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  • Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the Conference on Melville and Whitman in Washington
  • Paul M. Wright

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Photo courtesy of Judith Wright.

Were I fastidiously anxious for the symmetry of this conference, I would allow its closing notes to resound their long recall and refrain from commenting, but all literary scruples are overridden by John Bryant’s gracious offer of a byline in Leviathan.

Because this was a conference on both Melville and Whitman, I am tempted to remember that Allen Ginsberg famously claimed in what he called a “lineage of gossip” that he had slept with Neal Cassady, who had slept with Gavin Arthur, who had slept with Edward Carpenter, who had slept with Walt Whitman. I cannot claim as intimate or extended a lineage to Melville, but I did study his life and works forty years ago with Sidney Kaplan, who was F. O. Matthiessen’s student, and with Robert Ryan, who studied under Harrison Hayford, and thus I was exposed to both the political/ideological and the textual/genealogical strains in Melville studies and, through them, to the Melville revival that began in the 1920s. If not exactly a shock of recognition, this intellectual lineage creates at least a tingle. [End Page 160]

The text that I focused on in those far-off days of the last century was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, which was something of a neglected orphan, along with Clarel, in Melville’s oeuvre among scholars and critics, who concentrated justifiably on the great prose masterpieces of Moby-Dick, Benito Cereno, and Billy Budd. Thanks to Kaplan I had become a student of American history as well as American literature, and Battle-Pieces offered an opportunity to explore both Melville and the Civil War. It helped that Kaplan had just published an annotated paperback edition of Battle-Pieces in 1972 with the University of Massachusetts Press, where I was working as an editor at the time. And when I came to study with Ryan, it helped a great deal that he had edited Melville’s unpublished poetry and had developed an excellent ear for and command of Melville’s often difficult verse. Those who read Battle-Pieces are often brought up short by Melville’s apparently clanking rhymes and violated meters, which require us to read hard to figure out what he was up to. Bob Ryan taught me how to read Battle-Pieces as poetry, and Sid Kaplan taught me how to read the book as a historical document.

Imagine my delight, then, to come to a conference populated with young, smart, energetic scholars who were taking seriously the Melville of the Civil War poems and offering by rough count some 37 papers (out of roughly 125) dealing in whole or in part with aspects of Battle-Pieces. Indeed there were so many that I was not able to hear all of them. One wishes there were (and perhaps the Internet could offer via Dropbox) a limbo where scholarly papers still in process could be made available for study before they have atoned for their venial sins and ascended into the paradise of peer-reviewed publication: a sort of messy, incomplete conference proceedings that would fly under the radar of tenure and promotion committees. Because my notes are cryptic and incomplete and because I missed some of them, I shall refrain from mentioning by author’s name or title the many excellent papers delivered on race, gender, philosophy, ethics, labor, nationalism, memory, sexuality, politics, poetics, and aesthetics. The quality seemed to me uniformly high, the scholarship deep, and the critical commentary sharp and focused.

I would, nonetheless, like to call attention to Evander Price’s stimulating paper, “Foreshadowing a Disaster: A Coming Storm,” which resonated with my long-term interest in wood-engravings, paintings, and the graphic arts in relation to individual poems in Battle-Pieces. Price treated Sanford Robinson Gifford’s “A Coming Storm” (1863), one of the featured paintings in a major Smithsonian American Art Museum show I had recently seen on “The Civil War and American Art,” which unfortunately had moved on to the Metropolitan Museum in New York by the...


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pp. 160-163
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