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Reviews 2000 HENNIG COHEN PRIZE WINNER Melville’s Anatomies SAMUEL OTTER Berkeley:University of California Press, 1999.xiii, 369 pages $48.00 cloth; $22.50 paper. o read Melvilleclosely is to read deeply and widely,”writes SamuelOtter in Melville’s Anatomies (3). This goal has generated an extraordinarily Tambitious book that is as much a study of nineteenth-century American literature and culture as it is an effort to “detail the rich discursive terrain in which Melvillepositions himself‘ (3). Otter argues that “the human body, tangled in lines of knowledge and desire,” occupies the center of Typee, White-Jucket, and Moby-Dick (2). Tpifying the preoccupation with corporeality that engaged Melvilleduring the initial phase of his career, all three novels, according to Otter, are “charged by nineteenth-century efforts to know the racial body” (3), but each scrutinizes a different part of the body: Typee the face, White-Jucket the skin, and Moby-Dick the head. The narrator of Typee flees in terror when threatened with having his face tattooed-an operation he equates with defacing his person and effacing his identity as a white American (40-41). The narrator of White-Jacket metaphorically “sliceshimself out of his own skin’’-the garment that repeatedly endangers his life by advertising his white identity in the same way that black skin marks African Americans for scapegoating (2, 88).In Moby-Dick, which associates “cetology with ethnology” and its subdiscipline craniometry, “Melville offers an anatomy of a nineteenth-century anatomy that saw the world-history, geography, philosophy, anthropology, zoology, archaeology, empire-a whale of meaning-in a skull” (2, 158-59). Hitherto focused on the body, the quest for meaning that Melville undertakes in Typee, White-Jacket, and Moby-Dick turns simultaneously outward and inward in Pierre, contends Otter. The narrator of Pierre “links the exterior landscape of the nation to the interior landscape”of the title character’sheart, “avital organ whose surfaceis denselyinscribed and whose depths are vacant” (2,209). The shift from probing “structures of feeling,”or ideologies,to delving into feel- R E V I E W S The logic connecting the two chapters on Pierre to the three on the preceding novels seemsso tenuous, however, that some readers may feel Otter would have done better to reserve his discussion of Pierre for another book. Melville$ Anatomies is far more engrossing when it analyzes Melville’s responses to his culture’sobsessive contemplation of race. In opposition to both critics who view Melvilleas a rebel against his culture and those who view him as trapped within it, Otter portrays a Melville who “offersneither a transcendent critique nor a symptomatic recapitulation, but an inside sense of the power of ideology, its satisfactions and its incarcerations” (4). Thus, his literary interpretations emphasize the ways in which “Melvilleexposes structures of thought and feeling that he shares with his compatriots” (168).Otter’s summing up of Typee may serve as a representative example: “For all the compelling comparative anthropology, the domestications of cannibalism, the reversal of expectations about civilization and savagery, and the perspectival shifts achieved through juxtaposing American and Polynesian cultures, Melvillewishes to save his face. Relativismhas its limits” (47). Whether readers agree or disagree with Otter, they will surely find Melville$ Anatomies replete with provocative insights. Among the most salient are the following. Hypothesizing that in Typee “Melville translates anxieties about corporeal disintegration from cannibalism to tattooing” (19), Otter notes that the pattern continues in White-Jacket, where “flogging . . . presents a danger similar to that posed by tattooing in Typee: the prospect of indelible, invidious marking” (79). Hence, Otter proposes: “As was the case with cannibalism in Typee, in order to understand Melville’s concerns about corporeal inscription we need to examine his defining alternative in White-Jacket: dismemberment” or amputation, a torture Melville pictures with a grim humor utterly missing from his accounts of flogging (79). The reason flogging assumes such proportions in White-Jacket, explains Otter, is that it epitomizes the “crucial analogy . . . between the white and the black ‘slave”’(50). Whereas sailors’ advocates characteristicallyexploited this analogy to “shift concern from black to white,” Melvilleuses it to reveal “ashared vulnerability and an intimate, persistent subjection to authority,”Otter concludes. Nevertheless,he...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 104-107
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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