- Introduction to Walter Bezanson’s “Interplanetary Criticism”
Leviathan is pleased to print Walter E. Bezanson’s unpublished review of Richard Chase’s Herman Melville: A Critical Study (1949). A founder of the Melville Society and one of the most influential scholars in Melville studies, Bezanson is best known for teaching the field how to read Clarel when, as Hershel Parker put it, “no one else alive could make sense of the whole thing” (38). But before he assembled his magisterial edition of Clarel for Hendricks House (1960), Bezanson tried to publish this long, characteristically perceptive review of Chase in the summer of 1953. His papers at the Melville Society Archive include several drafts of the essay along with terse rejection notices from the Partisan Review and The Western Review. It is possible that Bezanson could not find a home for this piece because he wrote it almost four years after Chase’s book was published or because he wrote it in a playful style, reflected in its curious title, “Interplanetary Criticism.” Chase’s controversial study of Melville’s life and writing has been the subject of renewed critical interest (see Castiglia and Fleissner), making timely Bezanson’s insights into the value and danger of Chase’s thinking. Bezanson’s review locates Chase’s place among the contentious scene of postwar literary criticism, a field torn among historical scholarship, New Criticism, and the emergent genre of politically engaged, culturally relevant, “interplanetary” criticism.
What made Chase’s criticism so alien that Bezanson would call it “inter-planetary”? Certainly there were other Americanists of the 1940s and 50s—such as F. O. Matthiessen, Newton Arvin, and Leslie Fiedler—who wrote with an urgent sense of the past’s relevance to the present, but Chase’s writing is exceptional in that it repeatedly returns to a blatantly “presentist” question about Melville’s works: “What do they say to us in our time of troubles?” (Herman Melville xii). When Chase finished the Melville book, he joked to his mentor Lionel Trilling that “you have never seen any cultural relevance either so cultural or so relevant,” and despite his comic self-awareness, he was hardly exaggerating (The Lionel Trilling Papers). In the first sentences, Chase [End Page 129] proclaims that Melville can help postwar intellectuals “ransom liberalism from the ruinous sellouts . . . of the thirties,” and he continuously raises a number of postwar cultural concerns: the seductions of liberalism’s “spurious optimism,” the dangers of Stalinism, the tension between intellectuals and state authority, the torment of homosexuals at the beginning of the Lavender Scare, and a widespread sense of existential despair during the age of the atom bomb (vii). Ultimately Chase presents Melville as a prophetic voice for “the new liberalism”: a liberalism that is committed to greater “self-criticism,” that recognizes its compromised place within power structures, and that is based in the moderate “Vital Center” politics of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (206–209).
Early reviewers of Herman Melville: A Critical Study were torn between celebrating Chase’s eloquent, personal, and at times poetic prose and critiquing his extravagant leaps between present and past. Fiedler, for instance, was hardly convinced of Melville’s “new liberalism,” but he wrote that Chase “is wrong so much more boldly and rewardingly than anyone else has known how to be that it would be a shame to hold it against him” (494). The harshest criticisms came from Alfred Kazin and Bezanson’s fellow Melvillean, Harrison Hayford. For Kazin, Chase’s effort to make Melville “the Messiah of New Liberalism” demanded sacrificing the “experience” of literature “to the abstracts of a moral lesson” (70). And from Hayford’s scholarly perspective, Chase’s desire to make Melville speak to the twentieth century led him “to ignore or misinterpret the primary surface of the works” and to an “unconcern with Melville’s actual biography.” The result, Hayford argued, amounted to a “casualness about facts” and much “confusion and distortion” (130–131). By 1951, Chase had developed a rather “spacey” reputation among Melville scholars. When Chase was slated to speak at the Melville Society’s conference that year, Howard P. Vincent mocked him in a letter to Tyrus Hillway: “He may even...