Melville may be one of the most canonical of writers, but his canonicity is curiously uneven. Despite the protracted length of his career and the remarkable range of his writing, he continues to be remembered, for the most part, as the author of a few mid-century tales: a three or four-hit wonder, as it were, who eventually lapsed into obscurity. A search on the MLA International Bibliography, for instance, currently yields more than 1500 results for Moby-Dick, 450 for “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and 300 for “Benito Cereno.” But for Timoleon Etc.? A mere 16. And for Weeds and Wildings? A sad, lonesome 7.
Many of Melville’s least-analyzed pieces come from what we might call his “late” period. Whether we define the latter biographically, as the post-retirement phase of his writing life, or generically, as the era of his poetry and prose-poetry experiments, or through some other paradigm, the fact is that, with a few notable exceptions, Melville’s later works infrequently make their way into anthologies, survey courses, or scholarly journals other than Leviathan—let alone popular culture or the field at large. There are no C19 conference roundtables on Clarel, and no operas for John Marr (although there undoubtedly should be). Scholars “fit though few” (Wordsworth 51) have provided us with incisive studies of these works, but late Melville still tends to be overshadowed, if not altogether obscured, by early and middle Melville.1
There are important counter-tendencies, of course. Billy Budd has received sustained and extensive criticism ever since its rediscovery in the 1920s. (To return to my earlier example of Boolean hits, there are now more than 475 entries for the novella on the MLA Bibliography.) Clarel has been the object of steady and increasing attention since the 1970s, and Battle-Pieces has yielded some of the richest Melville criticism over the past fifteen years.2 Yet in the field at large, the narrative about Melville’s career has changed relatively little. In many articles, anthologies, and conference proceedings, Melville is still presented as a writer whose output was either remarkably short-lived or bounded by a long, inexplicable silence. [End Page 1]
There are numerous reasons why this narrow, chronologically stunted sense of Melville’s career has been so intractable. But five in particular bear mentioning. There is, first of all, the outsized influence of Moby-Dick on Melville’s long-evolving reception. If Moby-Dick is viewed as the gravitational center of Melville’s career, then the writings that matter—at least in a secondary sense—are the ones that revolve around it, leading up to or away from his masterwork. Second, the publication history has largely dovetailed with the reception history. There is some chicken-and-the-egg circularity here, but something can become canonical only if it is widely available, and Melville’s later works have not been republished with the same fervor or frequency as his earlier works. Melville is partly responsible, of course: besides Battle-Pieces, he either left his later writings unpublished or printed them in a very limited run. Third, American literary studies has been organized, ever since its inception, around considerations of politics and history that have proven relatively difficult to delineate in Melville’s later works.3 If literary history consists of a series of meditations on democracy’s symbolic dimensions—and I would suggest that if there is anything Americanists can agree on, it is that claim (or some permutation thereof)—then it is hard to know what to do with the rose sequence in Weeds and Wildings, or the ekphrastic exercises in Timoleon, or Melville’s poems about kelp, squirrels, and sharks. (On the other hand, Billy Budd and Battle-Pieces fit into this interpretive framework relatively well, which is probably part of the reason they have received more attention than Melville’s other late works.)
Late Melville’s relative obscurity also derives from the field’s patterns of division and specialization. Scholars of nineteenth-century American literature—and this is the fourth reason for Melville’s skewed reception—tend to work fairly exclusively with either prose or poetry, and the former...