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The Shadows of Reconstruction: Marriage and Reunion in Melville’s “The Scout toward Aldie” GRANT SHREVE Johns Hopkins University D espite the surge of critical interest in Battle-Pieces (1866), Melville’s first collection of poetry, little attention has been paid to the collection ’s longest poem, “The Scout toward Aldie.” Even the poem’s most astute commentators have emphasized its apparent defects only to extol its biographical and historical attributes. But Melville was never satisfied with mere reportage. The historical and biographical specificity of his poem’s subject has distracted readers from the mythic and proleptic intentions of the poem. Here, I would like to re-situate “The Scout toward Aldie” within Battle-Pieces and consider its relation to contemporary social discourses and metaphors of reunification in the wake of the Civil War. In “Scout,” Melville uses a particular wartime experience as the basis for a prophetic utterance that calls attention to the dire problematics at the heart of Reconstruction and the dangerous implications of the sentimental figure of marriage through which that process was then being rendered. In the years leading up to the Civil War, as intersectional strife escalated and tensions among the states became strained, writers and orators applied the figure of marriage as both a salve to the burgeoning hostilities and a trope by which the looming separation could be more clearly conceived. This “nuptial analogy,” observes Gregory Jackson, was adopted by northern and southern writers alike to “arbitrate regional political differences” and to mediate the mounting antipathy between North and South (Jackson 283).1 Nina Silber in The Romance of Reunion similarly observes that the “image of marriage between northern men and southern women stood at the foundation of the late-nineteenth-century culture of conciliation and became a symbol which defined and justified the northern view of the power relations in the reunified nation” (Silber 6-7). As the victor of the war, the Union quickly asserted a martial, masculine identity and publicly portrayed the South as a chaotic, cruel, and imprudent woman that required the guiding hand of a steadfast man. Recasting the c  2012 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 9 G R A N T S H R E V E South as a submissive woman and placing “southern men and woman under a proper model of northern manhood” (Silber 38) was the implicit goal of the northern reunion romances, intended to proclaim the physical dominance of the Union over the Confederacy and undermine the long-held “myth of the Southern ‘cavalier’ ” (Fahs 65). Their sentimental veneer veiled unspoken anxieties about Southern masculinity and aggression. For much of the war, northerners had been “psychologically terrorized by the image of the masterful southern soldier” (Silber 18). Victory presented an opportunity for the North to abolish the vigorous image of masculinity that the South had long possessed and to claim an authority through the use of a gendered model of reconciliation and a conventional narrative of courtship. Northern anxieties about Southern masculinity became embodied in the subtle effort during Reconstruction to “keep southern manhood in check while keeping the northern model of masculinity in the ascendancy” (42). Sentimental uses of the nuptial analogy, as well, allowed for the construction of a national narrative that mirrored a courtship plot. Karen Tracey has called the courtship plot the “most recognized narrative in nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction” (Tracey 28). This plot, whose “relentless predictability . . . reinforces, replicates, or registers oppressive cultural dictates” (29) becomes especially problematic for Melville when it bleeds onto the field of battle, obscuring the terrifying reality of a guerrilla war, a form of combat that threatened to continue even after the Confederacy’s formal surrender. Although the oppressive utilization of the nuptial analogy by sentimental writers became most problematic during the period of Radical Reconstruction (1867–77) and after Melville had published Battle-Pieces, it had been circulating through public discourse in the United States as early as 1852 (Jackson 281). Thus, Melville is not responding...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 9-23
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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