- Melville and the Worlds of Civil War Poetry
I would like to begin by remembering my friend Douglas Robillard, who died in June 2012. Doug worked tirelessly on behalf of Melville the poet for decades, even when few shared his passion. We are now in the midst of an impressive surge in fresh work, a shift for which Doug helped to cultivate the ground. One marker for this new phase is a book of essays, the first dedicated exclusively to Melville the poet, that Doug began and that Sanford E. Marovitz completed, edited, and shepherded through the press, published last November by Kent State University Press. Sandy and Doug’s book is a significant institutional marker in the ongoing historical process I am going to talk about today: the evolution of Melville the poet’s place in our culture. That larger picture is one in which we have made great recent progress; however, stubborn inherited narratives about Melville’s Civil War poetry, and his poetry more generally, remain stuck in the national and scholarly imaginary. We still have much work to do, and I’ll turn to what I see as some of the lingering problems, as well as the promising present conditions for change, in conclusion.1
On Melville’s birthday in 2011, The Atlantic posted a web story with the headline, “Herman Melville’s Mediocre Civil War Poetry” (Barkhorn). The hook of the story is that “An Atlantic review of his 1866 collection of Civil War-inspired verse . . . reveals why Melville’s poetry has been mostly forgotten in the years since his death.” This familiar story of Melville’s allegedly bad poetry does not engage any poems; it simply reprints the negative 1867 review of Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War by William Dean Howells and treats Howells’ assessment as authoritative. American literary histories and histories of American poetry have long circulated equally casual dismissals, often without reading, discussing, or thinking about the actual poems themselves. The familiar tale has become so widely accepted as part of literary history that scholars are not obligated to substantiate it.
Two scholarly trends have created uniquely promising institutional conditions for overturning this entrenched account. First, the larger community of Melville scholars is studying and discussing the poetry in a way that is historically unprecedented. Marovitz’s superb essay collection is one sign of this change. (A notable nugget in the history of this volume is that, when Doug and [End Page 135] I started strategizing about it, now many years ago, we could not find enough people able and willing to write on the topic.) From an institutional standpoint, this turn is very important, in part because its timing intersects with a surge of new scholarship in another subfield in English: American poetry of the nineteenth-century. Some scholars use Shira Wolosky’s 2003 coinage “historical poetics” as shorthand for the recent reconfiguration of poetics scholarship as an array of largely post-canonical methodologies that situate poetry in its thick history (Wolosky, “Claims”). Its core methods include book history, transatlantic and transhemispheric studies, gender studies, social history, periodical studies, genre sociology, and reception studies in particular.2 For institutional reasons too complex for me to historicize accurately here, the subfields of Melville studies and historical poetics have operated as mostly (but not exclusively) separate worlds. Integrating the larger trends in these two scholarly areas will position Melville to play an invigorated and a freshly conceived role in our expanded understanding of nineteenth-century poetics.
The term “worlds” in my title refers to three discrete historical moments across a chronological span of 150 years. These moments tell a story about how Melville (as historical agent) and “Melville” (as author-category) intersected with the genre of Civil War poetry as it emerged and as it developed in subsequent decades. First, I analyze Melville’s embeddedness in the immediate and vital world of war poetry circulating in his time, a world with which he was intimately familiar. Second, I turn to the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth century. This postbellum world retrospectively constructed Melville as a Civil War poet for its own cultural purposes. I conclude with Melville’s current status...