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  • Melville's Anatomies Two Decades Later:A Forum
  • Brian Yothers, Wyn Kelley, Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, John Bryant, Cody Marrs, and Robert S. Levine

Melville scholars gathered virtually as part of the 2021 American Literature Association Conference to celebrate and re-assess the contribution made by a landmark volume in late twentieth-century scholarship on Melville, Samuel Otter's Melville's Anatomies (1999). The roundtable had initially been planned as a face-to-face contribution to the 2020 ALA Conference, which was cancelled due to COVID, and so the scholars who had initially meant to discuss Otter's book near the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of its publication found that their conversations had to be delayed by a year. We offer the full reflections of the six scholars who discussed the volume in hopes that this can serve as a model for future reflections on landmarks of Melville scholarship and major new contributions to the field that can appear in this venue.

Brian Yothers
University of Texas at El Paso
Wyn Kelley
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Mary K. Bercaw Edwards
University of Connecticut
John Bryant
Hofstra University
Cody Marrs
University of Georgia
Robert S. Levine
University of Maryland
  • Introductory
  • Brian Yothers

In the introduction to Melville's Anatomies, Samuel Otter reflected that "To read Melville closely is to read deeply and widely" (3). It is hard to think of a work of Melville scholarship that illustrates this point more powerfully than [End Page 112]

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Speakers for Melville's Anatomies Two Decades Later: A Forum. From top: Samuel Otter, Brian Yothers, Wyn Kelley, Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, John Bryant, Cody Marrs, Robert S. Levine. There were 42 participants in the online forum, including ones from as far away as Japan, Singapore, and Glasgow, Scotland. June 12, 2021. Screen shot courtesy of Mary K. Bercaw Edwards.

Melville's Anatomies itself, a defining text in Melville studies at the turn of the twenty-first century and an exemplary study for Melville scholars more than 20 years on. The first time I read Melville's Anatomies I was in the middle of my own study of the history of Melville scholarship, and even as I had been reading many bold and inventive studies of Melville's work over the better part of a century since the Melville Revival, I knew that I had never encountered anything quite like this book. Re-reading it in preparation for this forum, I was again struck by the way in which wit and profundity interact throughout in a manner that can only be described as truly Melvillean. The fact that the first chapter has as its title "Losing Face in Typee," effortlessly punning on the roles that cannibalism, tattooing, and racialization play throughout Melville's first book, sets the stage for the subtle explorations of aesthetics, culture, race, and ideology that follow.

Crucially, Melville's Anatomies always refuses false dichotomies: Melville comes off as neither a hero nor a villain, neither as a prophetic ironist innocent of his society's racial biases nor as a particularly eloquent mouthpiece for those [End Page 113] biases, but rather as a writer who consistently identifies the moral and artistic stakes, for his own time and for ours, in the conceptual understandings of the racialized and gendered body in the nineteenth century. Exploring Melville's novels from Typee to Pierre, Otter identified what were to be defining features of Melville criticism in the new century: race, sexuality and the body, the relationship between the human and nonhuman world, visual aesthetics, and a blend of rigorous close reading and deep cultural immersion in considering Melville's work and life.

That Otter read widely as well as deeply in writing this book is captured by the fact that one can gain new insight into Emily Dickinson from an aside in Otter's discussion of Samuel Morton's craniometrical investigations, or into Poe's "Berenice" or Hawthorne's "The Birthmark" through his consideration of how the body becomes charged with meaning in the wider field of nineteenth-century literary studies, offering the elegant formulation that "The search for signs of grace has become inflected by the quest...


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pp. 112-126
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