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  • Herman Melville: Modernity and the Material Text by Katie McGettigan
  • John Evelev
Herman Melville: Modernity and the Material Text
Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, 2017. xiii + 288 pp.

It has been a commonplace of Melville criticism since the 1920s Revival that his career was marked by a struggle between his desire to express himself artistically and the demands of the literary marketplace. Critical approaches to Melville have come and gone, but this view has remained largely a truism. Breaking with this tradition, McGettigan constructs a vision of Melville as an author who seeks to work within the confines of the market while understanding that the market and capitalism expose the modern ambiguity of meaning, the immateriality of material things. At the heart of McGettigan’s project is the challenge that the reproducibility of print offers to Melville; she argues that his whole career presents a consistent impulse to use “book objects and the business of literature to create experiments with language, imagery, and form that still register as strange and radical” (214). In this study, Melville’s experimental response to the materiality of print is manifested in a range of forms, from genre to paratext, figuration to rhyme scheme, in chapters that span the entirety of Melville’s career from Typee through Clarel, with a brief dip into Billy Budd in the conclusion. With readings that offer insights into the literary marketplace, the technological advancements of paper- and book-making, and the forms and figurations of Melville’s texts, McGettigan’s book is an important intervention in Melville studies.

Throughout, McGettigan seeks to shift our critical assumptions both about Melville’s antagonistic relationship to capitalism and our vision of his career. In chapters on the early work, McGettigan sees Melville not as a fledgling author, anxiously negotiating marketplace demands, but as a confident, experimental figure using narrative personae to satirize failed market selves. The first chapter charts his use of a range of metaphors involving “printing” and “impression”—including but going beyond tattooing—to mark Tommo’s naiveté about exchange in Typee and the ways that print destabilizes claims of authenticity in Omoo. McGettigan sees Melville as equally distanced and satirical in chapter two, where the titular characters in Redburn and White-Jacket reveal mistaken investments in and misunderstandings of literal and figurative [End Page 140] forms of books, whether Redburn’s father’s old travel guide or White-Jacket’s jacket, that reflect their misunderstanding of the market. These book-mediated misunderstandings of exchange thwart conventional expectations of the narratives as bildungsromane, revealing not growth but the “inability to achieve a coherent adult selfhood” (59). McGettigan’s early chapters thus present a Melville who is a canny manipulator of the literary marketplace demands, satirizing both the naïve impulse to get outside of exchange and the literary consumer’s demand for an authentic self that can never be fully manifested in the material form of a book.

Chapters on Moby-Dick and Pierre depict a writer whose perspectives and concerns changed surprisingly little from his early career. Ishmael differs from the earlier narrative personae mainly in his less naïve attitude toward the market. The chapter on Moby-Dick explores the extensive connection between metaphor and market, figuring Ishmael’s narrative project as ultimately an “aesthetics of commerce” (91) in which “the bonds of capitalism [‘affective and connective’] can hold and also transmit aesthetic value” (94). While the chapter on Moby-Dick examines theories of figuration (Emerson, Derrida, and Ricoeur), the chapter on Pierre builds on the cultural context of the relatively new industrial mechanism that produced paper, an obscure and threatening process by which unclean rags were transformed into pristine white paper. McGettigan sees the modern “ambiguity” of Pierre expressed through “images of rags transforming themselves into paper—and vice versa—[that] invite and resist speculation” (119). Unlike so many other readings of Pierre, this one draws a firm distinction between Melville’s attitude toward writing and Pierre’s critique of authorship and literary production, but in the face of the novel’s ambiguous negations, McGettigan again locates its intervention in the critique of the bildungsroman, as she proposes...


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pp. 140-143
Launched on MUSE
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