- The New Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville ed. by Robert S. Levine
The New Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville
New York: Cambridge UP, 2014. 255 pp.
Robert S. Levine identifies "two large impulses in recent American literary studies" running through the essays of the New Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville, impulses that tie the collection together and distinguish it from its predecessor, the 1998 Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville, which Levine also edited. The first of these impulses, he observes, is "an increased questioning of nation-based models of literary study," and the second is "a renewed interest in the aesthetic" (3). This statement seems entirely accurate with respect to the essays that follow. As I read the collection, I did so with these claims in mind and asked myself what—if anything—these two impulses might have to do with one another. Someone hearing only these two things about the collection might be tempted to guess that turning away from a critical framework that privileged a political entity (the nation) might naturally involve a turn toward what is sometimes taken to be an apolitical realm, that of aesthetic experience. But the turn here is not away from politics as such; it is a turn toward politics on a different scale, or several different scales: "more expansive hemispheric, transnational, and global approaches" (3). And the renewed attention to aesthetics in these pages (most often meaning a greater insistence on literary form and on the intricacies of reading) is not meant anywhere to entail a disregard for Melville's lifelong, passionate interest in the most foundational questions of politics: how to reconcile personal freedom and political order, how to organize collective life so as to enable different personalities to flourish. So these impulses are not at odds with one another. But how are they connected?
With this question in mind, I have a suggestion for readers of this New Companion. Read Levine's "Introduction" first, but then skip to the end and read Christopher Castiglia's final chapter—the last of a uniformly excellent set of fifteen—"Cold War Allegories and the Politics of Criticism." Castiglia outlines and addresses a long history of Melville criticism and scholarship, beginning with the well-known Melville revival of the 1920s, much of it no doubt familiar in its broad outlines to readers of this journal. "Every generation needs [End Page 72] a new 'Melville' suited to that generation's assumptions and needs," Castiglia observes (220). But he also stages a polemic that, whether you agree with it or not, would offer a useful set of terms and issues to have in mind when reading the other essays. Castiglia's argument, presented elsewhere as well (and which will be given its full articulation in his forthcoming The Practices of Hope: Literary Criticism in Disenchanted Times), holds that critics of the immediately previous generation, owing a good deal to the New Historicism and other forms of ideology critique, were inclined to "search for and report hidden and threatening ideologies in seemingly innocuous places," with the critics doing so from an imaginary vantage point apart from ideological motives of their own (220). Castiglia believes that this reading strategy remains the default mode for present-day Americanist literary criticism. Instead of this mode, which others have variously called suspicious reading, symptomatic reading, or depth reading, Castiglia urges us to recognize that critique is always grounded in positive values that dictate the terms and objects of the critique, and he urges us to articulate these positive values candidly and thereby "to find in criticism something affirmative as well as critical" (230). The affirmative terms he offers here include "a just world, an effective politics, and the ethical values of identity" (231). And he finds in an even earlier generation of Melville critics, notably Richard Chase, a praiseworthy willingness to embrace "terms currently used with discomfort or viewed with suspicion—imagination, personality, idealism, vision" (222).
I wish I had read Castiglia's chapter earlier rather than later, for two reasons. The first is this: the essays in this volume do not, in general, answer to the negative diagnosis of "critique without remedy...