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Introduction: Melville and Disability SAMUEL OTTER University of California, Berkeley F rom the very start of his writing career, Melville was fascinated by human variation and mutability, by ideas about norms and the facts of divergence. And from the very start, things are complicated. In the two sketches “Fragments from a Writing Desk,” published two weeks apart on May 4 and May 18, 1839, in the Democratic Press and Lansingburgh Advertiser, Melville links stories of romantic pursuit. In the first sketch, a narrator writes to an acquaintance, effusing over the charms of three young ladies, each a paragon of beauty representing classical, heavenly, and fairytale allure. In the second sketch, a narrator, possibly the same narrator, receives a billet-doux from a cloaked female figure, carrying a message from “Inamorata”: “Gentle Sir—If my fancy has painted you in genuine colours, you will on the receipt of this, incontinently follow the bearer where she will lead you.”1 With eagerness and some anxiety, the narrator follows the figure out of town, through the woods, and to a country villa, where he and his conductress are elevated to a lofty window in a basket. They enter a perfumed, mirrored apartment decorated with the splendors of the East, the perfect setting, the narrator explains, for “the matchless beauty of its inmate”: “When I first obtained a glimpse of this lovely being, she lay reclining upon an ottoman; in one hand holding a lute, and with the other lost in the profusion of her silken tresses, she supported her head” (NN PT 202). The joke, and the shock, of the paired sketches is that the sentimental narrator of the first sketch has his desires fulfilled in the odalisque of the second—but this fulfillment climaxes in a gothic exposure: “Those lustrous orbs again opened on me all their fires . . . looking her in the face, I met the same impassioned gaze; her lips moved—my senses ached with the intensity with which I listened,—all was still,—they uttered no sound; I flung her from me, even though she clung to my vesture, and with a wild cry of agony I burst C  2006 The Authors Journal compilation C  2006 The Melville Society and Blackwell Publishing Inc 1 Herman Melville, Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860, ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1987), 197. 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 S 7 S A M U E L O T T E R from the apartment!—She was dumb! Great God, she was dumb! DUMB AND DEAF!” (NN PT 204). The second sketch ends at the expense of the self-indulgent male narrator , who is appalled by the female “inmate” he has immured in his fantasies. The “lustrous orbs,” overdecorated chamber, and staggering revelation of female identity all seem reminiscent of Poe’s “Ligeia,” another story of male pursuit, first published in September 1838, although the narrator of Poe’s story seems to experience pleasure, as well as recoil, at his imaginative achievement. Both sketches from Melville’s “Writing Desk” are filled with literary and art historical allusions. Despite the verbal echo they share about a “loveliness” that “no art can [could] heighten” (NN PT 193, [202]), the two sketches suggest the role that art can play in amplifying and distorting desire. At the climax of the second sketch, muteness and deafness are left to stand as capitalized signs of monstrous defect. The reader is invited to share the narrator’s repulse and his “wild cry of agony.” “Inamorata,” who at first sight appears more than human, is ultimately revealed as only a sight, without access to sound or speech, and thus less than human. Her objectification is symbolized by her muteness and deafness, or, in the telling diction that then and now conflates the absence of conventional speech with cognitive impairment, by her “dumbness.” The narrator’s horror seems as excessive as his fantasy. Although Inamorata...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 7-16
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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