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  • Abstracts MLA 2015—VancouverMelville and Comparative Racialization
  • Hsu Hsuan L, Chair

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Participants in “Melville and Comparative Racialization” panel at MLA 2015, from left to right: Hsuan L. Hsu, Heidi Kim, Lenora Warren, Jennifer Greiman, Hoang Gia Phan, Paul Lyons. Photo courtesy of Tony McGowan.

Critics such as Eric Sundquist, Geoffrey Sanborn, Malini Johar Schueller, Mark Rifkin, and the contributors to Samuel Otter and Robert Levine’s edited collection Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville have transformed our understanding of Melville’s diverse treatments of whiteness and blackness and of Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, Persians, and other racialized subjects. Building on this rich body of scholarship on Melville and race studies, the papers on this panel turn to questions of cross-racial comparison in Melville’s writings and their reception. What forms the basis for cross-racial analogies, distinctions, hybridizations, and comparisons, and how do different modes and moments of comparison reshape our understanding of Melville’s thinking about race? How do cross-racial comparisons in Melville [End Page 139] studies intersect with other vectors of power and difference such as colonialism, class, gender, sexuality, and disability? Lenora Warren draws a provocative historical comparison between Billy Budd, Sailor and the 1849 trial of the black sailor Washington Goode, while Hoang Phan considers the comparative racial dynamics of Billy Budd across deep historical time. Building on recent reconsiderations of Cold War Melville criticism, Heidi Kim traces how critics like F. O. Matthiessen, C. L. R. James, and Richard Chase displaced Melville’s Asian and Pacific Islander characters onto a dualistic white/black binary. Paul Lyons tracks Melville’s interest in “becoming-in-relation”: a way of engaging comparative racialization that avoids and even unravels reductive racial analogies. Jennifer Greiman comments on the panelists’ approaches to Melville’s “analogical mania” and historical palimpsest, highlighting how Melville deployed these strategies to produce deeply historicized and critically comparative treatments of racial formation.

The Black and White Sailor: Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor and Racialized Insurrection

Lenora Warren

Colgate University

In Herman Melville’s posthumously published Billy Budd, Sailor, the author returns to the late eighteenth century in order to explore the ways in which law fails to satisfactorily address acts of violence. The black sailor at the beginning of the text acts as a referent for both larger historical figures, such as Joseph Cinque and Madison Washington, as well as a the minor figure of Washington Goode, a black sailor who was tried and convicted for murder by the author’s father-in-law, Massachusetts Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, in 1849. The specter of these figures lurks throughout the story, emphasizing how acts of violence get racialized and how justice fails. Melville’s final text both revisits and expands on the earlier themes of race, violence, and revolution explored in White-Jacket and “Benito Cereno.” Billy Budd allows Melville to look back at these themes in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and, through the character of Billy, explore the way in which war forces false binaries of good and evil on the individuals involved. I argue that setting the story at sea brings into focus parallels between Billy’s tragedy and the longer history of violence, slavery, and the transatlantic slave trade. These parallels raise compelling questions about violence, race, war, and the ways in which violence is justified along racial lines. [End Page 140]

“Any superior savage, so called”: Billy Budd and the Symbolic Order of Comparative Racialization

Hoang Gia Phan

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

“God bless Captain Vere!” These famous last words of the protagonist of Billy Budd, Sailor constitute Melville’s final depiction of Billy’s perspective—as distinct from the perspectives of other characters and from the perspective of the narrator—on the events that have transpired and on the execution about to occur. In narrative terms, they comprise Melville’s representation of Billy’s ultimate “point of view” on the story, the Inside Narrative that is the novel. Readers on all sides of the long-standing debate over the meaning of Billy’s execution agree that Billy’s last words invoke Christian eschatology. Yet if Melville’s narrator identifies...


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pp. 139-143
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