- The New Melville Studies ed. by Cody Marrs
The New Melville Studies
Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xii + 280 pp.
“Some substances, without undergoing any mutations themselves, utterly change their color, according to the light thrown upon them.”– White-Jacket
The New Melville Studies is the first book published in the Cambridge University Press series Twenty-First-Century Critical Revisions, which released seven other editions in 2019, including books on Dickinson and Whitman. The mission of the series is twofold: to explore both “changing critical interpretations” and “substantial scholarly shifts” (ii). This volume shares the series’ focus by “analyzing Melville as a writer who was keenly interested in the pleasures, limits, and possibilities of various reading practices” and by approaching him “as a theorist as well as a writer” (i). The collection’s fifteen essays provide a vital examination of what editor Cody Marrs calls “Melville’s formal commitments, philosophical entanglements, and cultural exchanges” (3).
Marrs explains the innovation that informs this book as a shift away from a deductive, distant, and ironic act of privileged diagnosis toward a postcritical practice of creative interpretation that integrates critical reading with imaginative experience. He calls this “reading adjacently” or “with the grain . . . alongside Melville as he writes” (3), a practice that Robert Levine cites in his summary essay as reading “horizontally, immanently” (227). Going beyond categorical binaries and opposing dualisms, this approach dramatizes the varied and mutually constitutive ways that apparently contradictory poles imaginatively and dialectically correspond. The emphasis on “multiple, juxtaposed perspectives” (8) reflects the diverse sociality of Melville’s symposium of Mardi, the gams of Moby-Dick, the colloquy of The Confidence-Man, and the pilgrimage of Clarel. The mode also exhibits how Melville’s literary formulations instigate their readers’ critical confabulations through a processual enterprise of co-creation. Some of the supposed oppositions made to combine [End Page 121] in this collection’s experiments are the old and the new, fiction and philosophy, prose and poetry, voice and silence, the organic and the intentional, sense and style, and, as marked by the two sections around which the essays are grouped, “Thinking with Melville” and “Feeling with Melville.”
Melville’s imagination moved beyond dualities, akin to how he conceived of the sperm whale’s brain as coalescing a dynamic tension between two oppositional lines of sight. He poetically voiced this creative process in his poem “Art” as an active “wrestling” during which “unlike things must meet and mate” and then “fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart.” In this volume, this dialectic entanglement often generates paradoxical inversions, such as when fiction reveals truths, the distant and ancient informs present theory, and imaginative invention becomes the vehicle for philosophy. Melville called this method “the great Art of Telling the Truth,” through which serious meditation can take the form of humorous wordplay. It is in the fluid conjunctions of these fertile formulations—and their privileging of unresolved interpenetration—that these essays refract bracing and complex insights into the liveliness and profundity of Melville’s creative art.
This review assesses the essays in this collection in order of Melville’s composition to relate a chronological sense of the volume’s scope, though the fact that the book’s own organization tacks back and forth through Melville’s career shows its inventiveness. Edward Sugden inaugurates Melville’s experience in Polynesia as a transgression into a “marginal state” (67), a terra incognita in the transcultural chasm between world systems that is more incommensurable than permeable. Engaging Nan Z. Da’s notion of intransigence, Sugden suggests that Typee’s protagonists, Tommo and Toby, experience the rupture of dissolution, leaving them adrift and vulnerable in ways that generate a “radical freedom” (78). This liberty opens an affiliation with the underclass that generates an amorphous potential to reverse allegiances, such as when Tommo becomes Typee in the nomadic adventures of the sequel, Omoo. Levine points out how Tommo’s use of humor is another manifestation of the statelessness of such perspectivism.
Samuel Otter’s essay on “Melville’s Style” expands Sugden’s argument about Tommo’s “curtailed crossing” (68) by averring that “Something happened to Melville on Nuku...