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Melville’s Ethnic Conscriptions TIMOTHY MARR University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Books, gentlemen, are a species o f men, and introduced to themyou circulate in the “verybest society”that this world canfirnish, without the intolerable infliction o f “dressing”to go into it...Men, then, that they are-living , without vulgarly breathing-never speaking unless spoken to-books should be appropriately apparelled. Their bindingsshould indicate and distinguish their various characters. “A Thought on Book-Binding” But appearances all the world over are deceptive. Little men are sometimes very potent, and rags sometimes cover very extensive pretensions . Typee Many a Chinaman, in new coat and pantaloons, his long queue coiled out o f sight in one o f Genin’s hats, has promenaded Broadway, and been taken merelyfor an eccentric Georgiaplanter: “The ’Gees” Besides, who ever heard ofa white sofar renegadeas to apostatizefrom his very speciesalmost, by leaguing in against it with negroes? “Benito Cereno”1 umming up his thoughts of Constantinople during his last day there in December of 1856,Herman Melville reflected in his Journal on the pheSnomenon of the “Negro Musselman” waiter who had served him wine from the island of Tenedos. “Unlike other dispersed nations (Jews,Armenians, Gypsies) who proof against proslytism [sic]adhere to the faith first delivered to their fathers,” Melville noted, “Negro is indifferent to forms as horse to caparisons.”2 Melville’s casual observation about the adaptability of diasporic The passage from Typee appears in Herman Melville, Typee:A Peep at Polynesian Life, ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1968), p. 175. [Hereafter cited as NN Typee.1 The remaining passages appear in Herman Melville, ThePiazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860, ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1987), pp. 238, 351, 75 [Hereaftercited as NN Piazza Tales.] 2 Herman Melville, Journals, ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 5 T I M O T H Y M A R R Africans intimates the complex configurations of his understanding of human difference.On one level, Melville condescendingly singles out the Negro as an essential category of “national” identity Nevertheless, Melville’s allusion to caparisons-the changing ornamental trappings spread over a horse’s saddle or harness-also richly suggests the transitive pageantry of ethnic identity. This qualityof ideologicalfluidityattracted Melvillebecause it resembledthe freedom he had earned from his expansive travel experiences. Melville’s excursions licensed him to be different, enabling him both to subvert ethnographic types and to reordinate ethnicity as situational and performative. Early in his writing career,Melville registered this liberty by incorporating the textual forms of various “others”into the fabric of his literary characterization.He invested his characters with varied caparisonspartly to highlight the pallor of a “civilization”that held ethnic difference to be subordinate and sought to exclude its presence. Analyzing how Melville creatively employed such critical color to generate a more democratic tradition of literature reveals his capacity to challengethose he railed against as “the insincere Unanimous Mediocrity.”3By inhabiting the ethnic , Melville celebrated the latitudes of human difference as a model of national identity that was both more cosmopolitan and more hybrid. Melville, like his black Muslim waiter, also harnessed a broad diversity of cultural trappings to pull many of his own narrative loads. When the seedsman in “The Tartarus of Maids” rides his horse called Black to and from the sterile whiteness of a paper-mill to acquire the rags out of which his text is generated , Melville dramatizes how the vehicle of ethnic difference makes possible the germination of more diverse experiential accounts. Melville’s reading and story-telling opened his awareness of the “linked analogies”between the intertextual fabric of his literary yarns and the embodiment of his characters’skin and clothes, urging him to represent how both were interwoven with the paper upon which he composed. While these creative...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 5-29
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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