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R E V I E W TIMOTHY MARR The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Cloth $75.00; Paper $24.99. 324 pp. S cholars have long found Melville’s engagement with the elation and terror associated with intercultural contact, as well as with religious faith and doubt, to be crucial to understanding his body of work. For the most part, however, discussions of these issues have focused on Melville’s representations of South Seas “cannibals” and his ambivalent relationship to Christianity. Timothy Marr’s The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism expands our understanding of Melville’s treatment of cross-cultural contact and religious belief by providing a subtle analysis of Melville’s appropriation and reinvention of popular representations of Islam in the nineteenth-century United States. Marr devotes only one chapter entirely to Melville, but the book as a whole evinces a truly Melvillean scope and ambition, and throughout the study, Marr discusses figures likely to engage Melville scholars deeply. Marr argues that American practices of representing Islam, for which he uses the shorthand term islamicism (an adaptation of Edward Said’s use of “orientalism ”), are crucial to the development of a national identity for the United States, particularly in relation to international affairs. He examines, with considerable thoroughness and erudition, the ways in which Islam served as a foil for America’s own self-identification with liberty, as a standard against which to measure Christian hypocrisy (particularly in relation to slavery and temperance), and as a source of romantic and exotic tropes that could provide alternative models of masculinity in nineteenth-century America. For Melville scholars, these three components of American islamicism provide suggestive parallels with Melville’s own most central themes. In the first half of American Islamicism, Marr begins by showing the significance of representations of Islam for early nineteenth-century conceptions of American liberty. He analyzes the development of an “imperialism of virtue,” in early American writing ranging from Barbary captivity narratives to missionary narratives, based on oppositions between American freedom and Islamic despotism, American virtue and Islamic vice, and American respect for women and Islamic repression of women. Marr notes that islamicism plays a dual role in these works: on the one hand, it reaffirms certain central elements of American self-fashioning, such as liberty, fairness, and virtue, but on the 146 L E V I A T H A N R E V I E W other hand, it also allows figures ranging from Royall Tyler and Benjamin Franklin to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Lydia Maria Child to skewer American hypocrisy about such matters as slavery, temperance, and even the treatment of women. Marr also discusses, although in somewhat less detail, the fascination that the Prophet Mohammed exercised upon Washington Irving, among others , and he devotes a chapter to the role of American representations of Islam in shaping the American Protestant response to Mormonism, another religion associated in the mainstream American Protestant mind with polygamy and the introduction of heretical new scriptures. Marr’s fifth chapter, “American Ishmael: Herman Melville’s Literary Islamicism,” will most engage literary scholars in general and Melvilleans in particular. Marr argues that Melville was “invested in the evolving conventions of nineteenth-century Islamic orientalism, including its resources for romanticizing the privileges of patriarchy” (219), and that this investment laid the groundwork for Melville’s “own rebellious authority” (221). Marr sees Melville’s early work as engaged in the same tradition of “counterdespotism” that characterized abolitionist appropriations of islamicist discourses to attack the persistence of slavery in America. In White-Jacket and Moby-Dick, Melville uses consistent references to oriental despotism in his descriptions of Captain Claret and Captain Ahab, respectively. Moreover, Marr argues, Melville deploys Christian fascination with and fearfulness of the charisma of the Prophet Mohammed to develop Captain Ahab’s own romantic dæmonism. In this way, despite the array of negative orientalist stereotypes that make up the character of Fedallah, Ahab’s sinister other half, Melville ultimately employs islamicist representations of oriental despotism constructively, making them into “a model of his own rebellious power as author of ‘wicked’ literary worlds” (231). Melville’s complex response to islamicism appears...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 146-149
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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