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  • Melvilleans and Whitmanians in Washington, DC
  • Martina Pfeiler

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Photo courtesy of Dirk Hampel.

On 3 June 2013, I flew from Düsseldorf to Washington in order to participate in the Ninth International Melville Society Conference, “Melville and Whitman in Washington: The Civil War Years and After,” at George Washington University. Although it was nearly summer, I had a black woolen hat in my suitcase, which belonged to Prof. Giorgio Mariani. I had the pleasure of meeting him two years ago, when he served as an organizer and host of the Eighth International Melville Society Conference in Rome, where I first encountered the renowned Melvilleans who have been dear to me ever since. Prof. Mariani had bought his hat in New Jersey twenty years ago, but how did it get into my suitcase? Let me briefly explain. Prof. Mariani visited our American Studies department in Dortmund, Germany, not long after the memorable conference in Rome, serving as a senior expert for our annual “Ruhr PhD Forum in American Studies.” In snow-covered Dortmund, he not only left our PhD students with insightful ideas for their projects, but also the aforementioned hat, only to be reunited with it on a very hot day in Washington D.C. This story could serve as a parable of [End Page 157] interconnectedness in the transnational human web that the Melville Society has been weaving ever since its foundation.

Christopher Sten and Joseph Fruscione, our local hosts at GWU, were the lead Melville Society organizers of the conference. They, along with many others, helped to produce a conference that was both intellectually stimulating and fun, not to mention technically highly advanced (a special conference app, a Facebook group, and Twitter postings).

Including numerous renowned Whitman scholars as well as talks on Melville’s contemporaries—Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, and Frederick Douglass—the conference was a nineteenth-century U.S. literary gam, with a digital humanities twist. There were more than 130 papers, four plenary talks by distinguished professors John Bryant, Ed Folsom, Kenneth Price and Elizabeth Renker, two teaching round-tables, a series of two-minute “Lightning Talks,” and a meditation session organized by Neil Richardson. The topics ranged widely: politics, nationalism, race, labor and economics, religion, trauma, sexuality and the body, gender, hospitals and soldiers, poetics, aesthetics, ethics, philosophy, and transnational receptions, translations, and adaptations of Melville’s texts.

Perhaps nothing could capture the many thematic threads of the conference so fully as Ed Folsom’s plenary lecture titled “‘That towering bulge of pure white:’ Whitman, Melville, the Capitol Dome, and Black America.” In his talk, Folsom explored the various strands of competing political and social discourses (laboriously retrieved from paper and digital archives) surrounding the racialized “Statue of Freedom” placed on top of the Capitol Dome in 1863, which elicited numerous contemporary reactions regarding its symbolic function. A couple of days later, I could easily draw a connection to John Bryant’s lecture, “How Billy Budd Grew Black and Beautiful: Versions of Melville in the Digital Age,” to observe once more the discursive power of fluid texts (including architectural ones) when uncovered in the realm of digital humanities.

Similarly, the theme of adaptations and appropriations of Melville’s and Whitman’s texts by other artists ran through a number of presentations, such as those by Robert Wallace (whose book, Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick, a Grand Opera for the 21st Century, had just come out) and Giorgio Mariani, who focused on the creative reception of Moby-Dick in two recent Italian stage productions. My own talk concentrated on two musical Battle-Pieces adaptations by Warren M. Swenson (sung by the African-American tenor George Shirley) and Luigi Nono’s Risonanze Erranti, which remixes excerpts from Battle-Pieces poems and Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem “Keine Delikatessen.” Numerous scholars who were in attendance, including Wyn Kelley, Don Dingledine, and Timothy Marr, also research the presence of Moby-Dick in various media. [End Page 158]

In this spirit, we had the chance to attend two creative receptions of Melville and Whitman’s work. On June 6, we were invited to an exhibition titled “After Melville and Whitman,” presenting...


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