- Interplanetary Criticism: Notes on Richard Chase’s Herman Melville
Occasionally a critical book of modest dimensions poses unusually interesting problems of method and resource. Such a book is Richard Chase’s Herman Melville: A Critical Study (New York, 1949), one of the most provocative yet provoking studies in the formidable post-war harvest of books on Melville. Provocative, because perhaps no other critical study of Melville has risked so much. Provoking, because its sometimes reckless exploitation of resources turns up wild speculations as often as demonstrable insights.
After three or four years there is still no sign that Melville scholarship is likely to be swept off its feet by Chase’s brilliantly subjective study. Apparently nothing weighs more than a pocket full of three-by-fives. The more likely danger is that distrust of some of his results will lead to impatience with all of his methods. Over and above Chase’s very real individual talent lies the question of his resources. They are not those of conventional scholarship—biography, literary history, and evaluation of overt textual meaning—but certain controversial resources of modern thought: new criticism, psychoanalysis, anthropology, myth, and new politics. It is these resources, rather than the substantive judgments developed from them, that I wish to comment on.
Of the five weapons in this bright armory the first, though it is now well-tried, is still known as the new criticism. It is fifteen years since Brooks and Warren invaded the universities. By the early forties the campus classrooms were echoing to the cry of “Timber-r-r!” as enthusiastic young instructors with savage delight brought down Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”—usually right on top of Whistler’s “Mother.” The young Joshuas who once were all for tumbling down the academic walls are now safely immured and en-tenured. So notable has been their victory that only the Presidential addresses of the Modern Language Association still assume that the debate is open; and even here most, but not all, of these good gray warriors feel forced to read the new criticism in order to be witty about it.
The new criticism means many things to many critics, as it should, but perhaps we could agree that its principle tenets are: concentration on the work [End Page 132] of art itself; close exegesis of word, phrase, image, symbol, and structure; and a complex rendition of simultaneous levels of meaning. Chase specifically disowns the role of the new critic in his Preface, preferring a broader base of operation. Yet he certainly is not hostile to it: “If the New Criticism applies itself to the task,” he writes, “it may determine the future of Melville Studies” (xi). Certain devices of his own study in fact are closely related to new-criticism methodology. There is for example his study of Melville’s “symbolic polarities”: Light and Dark, Space and Time, Mountain and Valley, Tower and Cave, Fire and Stone, Phallus and Castration, Life and Death. The first symbol in each pair is construed as a dynamic of Up (high, returning, creative) and the second of Down (low, withdrawing, uncreative). These polarities, with variations, are a recurrent configuration of his study. Note, however, that Chase uses them to psychological ends more than aesthetic. New criticism would require that such categories serve mainly as a conceptual frame within which to study how particular object-symbols operate; here they remain abstractions. Chase makes only random efforts to come to terms with the particular symbols of particular works; quadrant, pipe, compass, and doubloon in Moby-Dick, for example, are not mentioned. It is the broadly symbolic projection of Melville’s psychic forces that Chase is after.
Yet in his textual analysis of “After the Pleasure Party” Chase works after the manner of new criticism. Anyone who has read closely that difficult poem (part of the difficulty rests in the unsolved editorial problem of where quotation marks lie) will find Chase’s reading provocative. He will also find it careless at two or three points in ways that suggests an impatience with close reading. One gets the feeling that he is less interested in discovering precisely what goes on in this poem than...