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  • Herman Melville and the Emergence of Trumpism
  • James Noel, Chair

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Participants in the "Herman Melville and the Emergence of Trumpism" panel at ALA 2018, from left to right: James Noel, Caitlin Smith Oyekole, Madison Furrh, Nathan Wolff, and David Blake.

Photo courtesy of Meredith Farmer.

In 2011, both Seth Meyers and President Barack Obama made several jokes about Donald Trump during the White House Correspondents' Dinner. From his involvement in the Miss USA pageant and reality television to his fragile relationship with communities of color, no area from Trump's brash and ostentatious lifestyle was off-limits that evening. However, by November 8, 2016, the concerns that the former president and Meyers satirized had become part of the reason that Trump had become the next president of the United States. Trump-ism is a term coined to capture the emergence of the radical branch of Republicanism responsible for Trump's unorthodox journey to the White House. Given the relevance of American political values in Herman Melville's major works, this panel sought to investigate whether Melville's publications could illuminate [End Page 145] some of the enduring issues that fueled Trump's presidency. Does his art speak to current discussions concerning America's polarizing landscape? Caitlin Smith Oyekole, Madison Furrh, David Blake, and Nathan Wolff eloquently answer this question, revealing some of the harrowing ways that Melville's publications capture fundamental aspects of what has been termed Trumpism.

Trumpism and the Know-Nothing Party
Madison Furrh
Colorado State University-Pueblo

The Know-Nothing Party—a radicalized, nativist, anti-Catholic wing of the disintegrated Whig Party—won a series of victories during the 1854 elections, but nowhere was the Know-Nothing ticket more successful than in Massachusetts, Melville's home state. In Melville's "The Piazza," the narrator and the unfortunate Marianna converse in the Berkshire Mountains on a host of topics, including her complete isolation, her orphan status, her seventeen-year-old brother who worked himself to death, her "dull woman's work," the sorry state of her cabin, and the narrator's attempts to assuage her suffering through romantic suggestions of nature as medicinal. Near the end of the conversation, the poor orphan echoes the philosopher Socrates, saying, "Is it that I live so lonesome, and know nothing?" The affluent narrator responds with the slogan of the Know-Nothing Party: "I, too, know nothing, and therefore cannot answer." Ultimately, socio-political divisions that define the tale become foregrounded and our Know-Nothing narrator's predilections for the Picturesque, Romanticism, and Transcendentalism make him vulnerable to sensational politics, conspiracy theories and, ultimately, social nihilism. I analyze how Know-Nothingism functions in Melville's "The Piazza" (I believe I am the first to do so) and address "Benito Cereno" as another text depicting Know-Nothingism. Both tales demonstrate how Know-Nothing ideology cherishes ignorance, depends on stereotype and racism, and puts the entire American experiment at risk. Indeed, the narrator's fantastical imaginings result in (as Melville later wrote in his copy of Emerson's Essays: Second Series) "gross and astonishing errors & illusions," while promoting social "blindness [that] proceeds from a defect in the region of the heart."

"Crippled America": Trump, Ahab, and the Materialist Turn
Nathan Wolff
Tufts University

In a series of recent roundtables, scholars have undertaken an important project: situating Melville in the context of an expanding "materialist turn" in the literary humanities. Panelists proposed that we attend to the radical [End Page 146] imbrication of the human and nonhuman in Melville's work—a corrective to a false view of humans in general, and the captain of the Pequod in particular, as autonomous agents. Positioned as a strong-willed dictator by "Cold War" critics, Ahab becomes newly visible as a permeable, fragile, "leaky," figure. My paper sounds a cautionary note for this otherwise generative approach. By positing an opposition between Ahab as dictator and Ahab as a subject marked by weakness and instability, such readings threaten to obscure a lesson we twenty-first-century citizens learn with each news cycle: that fragility and tyranny go hand-in-hand. This is so both because Donald Trump's cruelty is manifestly rooted...


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pp. 145-148
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