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  • Cultures, Canons, and Cetology:Modernist Anthropology and the Form of Culture in Lewis Mumford's Herman Melville
  • Eric Aronoff (bio)

When Leslie Fiedler, in An End to Innocence, wonders whether to call Herman Melville "the discovery or invention of our time," he points to what, in 1948, was then the relatively recent phenomenon of the "Melville revival" of the 1920s—a phenomenon that now stands as one of the most startling examples of canon reformation in American literary history.1 Beyond the remarkable reversal of literary fortune it represents, the Melville revival was situated at an unusual confluence of literary, cultural, and institutional histories. It occurred, as Paul Lauter has observed, during "the ascent of the ideology we call 'modernism,'" as ideas of American identity and art were intensely debated against the backdrop of conflict and change, from the rise of new technologies of communication and consumerism to unprecedented waves of new immigration, labor strikes, and racial violence.2 It was also the period in which both "American literature" emerged as a distinct discipline and the interdisciplinary approach that would come to be called "American Studies" first appeared.3 While other authors underwent reevaluation in this period, no other author's canonization has paralleled so closely the development and institutionalization of American literary studies in the academy through the twentieth century—and thus registered the complexities of the ideological debates that surround it. [End Page 185]

The study of Melville studies, then, could be said to be the study of American literature as a discipline. And if, as Lionel Trilling puts it, criticism is the "dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet," the critical reception of Herman Melville is a major intersection where the body count is particularly high.4 Critics promoting the revival during the 1920s denounced their predecessors' Anglophilic, genteel rejection of Melville; midcentury New Critics and myth critics in turn critiqued the 1920s "liberals" for making his books "directly relevant to their concerns and interest"—namely their post-WWI critique of American materialism and conformity.5 With the rise of new historicism, poststructuralism, and cultural studies in the last three decades, New Americanists such as Lauter and William Spanos have targeted the conservative consensus politics of early Americanists, arguing that the Melville revival was "part of an ideological conflict which linked advocates of modernism and of traditional high cultural values . . . against a social and cultural 'other,'. . . portrayed as feminine, genteel, exotic, dark, foreign, and numerous."6 As a bulwark against the perceived threat of women, immigrants, and a restive working class, they argue, "a distinctively masculine, Anglo-Saxon image of Melville was deployed as a lone and powerful artistic beacon against the dangers presented by the masses."7 In perhaps the latest sideswipe in this intersection, Clare Spark takes to task the modernist "liberals" and "radical" New Americanists, arguing that both perpetuate a "conservative Enlightenment" reading of Ahab as an overreaching monomaniac who represents the forces that led to Hitler (for critics in the 1930s-60s) or U.S. imperialism and racism (for New Americanists). Spark in turn charges that these readings themselves are committed to "corporatism" and "ethnopluralism"—philosophical positions rooted in Herder and leading to . . . Hitler.8 A bloody intersection indeed.

I would like to complicate these accounts of the Melville revival and, by extension, the relationship between modernism, American literary canon formation, and American Studies by positioning the revival at the intersection of yet another pair of institutional histories: the rise, on the one hand, of the "anthropological" version of culture as relative, whole systems [End Page 186] of meaning and, on the other, of the modernist fascination with the literary text as spatial form, which culminated in the reading practices of the New Criticism. For the Melville revival in the 1920s was also the period in which literary criticism and anthropology attained their modern disciplinary identities, and both did so by reconceptualizing their objects of analysis—or perhaps more accurately, by reconceptualizing these disciplines as centering on what could be seen as objects requiring analysis: in literary criticism, the New Critical conception of the poem; in anthropology, the idea of culture(s). These multiple disciplinary histories, moreover, were intimately related, as...


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