- Melville’s Mirrors: Literary Criticism and America’s Most Elusive Author by Brian Yothers
Melville’s Mirrors: Literary Criticism and America’s Most Elusive Author
Rochester : Camden House , 2011 . xii + 210 pp.
Melville, I think, would have appreciated the scope of Brian Yothers’s recent book. With rigor and grace, Melville’s Mirrors examines a topic as vast and seemingly ungraspable as Ishmael’s snowy phantom: the history of Melville criticism from 1920 to 2010. That scholarly archive is so large that, as Yothers notes, the MLA International Bibliography “lists a staggering 5,191 hits in response to a query for critical essays, books, and dissertation abstracts that take Herman Melville as a primary subject for their work” (178). That number now surpasses 6,000 and is growing steadily, a fact that puts into perspective the achievement of Melville’s Mirrors, which, in my estimation, is the most comprehensive and judicious study of Melville scholarship to date.
The book might have been less successful had it been designed as one might reasonably expect: as a chronological narrative about the development of Melville criticism. Instead, Yothers constructs a taxonomy for the major lines of critical inquiry, a classificatory system based on the family resemblances of various Melville studies. Each chapter focuses on a distinct strain of Melville scholarship: “Biographical and Textual Criticism”; “Literary Aesthetics and the Visual Arts”; “Religion, Ethics, and Epistemology”; “Gender, Sexuality, and the Body”; “Democracy, Nationalism, and War”; and “Race, Ethnicity, Empire, and Cosmopolitanism.” Across the chapters, Yothers traces the history of these approaches, and the result is an erudite, and sometimes quite surprising, account of scholarship’s longue durées. Chapter 1, for instance, charts a prehistory for the recent Melville biographies and digital archives by going back to Raymond Weaver, Lewis Mumford, Eleanor Melville Metcalf, and other members of the first Melville Revival. In a similar vein, Chapter 2 yokes late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century studies of Melville’s verbal artistry to earlier—and today, rarely referenced—studies by R.P. Blackmur, Warner Berthoff, and William Ellery Sedgwick that examined the formal and aesthetic complexities of Melville’s writing. [End Page 79]
As chapters unfold, Melville’s Mirrors also develops an argument about Melville’s elusiveness. The prodigious growth of Melville scholarship, Yothers suggests, is partly attributable to Melville’s “Protean capacity to be more or less what his readers wish him to be” (3). Readings proliferate, that is, because Melville’s writings revel in ambiguity, and because Melville’s private life—unlike that of, say, Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway—is still somewhat obscured: there is still a great deal we do not know about his sexuality, his politics, and the catalysts for shifts in his career. For Yothers, that elusiveness is embodied in two metaphors: the mirrors that fill out so many of Melville’s texts, such as Mardi (“[like] the face of a mirror . . . the ocean, upon its surface, hardly presents a sign of existence” [NN Mardi 48]) and Moby-Dick (for instance, Ishmael’s version of the story of Narcissus), and the flowing beards that “conceal Melville’s face” (Yothers 3) in almost all of his portraits and photographs. Yothers construes these figures as “potent symbol[s]” for Melville’s “capacity to evade, tantalize and frustrate his readers, increasing rather than diminishing uncertainty,” and he demonstrates that Melville’s writings have become a cynosure in American literary studies precisely because of that abiding uncertainty (3).
Out of these crisscrossing responses to Melville’s ambiguities, Yothers weaves together a compelling guide to the major critical texts and trends. Yet the book’s foremost contribution likely inheres in the deep history that it provides for contemporary scholarship. Criticism frequently depends on fictions of displacement and overturning—on “new” approaches, “turns,” and “post-”s. Melville’s Mirrors reveals that, when it comes to Melville, almost every critical interest of the early twenty-first century was a critical interest of the early and mid-twentieth century. The postsecular turn in American literary studies was anticipated, in many ways, by books like William Braswell’s Melville’s Religious Thought (1943), Nathalia Wright’s Melville’s Uses of the Bible...