This essay treats Herman Melville’s correspondence with Nathaniel Hawthorne as an occasion to examine the relationship between historicist literary criticism and absence. Hawthorne’s responses to Melville’s admiring messages stand as a lacuna in the archive; Melville told Julian Hawthorne that he destroyed them, and no evidence has surfaced to contradict that claim. Without Hawthorne’s half of the correspondence, contemporary scholars have been hard pressed to identify the precise nature of the two men’s relationship, and thus they often have called on other historical sources to supplement a lack that can never be filled. Reading Melville’s letters alongside his review of Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse as engagements with the productive power of absence, this essay argues that, as it was for Melville, absence is the condition required to produce the desire that undergirds historicist inquiry. Rather than attempting to solve the mystery that the missing letters present, we argue that they offer a compelling framework for considering the scholarly encounter with the past. It is the archive’s incompleteness, rather than its contents, we contend, that makes historicism possible.


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pp. 83-102
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