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245 Reviews Tolchin, Neal L. Mourning, Gender, and Creativity in the Art of Herman Melville. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1988. 211 pp. Cloth: $23.50. Probably all human history is a continuum of times that, just like ours, are frenzies of ideological stricture. But the unprecedented spate of publication in our time reveals what is wearying, if not numbing, about strictly ideological literary criticism. And the surfeit of literary publication reveals that psychoanalytic criticism identifying any given psychoanalytic hypothesis in a body of fiction is highly ideological. Such criticism, whatever its virtues, reduces the art one-dimensionally to the dogmas of the hypothesis. Tolchin'.s well-researched book, despite Tolchin's occasional revelations that he is well aware of other dimensions in Melville's art, enacts just such a reduction. Mourning, Gender, and Creativity is based upon John Bowlby's revision of "early Freudian theory—with its implicit notion that normal grief can be worked through within one or two years" (p. 7), and focusses on the lifelong "grief work" that can be the result of blocked grief. For Tolchin's purposes, the application is this: Herman Melville was never allowed to give cathartic vent to grief at the death of his father. From the age of twelve on, therefore, blocked grief was at the core of Melville's creativity. Because Allan Melville raved during the last two weeks while he lay dying, part of Herman's legacy was a buried sense of the maniac, the evil father. Because Herman grew up in Maria's household of gentility and aristocratic pretension , part of Herman's legacy was a conventional as well as personal sense of a good and loving father. But the father abandoned Herman in death, leaving the young Melville searching for a viable male role model. His older brother, Gansevoort, died while Melville was still in his twenties. Because early and mid-nineteenth-century America practiced genteel mourning rituals, in which the fixed conventions turned mourning over to the women, the male could not exhibit emotional "weakness." And especially because Maria, Melville's mother, was a formidable presence, Herman, in his need for expressed grief, experienced cross-gender identity. His heroes, Tolchin concludes, are all feminized. The identification with the mother is split between love on the one hand and envy (and consequent rage) on the other. The memory of the father is split between love (the good father) and fear (the maniac), and consequent rage. In the grief-work of guilt, rage, and love, Melville wrote, and all his subsequent moods and creativity were the result of the death of the father. Citing the Harvard Study of Bereavement (in American culture men describe bereavement in terms of dismemberment: I have lost my "better half; and women describe bereavement in terms of abandonment: how could he leave me alone and unprotected?), Tolchin finds that dismemberment in Melville's fiction is a sign of conflicted and blocked grief. "Dismemberment" signifies everything from Gansevoort's hurt foot to Tommo's leg to Ahab's leg. Thus, Redburn's grief is Melville's. And because grief chokes one up, when White Jacket feels a choking as he is about to fall from the yardarm, he is signalling Melville's grief. So too, Billy Budd's "convulsed tongue tie" is a sign of Melville's grief. "Isabel personifies Pierre's grief for his father" (p. 3), and as for Melville's art as a whole, his "stylistic experimentation relates to the influence of an obstructed but urgent grief (p. 3). What is Melville's writing all about, really? Melville's bereavement. Psychoanalytic criticism, however reductive, offers systems of consistent illumination of a fiction's events. Tolchin's book does this. But like all ideological stricture, such criticism raises the question of just exactly what is illuminated? The artist, out of whatever inner force, creates the art. It is the art that is important. It is the art that makes us at all interested in the artist. The art relates to the larger world that the artist shares with the readers, not merely his own psychic specific kink, but the innerness of all humans as well as that enormous outerness of every...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 245-246
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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