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Reviewed by:
  • Melville and the Wall of the Modern Age ed. by Arimichi Makino
  • A. Robert Lee
Arimichi Makino, Ed. Melville and the Wall of the Modern Age Tokyo: Nan’Un-Do, 2010. xii + 232 Pages

With its adventurous sightlines and new perspectives, this round of current Japanese scholarship on Melville is especially welcome. Such welcome requires, on my part, a disclosure. I know a number of the contributors personally from a fourteen-year stint teaching at Japan’s largest university and from guest editorship of the “Melville and Japan” special issue of Leviathan in October 2006. In Arimichi Makino, Melville studies has had a key player: Founder-Director of the Melville Study Center at Meiji University, Editor of the journal Sky-Hawk and a Japanese-language collection on Melville, President of Japan’s new Melville Society, and longstanding member of the International Board of Leviathan. It is fitting that he presides over the essays gathered in this volume.

Prefaced with a warm hurrah from Elizabeth Schultz, the volume opens with Makino’s “Melville from a Japanese Perspective,” a mapping of the oeuvre that takes as its departure-point Japan’s legendary Ishmael figure, John Manjiro (1827–98). Shipwrecked in the South Seas, picked up by the whaler John Howland in 1841, resident eight years in the American mainland, contemporary with Perry’s gunboat arrival in Japan in 1853, and eventually a functionary in the isolationist Tokugawa government, Manjiro was ready witness to the new American republic’s strengths and weaknesses. He could applaud democracy while decrying slavery and vulture capitalism under imperialistic Christianity. Using Manjiro as both actual personage and figura, Makino tracks Melville’s own roster of “Ishmael-heroes” (6) as they confront similar ambiguities of “the modern,” a span defined as “the rise of capitalism to the end of World War II” (3). The ensuing account, rich in its textual citations, traverses Tommo and Pacific colonialism, Taji and materialism, Ahab and market profit, and Ungar and the white supremacist codes of Manifest Destiny. It makes for a helpful overview.

Subsequent essays follow the trajectory of Melville’s writing career, each with its own particularity of thesis. Naochika Takao, in a spirited account of “ethnographic imagination” (33) in Typee, argues for Melville’s use, and complicating subversion, of the angel-devil duality found in Pacific missionary and other colonialist accounts. To this end, he invokes the role of tattoo [End Page 40] within the narrative’s “thick description of Typee custom” (30), Tommo’s revelatory if often contradictory responses to the emblematic skin markings of Kory-Kory, Karky, Marnoo, and Mow-Mow. Takao unsettles binaries hinging on South Seas otherness and analyzes Melville’s shrewd eye for the dialectics of human identity.

Tomoyuki Zettsu seeks to break new ground, proposing that Ahab might be black or mixed African-Native, his Pequod cabin tacitly analogous with that of Stowe’s Uncle Tom, and his friendship with Pip more a matter of slave affinity than of orphan adoption. In Zettsu’s view, Moby-Dick offers a variation on Southern-inflected Gothic, and we need to rethink the book’s geopolitical and racial figuring. Customarily the harpooneers have been thought to bear the multicultural charge, three continents of indigeneity. Adding Ahab to the gallery is ingenious and provocative, a modern challenge to received thinking.

Masaki Horiuchi takes on Pierre’s Isabel as shaman-priestess. He proposes Glendinning’s half-sister not only as maybe-lover but as pagan (or at least non-Christian) avatar, a beckoning figure of creative ambiguity. In her, as against Lucy or Mrs. Glendinning or the hapless Dolly, lies the incentive to escape the imprisonments of the city and of a mercantile world unreceptive to the dark aspirations of Pierre’s own writing. Horiuchi suggests an analogy with the mystical writings of Carlos Castaneda, as Pierre experiences an emerging sense of truth as numinous, a species of de-territorialized revelation that Isabel beckoningly embodies. Horiuchi ends on a teasing note, with Isabel’s corpse in the Tombs “waiting for a careful listening reader” (74).

“Bartleby” and the nature of American biography come under Ikuno Saiki’s purview. If the template in Melville’s era was Benjamin Franklin...


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