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  • Thematizing "Becoming" in the Work of Herman Melville
  • Lenora Warren, Bridget M. Marshall, Ross Martin, Andrew Carlyle Urban, and Justina Torrance

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Participants in the "Thematizing 'Becoming'" panel at ALA 2021, from left to right: Lenora Warren, Justina Torrance, Bridget M. Marshall, Ross Martin, Andrew Carlyle Urban. Photo courtesy of Lenora Warren.

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The term "becoming" encapsulates the tension between the abstract and the concrete because it simultaneously evokes the real evolution experienced by people and also suggests the way meaning is ultimately manufactured and agreed upon. Becoming also suggests both active and passive forces behind that evolution, making it a useful word in considering the dynamics of race, gender, ecology, politics, religion, and the intersections between these. In proposing this panel, it was my intention to find papers that move beyond discussions of identity as such in Melville's work and look to discuss the ways in which Melville's characters reveal the process of "becoming" a subject. How does Melville thematize subject formation and what does this thematizing reveal about a variety of identities? What critiques emerge not just of identity but of the processes by which we assume subject formation occurs? Finally, in thematizing becoming, how does Melville also point out the problem of essentialization and the necessity of radical change even as he remains fearful of the consequences.


Becoming a "Blank": Melville's "Tartarus of Maids" and the Diary of Paper Mill Worker Nancy Priest

Bridget M. Marshall

University of Massachusetts, Lowell

In "The Tartarus of Maids," the second half of the two-part sketch published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in April 1855, Melville depicts nameless young women working in a paper mill in a scene likely inspired by his visit to Carson's Mill in Massachusetts in 1851. The unnamed male narrator likens the mill to "some great whited sepulcher" and describes the first worker he meets as having "a face pale with work, and blue with cold; an eye supernatural with unrelated misery." Melville's girls seem to exist in a state of living death, in which they are animated only in order to work. In perhaps his most chilling depiction of utter dehumanization, the narrator describes how at "rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper." This paper pairs Melville's silenced mill girls with a diary kept by a New Hampshire paper mill worker named Nancy Amelia Woodbury Priest Wakefield in the year 1856. In the unpublished diary, preserved in the Milne Special Collections of the University of New Hampshire Library, she details the challenges of work, cold weather, and her own apparent physical and emotional exhaustion. In brief, near-daily entries, Priest documents the occasional bright moments, such as a sugaring party, but mostly the bleakness of working, at one point referring to a work day in March as "a perfect blank," echoing Melville's language to describe industrial labor in the paper mill. [End Page 128]


Becoming-Whale: Fabulous Multiplicities in Melville's Moby-Dick

Ross Martin

Harvard University

In Jeremiah Reynolds's "Mocha Dick" (1839), a key source for Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), the first mate drifts away from humanity to become something else, a whale. "Indeed," the narrator emphasizes, "so completely were all his propensities, thoughts, and feelings, identified with [the whale]" that we are "less inclined to class him genus homo, than a sort of intermediate something between man and the cetaceous tribe." If a whaleman thinks and feels enough about whales to trouble the boundaries between species, then what seems taxonomically clear actually verges towards an "indeterminate something," in Reynolds's words, a transitional state transgressing the boundaries between the "genus homo" and the "cetaceous tribe." My paper investigates humans becoming animals as environments rather than identities of indeterminacy. Exploring Ahab's merger with Moby Dick though highlighting liminal existences in Melville criticism and archival sources, I develop on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's claim in A Thousand Plateaus (1980) that "Moby-Dick … is one of the greatest masterpieces of becoming" because "Ahab" divaricates himself...


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