The romance with Melville and American literary history




King, Bradley Ray

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This dissertation traces the historical emergence of what I call the romance with Melville during the postwar moment and argues that its striking endurance demands that we rethink the relationship between the discipline’s past and present. For the enduring vitality of the romance with Melville throughout the twentieth century points to deep continuities across major cuts in the discipline’s history. These continuities that the romance makes visible suggest that the discipline’s past is not so monolithically invested in masculinism, nationalism, and racism as many dominant voices have claimed it was, and also that the discipline’s present has not broken with its predecessors as completely as many had thought. I begin with a chapter that introduces the prevalence of the romance with Melville in American literary history, interrogates why Melville’s work lends itself so readily to this hermeneutic move, and articulates how the persistence of this move upsets the authoritative histories of American literary studies. My second chapter describes how Melville’s final story Billy Budd elicited a remarkably explicit transatlantic conversation about the affective and political ramifications of postwar heteronormativity. Chapter 3 examines C.L.R. James’s conversation with postwar Americanists about Moby-Dick, a conversation in which James sought to galvanize the critical community to fight the anti-democratic Cold War immigration laws under which James himself was being deported. My final chapter analyzes Ralph Ellison’s use of Moby-Dick, “Bartleby,” “Benito Cereno,” and The Confidence-Man to argue that American literature is fundamentally concerned with and informed by issues of racial injustice and inequality. In both his literary criticism and his fiction, Ellison, I argue, used Melville’s writing to criticize the racial negligence of American literary critics and to reflect on the ironies of his own abiding loyalty to white canonical writers like Melville. When one follows the various permutations of the romance with Melville in this moment and attends to the contestations it facilitated, one finds a rich, politically multivalent critical discourse that in many important but unacknowledged ways lays the groundwork for the political desires and textual attachments that continue to animate American literary studies.




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