- Melville and the Idea of Blackness: Race and Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century America by Christopher Freeburg
With this ambitious and timely book, Christopher Freeburg negotiates between two strands of Melville scholarship. The first, dating to the Melville revival, has understood Herman Melville’s preoccupation with “blackness” as predominantly humanistic and metaphysical in nature, although in recent years it has become “both philosophical and socio-historical” (3). The second strand, coming out of the transformative effects on the academy of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and anticolonial movements of the 1960s and 1970s, emphasizes the political and cultural contexts for the globetrotting sailor-turned-novelist’s literary investments in a blackness undeniably linked to slavery and Western imperialism. Acknowledging that other scholars, notably Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark 1992 and Teresa Goddu in Gothic America 1997, have examined the productive, complicated relations between these two modes in antebellum literature, Freeburg directs our attention to Melville’s distinctive probing of a multivalent blackness in selected works of fiction from the 1850s.
Freeburg’s conclusion is that “to understand fully Melville’s ‘power of blackness’ and its connection to slave revolts, Indian genocide, and colonial subjugation in the antebellum Americas, one must disturb the ready-made link between blackness and the lived condition of black people,” while appreciating that “for Melville blackness is not always racial but a figurative blackness to which racial difference is explicitly significant” (2). To demonstrate this point, Freeburg focuses not only on Melville’s black or darkly racialized characters, but also on the pervasive “black” or “dark” moods and settings in Melville’s mid-century fiction, most notably “The Encantadas” (1854). Throughout, Freeburg argues, blackness—often, but not exclusively, associated with racial encounters—marks the inevitable failure or impasse of Melville’s white/Western male protagonists to attain mastery, or even masterful knowledge, of self and others. Think not just Ahab with Pip, but Ishmael with Queequeg; Pierre with Isabel; the late Alexandro Aranda, Benito Cereno, and Amasa Delano with [End Page 36] Babo, Atufal, and the “Ashantee conjurors”; and the Dog-King and Oberlus with the human and other populations of the “Gallipagos.”
The treatment of the last, in “The Encantadas,” is perhaps the most persuasive reading in Melville and the Idea of Blackness. Here the figurative blackness of the volcanic island’s landscape, right down to its tortoises, stands in equipoise with Melville’s evocations of (in this case, unsuccessful) Western imperialist bids for mastery over non-white peoples and places. This final chapter opens, as its predecessors do, by establishing a historical framework for the ensuing analysis. Freeburg begins by exposing what we might—simultaneously reverting to cliché and inverting Melville’s inversion of it in his figure of the tortoise’s “bright” underside—call the dark underbelly of antebellum American expansionist rhetoric. Specifically, Freeburg surveys articles in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, where the story first appeared, disclosing a fear of paralyzing stagnation—indeed, of timelessness—which an absence of such manifestly destined historical progression would seem to entail. Read against this backdrop, the Dog-King’s and Oberlus’s failed efforts at domination clarify the narrator’s morbid fascination with the sublimely aged (and thus hauntingly ageless) tortoise alongside the other black and blackened elements of an island seemingly destined for, but persistently impervious to, imperial conquest.
In Pierre 1852, Freeburg finds more than a critique of antebellum reformers’ difficulties reconciling the era’s far-reaching social and philosophical theories with the practice of everyday life. Instead, he suggests, reading the novel against polemics by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Orestes Brownson, and Theodore Parker, the danger lies in the inevitably delusive self-interest that separates such idealists from the morally perfect Christ upon whom they would pattern their actions, especially as they encounter the dark others whom Parker calls “The Dangerous Classes.” Whether benevolent or exploitative (or some combination of the two), Pierre’s doomed efforts on behalf of Isabel reveal this truth; her black hair and racially opaque (but decidedly nonwhite) heritage signal her...