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Abstracts ALA 2007—Boston Melville and the Meaning of Genre CHAIR: ELIZABETH RENKER, OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY Left to right: Panelists Walt Nott, Jason Corner, Wyn Kelley, Peter Norberg, and Chair Elizabeth Renker. Photo courtesy of Wyn Kelley I s the concept of “genre” a meaningful one for understanding Melville? As scholars have long discussed, his career appears to move among what we might construe to be recognizable generic traditions (travel narrative, romance, sketch, tale, public poetry, the epic, and the lyric, for example) but also to contest them. (What kind of book is Moby-Dick? Is Pierre a sentimental novel? Why are the late poems mixed with prose, and why is the late prose mixed with poems? And what on earth is an “inside narrative”?) Scholars have presented arguments linking Melville’s relation to genre to both metaphysical and marketplace quarrels. The Melville Society’s ALA session this year explored in fresh ways the uses and limits of the concept of “genre” to Melville studies, addressing all stages of his career, from his earliest tales to his late unpublished poems. C  2007 The Authors Journal compilation C  2007 The Melville Society and Blackwell Publishing Inc 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 173 E X T R A C T S “From ‘Fragments’ to ‘Rammon’: Poetry as Consolation” Peter Norberg Saint Joseph’s University T he narrator of Herman Melville’s “Fragments from a Writing Desk” weaves into his prose verses from writers including Shakespeare, Byron , Milton, Campbell, Burke, Coleridge, and Sheridan. These pretentious allusions to poetry illustrate an ironic attitude toward the literary conventions of romanticism, one that complicates our understanding of Melville’s turn to poetry later in his career. In “Fragments from a Writing Desk,” the narrator’s facility with romantic poetry in the first fragment, and its use in fashionable modes of courtship, ultimately renders him incomprehensible to the woman he would seduce in the second fragment. His claim in the final sentence that “she was dumb! DUMB AND DEAF!” should be read figuratively as an ironic commentary on the narrator’s own inability to communicate with her except via the stylized conventions of literary discourse. The irony of Melville’s prose works to reveal the deficiencies the narrator tries to hide behind the masque of poetic erudition he performs in the first fragment. The genre of poetry in “Fragments” serves as a sign of what I call moments of discursive disjunction, moments of mis-communication, or noncommunication that occur when one person fails to recognize the conventions of discourse being spoken by another. Such moments are crucial in many of Melville’s mature works—Bartleby’s “I prefer not to,” Babo’s silence before the law, or Billy Budd’s inability to respond in words to Claggart’s accusations are only the most obvious. However, by the end of Melville’s career, poetry no longer signifies discursive disjunction in his writings. Instead, it represents a form of consolation, which while acknowledging our failure to achieve full communion with one another, nonetheless offers us the solace of shared sentiments—sentiments of grief, of desire, of peace. “Billy in the Darbies” is a strong example of Melville’s revaluation of poetry along these lines. By first examining Melville’s ironic use of poetic allusions in “Fragments from a Writing Desk,” and then comparing this use with the status he accords to poetry in “Rammon and ‘The Enviable Isles,’” we can gain a better sense of Melville’s reasons for revaluing the genres of poetry. In “Rammon and ‘The Enviable Isles,’” Melville established a comparable opposition between poetry and prose when he uses the characters Rammon and Zardi to draw a contrast between “the romancer and poet.” Rammon is a young king, deeply engaged with philosophical and theological questions “that never cease agitating his heart.” Zardi is a worldly, commercial trader who “had never seriously considered [such questions], holding them not more abstruse 174 L E V I A T H A N A B S T R A C T...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
p. 173
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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