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“THE COMMON CONTINENT OF MEN”: VISUALIZING RACE IN MOBY-DICK Cuvated by Elizabeth Schultz omprised of men from “all the isles of the sea, and all the ends of the earth,”’ Melville’s Pequod reflects not Conly the demographic reality of the composition of 19th-century whaling ships but also our author’s passionate vision of a democratic society of diverse and equal individuals. Concluding his introduction of the ship’smulticultural crew in Chapter 27, Melville pronounces them democratically “the common continent of men ... federated along one keel” (121), interdependent in performing the business of whaling and in protecting one another from its perils. And, in case any “mortal critic” might dare to fault his vision of equalizing men from every region, race and class, in a proclamation tinged with defiance and a rapturous desperation, Melville allies himself with divinity, with “thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind!,”for he is certain that “thou great democratic God!” will “bear him out in” his great democratic vision (117). Writing Moby-Dick 150 years ago, in the decade prior to the Civil War, when the brutal realities of slavery were threatening the very existence of America, Melville had every reason to be disturbed about the success of democracy, as we, his heirs, conscious of racism’s ongoing ubiquity and inequities, continue to be disturbed. Out of Melville’s profound concern for democracy’s survival, it can be argued ’Herman Melville,Moby-Dick, ed. Harrison Hayford, Hei-she1Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern UP and the Newberry Library, 1988) 121. Subsequent references will be noted In parentheses in the text. ’Only a veiy few abstract repi-esentations attempt to address the complex issues of race as treated by Melville. Norman Ives’lithograph of Queequeg G Ramadan, which appears in his Illustrationsfor Moby Dick (19501, delineates a facial portrait of Queequeg behind a scrim of abstract symbols. Old Fleece Preaching to the Sharks (1985-86) by Walter Martin and the several versions of The Whiteness of the Whale (1986-87) by Tim Rollins + K.O.S. connect Moby-Dick to a range of questions related to race Particular works in Frank Stella’s that Moby-Dick may be understood as an examination not only of the dangers of democracy’s transformation into despotism, but also of its potential for creating a society where diverse individuals respect and care for one another. It is apparent that Melville’s opening strategy in Moby-Dick is to convince his readers of the possibilities of fulfilling such a vision through his representation of the developing friendship between Ishmael, his naive Yankee narrator, and Queequeg, the mature Polynesian harpooner. Moby-Dick’s readers are encouraged to grow with Ishmael, who, through ignorance and fear, at first perceives the tattooed Queequeg as “the devil himself” (22), but who soon comes to “see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them” (54). However, in his depiction of Fedallah, the Persian harpooner, and of the crew of Fedallah’s whaleboat, Melville himself lapses, associating them with 19th-century literary conventions of ghostly Gothic demonism and assigning them racial signifiers corresponding to 19th-century American fears of Asia and the Near East. Since the first illustrated editions of Moby-Dick at the end of the 19th century, the Pequod’s multicultural crew and the relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael have been prominently featured. With few exceptions, these characters have been realistically represented.2 However, realism itself, as a mode of Moby-Dick series (1985-19971, which includes a monumental and provocative abstract piece for each of the novel’schapters, often appear to focus on the racial discourse in the narrative. For detailed discussion of Stella’sworks, see Robert K. Wallace’sFrank Sietta’s Moby-Dlck Senas:Words md Shapes (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001); for detailed discussion of Ives, Martin, and Rollins + K 0 S., see Elizabeth Schultz, Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-CenturyAmencan Art (Lawrence. UP of Kansas, 1995).For further discussion of the importance of these few abstract works, also see my essay, “VisualizingRace in lmages of Moby-Dick...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 19-34
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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