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“You Cannot Run and Read It”: Melvillek Searchfor the Right Reader MATT LAUFER Columbia University ith his eyes strained by long hours of close work in the winter of 1850, Melville wrote to Evert Duyckinck that he spent his Wevenings “skimming over some large-printed book that would not tax his eyesight. 1 No one has ever claimed that the book he himself was writing that winter was susceptible to skimming, or, as the saying goes, that one could “run and read” it. But Melville did not trust his readers with the difficult and heterodox material he presented to them in Moby-Dick-at least not without some guidance from the author himself. As Robert Milder has argued about Moby-Dick, and John Bryant has extended to The Confidence-Man, Melville often used genre in his novels to “instruct”and “educe [inreaders] a better way of thinking” and reading. 2 He was, in this regard, an elusive preceptor . His pedagogy in the novels is rarely open and on the surface; it is complicated and embedded in the texts. This paper proposes to explore Melville’s ideal of what it means to be a discerning reader-a notion that these, and other, critics have usefully opened up and that Melvillehimself explored in his later work. I do not pretend that Melville in 1856 is the same as Melville in 1851,and I do not wish to “read back onto Moby-Dick with inflexible interpretive tools borrowed from the later work, but rather to suggest how we might use the more explicit reading protocols in the later work to generate a vocabulary, originating in Melville himself, with which to discuss the earlier novel. Melville worries out loud, in the stories of his later career, about inattentive readers. In “The Piazza,” he addresses them directly on the subject of reading: “you cannot run and read,” the story’snarrator says.3 By this point, ’Herman Melville, To Evert A. Duyckinck, 13 December 1850, Correspondence,ed. Lynn Horth (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 19931, 174. * See Robert Milder’s focus on the “instructional” nature of genre in the tradition of the retrospective narrator and on generic conditioning, how “narrative form indicates a governing intention to do something to us as we read, to remake us” in “Moby-Dick: The Rationale of Narrative Form” in Approaching to Teaching Melvillei Moby-Dick, ed. Martin Bickman (New York: MLA, 1985), 40-41. Hereafter cited as Milder. See also John Bryant, Melville and Repose: The Rhetoric of Humorin the American Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 258-9 and 264, for a related treatment of The Confidence-Man. 3 Herman Melville, “The Piazza” in The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces 1839-1860(Evanston: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1987), 2. Hereafter cited as NN PT. 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 S1 7 M A T T L A U F E R Melvillehad adjusted to the problem of focusing readers’ attention by making his protocols more explicit. But he can also be seen to be implicitly adjusting -subtly searching for the right reader-in Moby-Dick. By managing a shift to drama, both modally and generically, Melville conditions readers of the novel to slow down and pay more attention by getting in close to the text and staying there. But, knowing the dangers of undue attention, he also conditions readers to keep some distance. When it comes to reading, be it texts, or characters , or actions, he seeks a paradoxical middle way. 4 Melvillepositions us as both witnesses and participants such that we see in others and experience for ourselves the diminishment of critical attention brought about by a mind that becomes absorbed by an object; the sympathetic entrance of readers into a scene; and the awakening from that participation into a fuller, more balanced-engaged and critical-attitude. In other words, Melville does with his readers’experience of Ahab what Milton does, in Stanley Fishs famous treatment, with his readers’experienceof...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 17-38
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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