the organizers sought "to invoke the long American history of refusal that informs and enlivens Occupy" (http://housingworksbookstore.tumblr.com/). In doing so, they invoked as well a critical history that has considered how far we can take Bartleby's preference against action as a refusal or a protest.

The two Melville Society panels at MLA took the resonance of "Bartleby" within the Occupy Wall Street movement as a call to consider the broader stakes of protest in Melville's writing, as well as the various applications that have been made of his works in the name of protest. From the "No! in thunder" that he imputed to Hawthorne to the various forms of social or intellectual protest and labor action contemplated (and often unrealized) by characters such as John Brown, Starbuck, Billy Budd, Fatherless Oberlus, Jack Chase, Tommo, and Isabel, Melville's body of work shows an ongoing interest in resistance, refusal, and withdrawal. As critical conversations about him continue to expand, "Melville and Protest" and "Melville Occupies Wall Street" offered opportunities to enhance our understanding of the author's engagement with and relevance to collective action and forms of opposition to power. [End Page 109]

Melville and Protest

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From left to right: panelists Peter Jaros, Mark Noble, and Michael Jonik; panel organizer and chair Hester Blum. Photo courtesy of Dennis Berthold.

Collective Action, Corporate Fiction, and The Confidence-Man
Peter Jaros
Franklin & Marshall College

Although Occupy Wall Street has claimed Bartleby as a precursor, many of its hallmarks—the people's mic, chains of linked arms, Guy Fawkes masks—rely on a collectivity that trades Bartleby's singular dissent for the submersion of individual will in a group. Both the power and the danger of such collectivity are emblematized by the monkey-rope that "merge[s]" Ishmael and Queequeg in "a joint stock company of two." While it borrows the language of the business corporation, Ishmael's image of shared identity and vulnerability highlights the distance between the antebellum corporation and contemporary overtones of hegemony, dehumanization, and greed. The [End Page 110] Confidence-Man is Melville's richest treatment of the possibilities of corporate collectivity. Not only does the novel abound in corporations, from the Black Rapids Coal Company to the World's Charity, but its central figure also embodies the legal fiction of the corporation as described by Blackstone: an artificial person constituted by succession and capable of immortality. Questions recurrently asked by critics—is the Confidence Man one or many, an allegory of capitalism or of charity, an unlikely hero or the antagonist of all humanity—echo antebellum legal writers' descriptions of the corporate form as paradoxically joining opposites: singular and plural, natural and supernatural, fact and fiction. Read in this context, The Confidence-Man serves as an uncomfortable but bracing reminder of the proximities between imagining radical collectivity and imagining the corporation.

Formal Resistances: Melville's "Beachcomber" Ethic
Mark Noble
Georgia State University

Readers of Melville's Omoo have often noted a peculiar tension between the novel's critique of nineteenth-century imperialism and its narrative architecture. The force of Melville's satiric indictment of missionary hypocrisies and colonial travesties on Tahiti often seems blunted by the aimlessness that governs his characters' mock-apostolic adventure. By adopting the ostensibly purposeless narrative trajectory of the "beachcombers" whose itinerant travel it follows, Omoo offers us an early version of the Melvillean model of resistance to the generic constraints of fiction writing. Neither an allegorical satire nor an authentic attempt at fictionalized ethnography, Omoo occupies an unusual position between narrative forms that it also seems to undermine. Like its peripatetic characters, the novel...