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Reviews Melville’s City: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York. WYN KELLEY New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 312 Pages elvillek City is a highly successful book that must have been extremely difficult to write. Melville was a New Yorker who wrote about Mcities and was steeped in the urban literature and culture of his time. Yet as anyone who has ever attempted to write about Melville’srelationship to cities and urban culture knows, it is extremely difficult to get a handle on Melville’s city. So many things seem to be going on, and different things seem to be happening in each book. Too often, and too conventionally, Melville’s representation of the city has been reduced to the most familiar archetypes that may be found in the most familiar of his obviously urban texts (the first chapter of Moby-Dick, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” various passages in Pierre). With boldness, extensive research, and a solid critical talent, Wyn Kelley steers us away from these familiar reductions and shows how Melville’s relationship to the city is much more complex than has generally been thought. Without ever denying the difficulty or complexity of what she is doing, she offers a framework with which we can begin to understand what she represents as Melville’s lifelong “dialogue” with the urban culture of his time. In order to do this, Kelley must necessarily devote a considerable portion of the book to descriptions and characterizations of the contemporary traditions of urban representation with which Melville was interacting. It is possible that some readers might feel, particularly in the first 100 pages, that there may be too much about the urban context and not enough about Melville’swork. Nevertheless, Kelley’s book is successful largely because it persuades us that in order to understand the complexity of Melville’srepresentation of the city, it is essential to understand these contexts, the way they changed, and the way in which Melville’s life brought him into a different relation with the contexts at different times. Kelley shows, first of all, how in New York “social and physical constructions of urban form grew out of the debate over how to use urban space” (21). Melville, she suggests, developed his urban representations in the conA J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 1 2 3 text of debates over the planning of Manhattan’s growth and the different conceptions of the city implied by different models (whether it is to be a “Walking City,”with broad boulevards, or a dense and potentially threatening labyrinth). He was profoundly influenced by the extraordinarily rapid transformation of New York from a town to a commercial capital and metropolis. Steeped in the English and American literature of the urbane spectator, Melville engages and critiques this tradition, Kelley argues, in early works like Typee, Omoo, and Mardi. Her discussion of these works helpfully demonstrates how an urban form of consciousness may be manifest apart from the representation of cities. As New York grew and became more labyrinthine, as Melville’spersonal and economic relationship to it changed, and as the conventions of urban representation changed with the replacement of the literature of the walking city by the sensational literature of the labyrinth, Melville’s encounter with the city became fuller, more direct, and more complex. In Redburn, White-Jacket, and Pierre, Keliey examines the way in which provincials attempt to negotiate the urban labyrinth, and fail because of the degree to which they avoid engaging urban experience and because they put too much faith in the mystifications of a newly ascendant kind of urban literature: the sensational and panoramic exploration of the city as labyrinth. This portion of Kelley’sbook is particularly impressive and contains detailed and complex readings of Melville’s works, with useful reference to the conventions of this rarely read but highly influential tradition of “labyrinthine”literature. Kelley’s treatment of the “Provincial in the Labyrinth” is followed by what I found to be the least persuasive, though arguably most original portion of her book, a discussion of Moby-Dick, in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 123-125
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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