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  • A Monument upon a Hill:Antebellum Commemoration Culture, the Here-and-Now, and Democratic Citizenship in Melville’s Israel Potter
  • Joshua Tendler (bio)

Democracy has no forefathers, it looks to no posterity; it is swallowed up in the present, and thinks of nothing but itself. This is the vice of Democracy, and it is incurable. Democracy has no monuments. It strikes no medals. It bears the head of no man on a coin; its very essence is iconoclastic. —John Quincy Adams, Memoirs


While almost all of Melville’s works have been taken up by a revival of substantial scholarly interest at some point over the course of the last century—most recently his poetic works—Israel Potter; His Fifty Years of Exile remains largely at the margins of its author’s canon.2 Modern criticism of Israel Potter can be divided into roughly two lineages, both of which are descended from the New Criticism’s dismissal of the novel. On the one hand is a line of scholarship devoted to finding thematic and structural unities in a text often condemned for formal faults and incoherence.3 On the other hand, and far more predominant, is scholarship that focuses on the variegated layers of social critique embedded in the novel, highlighting Israel Potter’s subversion of the “sacred cows” of American historiography. This vein of criticism generally revolves around the theme of the unfortunate fate of the common man in an economically-minded, hero-worshipping print culture.4 In much criticism of Israel Potter, such as that of Russell Reising and Russ Castronovo, a “common man” ideology critique [End Page 29] of the exclusionary nature of authorized versions of history forms the central pivot.5 From this perspective, not only does the novel appear relatively straightforward, but its object of irony—monumental history—is likewise transparent. I argue, however, that neither Israel Potter nor its critical object is as straightforward as it might appear. Rather than offering a simple critique of America’s myth of origins and historical amnesia, Israel Potter traces how antebellum commemoration culture articulated a reformist agenda through a recalibration of time, specifically by devaluing the democratic “present,” to paraphrase the passage of John Quincy Adams above, while valorizing a carefully-crafted sense of a past and the hope of its future fulfillment. Melville’s novel, in other words, suggests that commemoration culture reroutes the heterogeneity of unruly contestation and desires in the present, or what Marxist-inflected scholarship usually calls the “here and now,” into a coded, unreachable past that must be reconstituted in an endlessly-deferred horizon of the future. Potter’s exile is, I contend, a state of temporal dislocation into the antebellum present, just as it is a textual dislocation from Potter’s ghost-written autobiography into Melville’s more complicated fictional universe. The fantasy of escaping the entanglements of the “here and now” and returning to the commemorative ideal—symbolized as his past, static “mountain home”—serves as the motor behind those desires and actions that propel him onward towards a satisfaction that can and will never arrive.

In framing the novel with an emphasis on the specific relationship between a reformist politics of interior and national purity and the deferred temporality at work in commemorative discourse, my argument seeks to build from and compliment extant scholarship on the novel that has focused on how it comments upon the politics of racial difference and conflict primarily within the contexts of either history or “national space.”6 Antebellum reform not only worked to discipline bodies and desires into an exclusionary grid of class-inflected norms, but sought this end through a remapping of the subject’s relation to space and time.7 The antebellum United States, as Lloyd Pratt reports, was the “site of a conflicted experience of time” characteristic of modernity, and authors deployed the diachronic heterogeneity of temporalities in ways that “forbid” the synchronic “homogeneously linear time” of U.S. nationalism.8 What the complex diachronicity of Israel Potter suggests is that “homogeneous, empty time” itself is neither homogeneous nor synchronic. It likewise suggests that the linearity associated with the progressive narrative of triumph was not exactly linear, but predicated...


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pp. 29-50
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