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A Political Companion to Herman Melville

edited by Jason Frank

Publication Year: 2014

Herman Melville is widely considered to be one of America's greatest authors, and countless literary theorists and critics have studied his life and work. However, political theorists have tended to avoid Melville, turning rather to such contemporaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to understand the political thought of the American Renaissance. While Melville was not an activist in the traditional sense and his philosophy is notoriously difficult to categorize, his work is nevertheless deeply political in its own right. As editor Jason Frank notes in his introduction to A Political Companion to Herman Melville, Melville's writing "strikes a note of dissonance in the pre-established harmonies of the American political tradition."

This unique volume explores Melville's politics by surveying the full range of his work -- from Typee (1846) to the posthumously published Billy Budd (1924). The contributors give historical context to Melville's writings and place him in conversation with political and theoretical debates, examining his relationship to transcendentalism and contemporary continental philosophy and addressing his work's relevance to topics such as nineteenth-century imperialism, twentieth-century legal theory, the anti-rent wars of the 1840s, and the civil rights movement. From these analyses emerges a new and challenging portrait of Melville as a political thinker of the first order, one that will establish his importance not only for nineteenth-century American political thought but also for political theory more broadly.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Political Companions to Great American Authors


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. 8-9

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Series Foreword

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pp. 10-11

Those who undertake a study of American political thought must attend to the great theorists, philosophers, and essayists. Such a study is incomplete, however, if it neglects American literature, one of the greatest repositories America?s literature is distinctive because it is, above all, intended for a democratic citizenry. In contrast to eras when an author would aim to in-...

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Introduction: American Tragedy

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pp. 1-20

...?The ship! The hearse!?the second hearse!? cried Ahab from the boat; Melville has not received as much attention from political theorists as some other major writers of the American Renaissance?especially Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. His work is left out of anthologies of American po-litical thought, overlooked on syllabi, and very rarely engaged in professional ...

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Chapter 1. Who Eats Whom?

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pp. 21-41

In no respect does the author make pretension to philosophic research.?From where?? asks Melville, in story and novel. What is the source of justice, of desire, of revenge, of human experience? When someone arrives at a new destination, what brought him (for the narrator is always male) there? How do we attempt to escape our pasts and how does their return ...

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Chapter 2. "The End Was in the Beginning"

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pp. 42-69

Drawing a distinction between the savage and civilized in Typee and Omoo, Herman Melville demonstrates the contrastive nobility of the Marquesan Islanders. He does not, however, to force a verb, noble savage them out of their humanity. They are hospitable but cunning, indulgent, and controlling. Likewise, the critique of progress inaugurated in Melville?s first two novels ...

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Chapter 3. Chasing the Whale

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pp. 70-108

What we notice in stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift.My aspiration in this essay is to read Melville?s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale as a work of?not simply as a supplement to?political theory. By its dramatic form and content, Moby-Dick tells a story about politics and about theory; and through it, so will I.1 Just as ancient tragedians were interlocutors to the ...

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Chapter 4. Ahab, American

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pp. 109-140

When scholars talk about the dilemmas of American political life in Moby-Dick, they tend to focus on the dilemmas faced by the ship?s crew: the narrator who wants us to call him Ishmael, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, and so on.1 Captain Ahab, in the literature, is largely approached as a monarchical or autonomous force?someone who comes in and exposes the weaknesses ...

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Chapter 5. "Mighty Lordships in the Heart of the Republic"

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pp. 141-161

In the ?Enceladus? section of book XXV of Herman Melville?s novel Pierre, the titular hero of the book, Pierre Glendinning, has a dream. Physically and morally exhausted from his unsuccessful attempt to write a ?great, deep book,? Pierre slips into a trance in which ?a remarkable dream or vision came to him?:1 ?The actual artificial objects around him slid from him, and ...

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Chapter 6. Melville and the Cadaverous Triumphs of Transcendentalism

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pp. 162-193

Generations of scholars have tried to solve the puzzle of Melville?s relation-ship with transcendentalism. There are many hints that Melville?s writings engage transcendental ideas in general and the works of Emerson and Thoreau in particular. This is not surprising, given that Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville (along with Hawthorne and Whitman) were often grouped ...

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Chapter 7. Language and Labor, Silence and Statis

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pp. 194-228

Is there a single short story of the American nineteenth century that has generated as much critical commentary over the last half century, and from such a wide range of disciplinary perspectives, as ?Bartleby the Scrivener?? To mention just a few examples: Bartleby the impassive employee has been seen as an alienated proletarian laborer and his inertia in the law office ...

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Chapter 8. Melville's "Permanent Riotocracy"

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pp. 229-258

We find ourselves in a time of riots wherein a rebirth of History, as op-posed to the pure and simple repetition of the worst, is signalled and takes shape. Our masters know this better than us: they are secretly trembling and building up their weaponry, in the form both of their judicial arsenal and the armed taskforces charged with planetary order. ...

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Chapter 9. What Babo Saw

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pp. 259-280

The miracle of Herman Melville is this: that a hundred years ago in two novels . . . and two or three stories, he painted a picture of the world in Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations In 1952, while awaiting possible deportation in a prison on Ellis Island, the Trinidadian intellectual and radical activist C. L. R. James wrote a book-...

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Chapter 10. "Follow Your Leader"

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pp. 281-309

Conceive the sailors to be wrangling with one another for control of the helm. . . . And they put the others to death or cast them out from the ship, and then, after binding and stupefying the worthy shipmaster with mandragora or intoxication or otherwise, they take command of the ship, consume its stores and, drinking and feasting, make such a voyage ...

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Chapter 11. The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating Revisited

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pp. 310-332

In his recent study of Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of American slav-ery, Eric Foner argues that by the concluding months of the American Civil War, Lincoln had undergone a sea change in his attitude toward African Americans. Once firmly committed to the idea of colonization, believing that the inferiority of blacks made their presence in a postslavery society ...

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Chapter 12. Melville's War Poetry and the Human Form

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pp. 333-357

At the climax of Melville?s Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), Captain Vere is overseeing the trial and conviction of Billy Budd. Billy, Vere recog-nizes, is wholly innocent, a messenger of divine judgment. And still, for the captain forced to become judge, the necessary outcome of the impending trial is clear: ?Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!?1...

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Chapter 13. The Lyre of Orpheus

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pp. 358-385

Be a man?s intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some ?With mankind,? he [Vere] would say, ?forms, measured forms, are ev-erything; and this is the import couched in the story of Orpheus, with his lyre spellbinding the wild denizens of the wood.? And this he once ...

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Chapter 14. Melville's Law

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pp. 386-412

When we think about law, how often do we essay a portrait and fail to hit it? As the legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart observes, ?Few questions concerning human society have been asked with such persistence and answered by seri-ous thinkers in so many diverse, strange, and even paradoxical ways as the question ?What is law???1 Hart suggests that the difficulty of answering this ...

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pp. 413-414

I owe many thanks to this volume?s contributors for writing such provoca-tive and compelling essays on Melville?s political thought. I have learned from all of them and also from the many rewarding exchanges we have had over the past two years. A special thanks to Lawrie Balfour and George Shulman for their insightful feedback, encouragement, and friendship. Ste-...

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 415-422


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pp. 423-426


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pp. 427-444

Series Page

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pp. 456-457

E-ISBN-13: 9780813143897
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813143873

Page Count: 456
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Political Companions to Great American Authors