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R E V I E W DENNIS BERTHOLD American Risorgimento: Herman Melville and the Cultural Politics of Italy Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2009. 291 pages. I n 1986, William Shurr noted that Melville’s “affection for Italian culture” was “a subject so far untouched by scholarly inquiry” (“Melville’s Poems” 369). Dennis Berthold has explicitly taken up the challenge (American Risorgimento 16). A disarmingly modest scholar, Berthold explains that he needed to develop a transnational perspective as he worked on American Risorgimento, finding himself continually challenged to deepen and broaden his studies beyond what he could have imagined at the outset. He pointedly avoids the dangers of transculturalism, realizing that interaction with other cultures entails a recognition and critique of imperial designs. He confesses his need to rely on the aid of Italian-speaking colleagues who summarize texts for him. Berthold treats his research and writing as a personal learning experience, develops a method as he moves along, and relies gratefully on the help of a long list of colleagues, not only in the usual sense of their furnishing references or making minor corrections but also because they teach him things he did not know. Berthold’s humility, a sort of docta ignorantia, put this reader in a positively open attitude toward the book. I was encouraged to engage with his work as a voyage of discovery, to let him share with me what he had learned along the way, as he developed his thesis that Melville is an exemplary nineteenth-century author for transnational studies and that Italian culture, politics, and history had a decisive influence on his thinking and writing. Berthold’s copious reading in critical and literary texts fully documents his subject matter, which is not the Italian Risorgimento but America’s Risorgimento and the phases of Melville’s changing attitudes toward Italy and American politics. To give an example, the Divine Comedy that interests Berthold is not Dante’s Italian original but Cary’s translation, rife with explanatory notes. Melville, attentive reader that he was, abundantly annotated his copy. In Berthold’s words, Melville “established . . . dialogic relationship with Cary’s Dante, as he did with many other authors, and thereby involved his works in a conversation at once global, historical, classical, and politically contemporary” (American Risorgimento 77). c  2012 The Melville Society and Wiley Periodicals, Inc. 50 L E V I A T H A N R E V I E W In Chapter 3, the sub-section “The Risorgimento Context of MobyDick ,” in particular the sub-sub-section colorfully titled “The Vesuvian Inkstand : Moby-Dick’s Semiotics of Italy,” marks a bold break with the prudent scholarship and textual philology of the previous pages. Berthold’s reading of Melville’s major work is daringly metaphorical. Up to this point, Berthold’s Melville had been seen in all his ambivalence, his struggle with faith and doubt, the effort to find a viable common ground between the Rights of Man and the need for authority, to reconcile the opposing concepts of “public” and “people.” When it comes to Ahab though, Berthold cuts the Gordian knot: Ahab is a “counterrevolutionary” (American Risorgimento 123) and an antirevolutionary (124), who uses popish ritual to dominate the crew. Berthold later contrasts “revolutionary Ahab” with “conservative Jack Gentian” (252), but the inconsistency is more apparent than real: Ahab is antirevolutionary toward the crew but something of a revolutionary when he seeks to “strike through the mask.” In Starbuck’s words, he is “a democrat to all above” but “look, how he lords it over all below!” (NN MD 169). That Ahab is a “tyrant” (American Risorgimento 124) is the axiomatic point of departure for Berthold’s dazzling excursus on Moby-Dick, its politics, and the proliferation of Italian references, explicit or suggested, that invest the romance with meanings. This interpretation is both original and debatable. Certainly, readers who see Ahab as a political radical are going to be at odds with Berthold’s reading. Still, these pages are for me a high point of the book. They send me back to Moby-Dick with a changed mindset, not convinced that Berthold has got it just right (after all, did not...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 50-56
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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