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  • Melville’s Liminal Bachelor and the Making of Middle-Class Manhood in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine
  • Timothy Helwig (bio)

Critical studies of Herman Melville’s short stories of the mid-1850s, the infamous period at which Melville is said to have “gone underground” out of frustration with his reading public’s lack of appreciation for the more experimental writing seen in Mardi and Moby-Dick, tend to draw generalizations between his entries in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and Putnam’s Monthly Magazine.1 The common line of analysis holds that Melville stories like “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!” and “Poor Man’s Pudding and Rich Man’s Crumbs,” both published in Harper’s, reflect that periodical’s preference for a sentimental style of writing and a capitulation to middle-class values, while his stories like “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno,” published in Putnam’s, demonstrate the more politically engaged and psychologically complex writing that marks his best literary productions.2 While these latter stories are especially deserving of the robust critical attention they have received in the past thirty years, neglected stories like “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!” and “Poor Man’s Pudding and Rich Man’s Crumbs,” when carefully contextualized with other bachelor stories and illustrations appearing in Harper’s, offer a unique opportunity to consider the complex ways Melville’s writing meditates on residual and emergent definitions of manhood of the antebellum period. Through the bachelor figure who narrates each story, Melville challenges key tenets of entrepreneurial manhood, expresses nostalgia for less alienated forms of masculinity associated with America’s agrarian past, and builds an alliance between the bachelor and the working classes that preserves the importance of civic virtue and thereby challenges Harper’s conventional depictions of bachelors as hapless foils to the socially disengaged middle-class married man.

During the three decades leading up to the Civil War, the systematic erosion of the craft system of labor and the gradual rise of industrial capitalism had profound effects on what it meant to be a man. Pride in one’s craft and the [End Page 1] exercising of civic virtue, what David Leverenz calls the “artisan paradigm” of masculinity, were challenged by the entrepreneurial spirit of the professional middle-class man.3 Instead of more communal relationships among master artisans, journeymen, and their apprentices, alienated forms of labor and the fear of becoming dominated by other men in a public sphere separated men increasingly from the world of the home and the family and from each other. Instead of lording benevolently over the self-sustaining family farm in rural climes or the artisan’s home in the city, the new middle-class man was supposed to find solace in the rejuvenating power of the private sphere, a refuge from the sordid daily competition for capital and the abstract forms of managerial power in the public sphere. With its promise of retreat from the world’s problems into the private sphere predicated upon the heteronormative institutions of marriage and the family, laissez-faire capitalism offered professional middle-class men a sanctioned alternative to the virtues of civic engagement and community.

Yet, as Sean Wilentz and other labor historians have shown, the ideology of liberal capitalism did not go unchallenged during the antebellum period. Artisan republican rhetoric, with its roots in classical republican attacks of the eighteenth century against the tyranny of the British crown, was taken up by the skilled working classes to express their anxieties about the new market economy and persisted at least into the 1850s. Artisans employed republican discourse that called upon citizens to act virtuously to protect the commonwealth and to subordinate private self interest for the public good in order to condemn merchants and industrial capitalists who could set wages and exploit others’ labor for economic gain. Wilentz locates iterations of artisan republican rhetoric in “court records, ceremonial speeches, contemporary prints and drawings, and accounts of parades and festivals” among the working classes in the first half of the nineteenth century.4

In popular expressions of this class-accented conflict over ideal manhood, the bachelor proved an especially effective touchstone, enabling nostalgia for a preindustrial commitment to civic virtue, as well as...


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pp. 1-20
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