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Visualizing Race: Imuges of Moby-Dick ELIZABETH SCHULTZ University of Kansas n “TheWhiteness of the Whale,” Ishmael deconstructs the positive values which many civilizations, including his own Eurocentric America, have I associated with whiteness. Analyzing his terror of whiteness, Ishmael realizes that in addition to royalty,nobility, innocence, and benignity, the color also signifiesdeath, aberration,desolation, alienation, and, most horrific of all, utter nihilism, utter meaninglessness.1 Ishmael’s struggle to read whiteness reveals Melville’s recognition that the interpretation of visual phenomena in general and color in particular is a problematic cultural process. In Moby-Dick, the process of reading color includes the interpretation of peoples of color, the very complex reading of race. As the white whale brings Ishmael to deconstruct whiteness, the whaling ship’sracially varied crew brings Moby-Dicks readers to engage in both constructing and de-constructing racial identities. This process becomes especially apparent in the diverse images of Moby-Dick created during the twentieth century. From the first illustrated editions published at the end of the nineteenth century, through the Melville revival of the 1920s,Moby-Dick‘s canonization in the 1940sand the 1950s,and on into the 1990s,illustrators and artists have acknowledgedthe significanceof Melville’s racial and ethnic crew to the novel’s narrative. Not only do their visual interpretations of the novel project racial and ethnic ways of perception; they also reveal the impact of shifting social attitudes over the course of the twentieth century.While these images substantiate a national movement toward multiculturalism , they also show the egregiouspersistence of racial and racist readings of Moby-Dicks characters of color, most noticeably and lamentably in editions designed for children. Thus, an examination of the imagesof Moby-Dicks racial and ethnic characters confirms bell hooks’s contention that “Fromslavery on, white supremacists have recognized that control over images is central to the maintenance of any system of racial domination.” Such an examination demonstrates, in hooks’swords, that “thefield of representation remains a place of struggle.”ZGiven the daunting power of images to shape perception of racial and ethnic difference, the absence of critical studies focused on pictorial repreI For a recent discussion, which summarizes previous critical studies of Moby-Dick’s “The Whiteness of the Whale,” with particular attention to racial issues, see chapter three of Valerie Babbs Whiteness Visible: The Meaning of Whiteness in American Literatureand Culture (New York New York University Press, 1998). 2 bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representution (Boston: South End Press, 19921,pp. 2-3. L E VI A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L ES T U D I E S 3 1 E L I Z A B E T H S C H U L T Z sentations of non-white characters, especially in children’sbooks, suggests the necessity of our continuing to struggle.3 Through a spectrum of characters representing the earths diverse peoples , Melvilleprompts his readers’awareness of race as a determining factor in American culture and society.Among the members of the Pequods crew are the harpooners-the Polynesian Queequeg, the African Daggoo, the Gay Head Indian Tashtego,and the Persian Fedallah-as well as two AfricanAmericansthe cabin boy, Pip, and the old cook, Fleece. In determining his racially mixed crew, Melville acknowledges not only the historical reality of the antebellum whaling ship’s racially mixed manifest, but also the importance of non-white crew members to the success of both the whaling enterprise and American democracy. Only in his representation of Fedallah and his boatmen, whom he gothicizesand demonizes as Asian, does Melvillere-inscribe the degraded racial characteristics which the dominant culture of the nineteenth century assigned to non-white cultures and races. Many of Moby-Dicks illustrators visually stereotype members of the Pequods racially mixed crew, even as Melville verbally stereotypes Fedallah by categoricallyassigning reprehensible values to his culture and race. By depicting exaggerated racial features and selectiveactions which conform to the limited , hyperbolic expectations a racist society holds for people unlike themselves ,these illustrators project caricatures rather than individuals and complex human beings. In addition to reinforcing culture stereotypes, they also show...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 31-60
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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