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(35) Crisis of Intellectual Individualism in H. Melville.

A m e r i c a n  R e n a i s s a n c e

[See under "34 N. Hawthorne..."]


H e r m a n  M e l v i l l e  ( 1 8 1 9 – 9 1 )

L i f e :

- son of a NY City merchant: bankrupt >> Albany (NY) >> another bankrupt >> his mental and physical breakdown, and death

- a sailor and cabin boy: jumped the whaling ship Acushnet for a too rough discipline, and spent several weeks among the cannibals on the South Pacific islands

- his cosmopolitan and eventful life x the isolated and uneventful life of N. Hawthorne

- his realistic and rich prose not acknowledged in his lifetime => suffered financial problems

W o r k :

< W. Shakespeare and N. Hawthorne’s dark aspect

- N. Hawthorne on M.: ‘If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.’

- M. on N. Hawthorne: admired his blackness of truth, the same dark background against which Shakespeare plays his grandest conceits and which ‘appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.’ (from his review of N. Hawthorne’s Old Mosses)

- saw and felt a complex moral reality: on one pole affirmed the grandeur of the individual x on the oth. perceived ‘a wild egoism, anarchic, irresponsible, and destructive, that masqueraded in the kingly weeds of self-reliance’

- conc. with heroic, Christ-like, or at least crucified characters – Captain Ahab, Billy Budd, & oth.

- preocc. with his ‘correspondence with the world’ = the communicating of his vision to readers x but: also obsessed with silence

N o v e l s :

Typee (1846) and its sequel Omoo (1847):

- travel and adventure stories

- a sense of ambivalence: contrasted the Garden of Eden = a paradise on Earth with people living in a sense of innocence x the darker truth of huge pots and heaps of human bones

- welcomed as a new voice of the exotic parts of world

Mardi (1849):

- a political allegory in the realm of philos., satire, and fantasy

Redburn (1849) and White Jacket (1850):

- gently ironic stories of his early maritime experience

- written to satisfy pop. taste and earn him money

Moby Dick (1851):

- on ‘the sane madness of vital truth’

- the opening sentence: ‘Call me Ishmael.’

- Ishamael [= the biblical son of Abraham]: the narrator, a hero expelled to a wilderness, a kind of a drifter carried by the stream to new adventures >> a new kind of existence with a new identity

- befriended with a native man on the deck of the whaling ship <=> J. F. Cooper

- Captain Ahab [= the biblical sinful King of Israel building a pagan temple]: seeks to kill the whale as a revenge for the loss of his leg, employs a persuasive rhetoric to appeal to the crew to hunt the whale

- understood things only through aggression, the chase turned him into men’s position (role of society) x but: the destructive mission resulted in sinking of the ship

- Starbuck: a sceptical counterpart to Ahab, aware of the practical business side of the matter

- Moby Dick: a monstrous white sperm whale [= the carnivore sperm whale x a herbivore whale]

- concept of nature:

(1) his nature = a force having nothing to do with human: does not employ blasphemy x but: lacks a positive reception of nature

(2) R. W. Emerson’s nature = a ‘baseboard mask’: things only hidden signs veiling the real purpose x but: the transcendentalists positive reception of nature

Pierre (1852):

- intended as a sentimental gothic novel for pop. taste x ended up as a dark exploration of sexuality, identity, depravity, and tragic but inevitable destruction

- reflected also the plight of an Am. artist

- consid. insane by critics

The Confidence-Man (1857):

- criticised both the Am. culture and its corrupt language

S h o r t  S t o r i e s :

The Piazza Tales (1856):

- filled with vertical images and phallic shapes: lightning rods, masts, chimneys, etc.

Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) (posthum.):

- the subtitle: an ‘inside narrative’ conc. with inner, psychic events

- orig. a headstone to the ballad “Billy in the Darbies” [= ‘B. in Irons’]

- a classic confrontation btw good x evil: an innocent young man finds himself unable to defend himself against a wrongful accusation

- conc. with creation: as he writes about the characters, also writes about how he writes

- the relation btw the author x the story: a problematic father, a suicide of his son, resulted in a subconscious parental guilt x the Vere – Budd relationship

Bartleby, the Scrivener:

- a long short story or a novella

- the 1st person narrator, rather reliable: an elderly man, a good boss (with vast experience, tolerates the idiosyncratic features in his staff, and avoids problems in favour of compromises), not very ambitious, and proud to work for robber-barons

- Bartleby: a good and hard worker x but: a machine-like figure with an emotionless way of working and insufficient communication (his previous job in a dead-letter office)


- the narrator x B., Turkey x Nippers

x but: the narrator <=> B.: both victims of politics (loss of job), their chambers look at a spacious sky x a brick wall


- the narrator – B. relationship = the victim – the monster ? = the monster – the victim ?

- the narrator’s tone understanding, sympathetic, and humane x but: demonstrates his lack of understanding by his decision to move the office = refuses the responsibility for B. and avoids him

- orig.: the narrator inquires B.’s professional qualities only x then: finds B. homeless and tries to talk to him: ‘I simply wish to speak to you.’ >> B. seems touched by his human approach, modifies his phrase by: ‘at present’

A Wall:

- “The Story of Wall-Street” = Wall Street x street wall

- B. watches a wall, separates himself from the narrator by a wall, and dies by a wall

- turns his face to a dead wall because he cannot tolerate life


- the characters affected by the kind of work they do, seek escape: Turkey’s drinking, Nipper’s staying out of the office, and B.’s dehumanisation

- the narrator remains the only to lack any idiosyncratic neurotic habits (though affected by his employees as all start using the ‘not to prefer’ phrase)

- the gap btw the professional x human dealing, and the necessity of the balance btw the two: a human approach can do miracles, and the narrator could have done more as a human being for B.

An Unprecedented Case:

- a law office and(/or) wilderness = the most distinctively Am. setting

- the lawyer-narrator repres. Am. as an institution: Am. law based on the principle of a precendential case, checks the past cases to find a match for a new one

- the narrator fails to find the match – B.’s refusal to check to copies

=> B. stands for sth outside the experience

The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles:

- a long short story or a novella

- the isles: a wasteland with a cruel natural life, and even crueller human life

- incl. wild symbolism, mythology, and a hell-like quality of both a physical and interior hell

P o e t r y :

Battle Pieces (1866): a coll. of Civil War poems

John Marr and Other Sailors (1888): “John Marr and Other Sailors”, the title poem

Clarel: an 18,000-line long poem exploring relig. x Darwinian scepticism

“Crossing the Tropics”, “The Maldive Shark”, “The Man-of-war Hawk”, “Tom Deadlight”


Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed. The Cambridge History of American  Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Cunliffe, Marcus. The Literature of the United States. London: Penguin, 1991.

Lauter, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Lexington: D. C. Heath, 1994.

McQuade, Donald, gen.ed. The Harper American Literature. New York: Harper & Collins, 1996.

Ruland, Richard, Malcolm Bradbury. Od  puritanismu k postmodernismu. Praha: Mladá fronta, 1997.

Vančura, Zdeněk, ed. Slovník spisovatelů: Spojené státy americké. Praha: Odeon, 1979.

Other Sources

Peprník, Michal. Semináře: Americká literatura 1. ZS 2004/05.


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