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  • C19 2014—Chapel Hill, NCMelville in Common: History, Politics, Aesthetics, and C19 Studies
  • Jennifer Greiman, Chair

A writer who seemed to have little in common with his contemporaries, Herman Melville has become the author whom nineteenth-century Americanists now have most in common with one another. As Maurice Lee showed in the review of 130 nineteenth-century US literature survey courses that he presented at the 2014 C19 conference—and as the conference program itself indicated—Melville is taught and talked about more than any other single author in nineteenth-century American literature. This panel took this year’s conference theme, “Commons,” as an opportunity to reflect on how and why scholars find so much common ground in thinking through and with Melville. Contemporary research on Melville represents an astonishing variety of methodological and theoretical approaches, with the best-known works in Melville’s corpus (Moby-Dick, “Bartleby,” “Benito Cereno”) standing at the center of studies on legal history, labor and capital, poverty and race, democracy and political theory, philosophy, form, aesthetics, and so on. All of these presenters spoke to what this common ground in Melville tells us about canonicity, genre, periodization, and methodology in the field. But they did this, not by returning to the most familiar texts in Melville’s corpus, but by considering Melville’s common appeal from the perspective of far less familiar sites in Melville’s work and its critical history: the man-haters, the verse within the prose, the early critical debates, and the late poetry. [End Page 99]

Melville’s Misanthropology and the Limits of the Common Michael Jonik, University of Sussex

At the same time that it is populated by cosy loving pairs or fraternal allies, universal citizens or de-particularized Bartlebies from a community to come, Melville’s writing provides manifold figures of disaggregation and non-commonality. From Ahab to Claggart, from the Dog-King to Timophanes, and from the Marquesan missionaries to the metaphysicians of Indian-hating, his communitarians are irrevocably complemented by his isolatos, man-haters, and misanthropes. What would happen, then, if instead of taking Bartleby or Ishmael-Queequeg as our starting points for thinking about commonality, we took Melville’s misanthropes? How might they mark the limits of the common or put into question how we have come to deploy his scenes of commonality? Do misanthropes merely thwart the intersubjective possibilities of the common—through egotism, paternal power, mistrust, or hatred—or do they at once open another space of difference (not-sameness) and/or irreducible singularity? To sketch a provisional response to these questions, I explore what could be called Melville’s “misanthropology.” This misanthropology is most fully realized in The Confidence-Man through a series of interwoven philosophical guises and interlocutors—Pitch, Charlie Noble, Moredock, Judge Hall, Francis Goodman, Charlemont, a cosmopolitan, and a stranger—as Melville teases out the paradoxes inherent to the misanthrope and considers not only the vacillations of a man, but those of this strange “we” that is the common. Lastly, I gesture toward a mis-anthropology that critiques the “advance of genialization” insofar as it self-justifies Indian-hating on the basis of Christian philanthropy, as well as a post-human mis-anthropology that is dramatized in the non-human communities of “The Encantadas.”

Sharing Poetry in Mardi and White-Jacket ; Or, Why American Poetry is American Literature Lauren Kimball, Rutgers University

Mardi and White-Jacket are early examples of Melville thinking with and about poetry, particularly poetry’s ability to represent a community. Like the sailorbard of Mardi who sings history in real-time, Melville uses verse in Mardi to narrate collective experience, an important development in perspective and experimentation with dramatic chorus that anticipates his later fiction. For the crew of the Neversink in White-Jacket, poetic performance is a highly desired [End Page 100] and inevitable part of shipboard public life best expressed in their attempt to stage a theatrical performance at sea. Their ship culture does not, by contrast, support the private musings of the solitary poet or conformity to the Christian philanthropic ideal of the pious and literate worker. As what Marcus Rediker calls a diverse “speech community” that self-selects a shared...


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