Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine

Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine

Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine

Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine


Exiled Royalties is a literary/biographical study of the course of Melville's career from his experience in Polynesia through his retirement from the New York Custom House and his composition of three late volumes of poetry and Billy Budd, Sailor. Conceived separately but narratively and thematically intertwined, the ten essays in the book are rooted in a belief that "Melville's work," as Charles Olson said, "must be left in his own 'life,'" which for Milder means primarily his spiritual, psychological, and vocational life. Four of the ten essays deal with Melville's life and work after his novelistic career ended with the The Confidence-Man in 1857. The range of issues addressed in the essays includes Melville's attitudes toward society, history, and politics, from broad ideas about democracy and the course of Western civilization to responses to particular events like the Astor Place Riots and the Civil War; his feeling about sexuality and, throughout the book, about religion; his relationship to past and present writers, especially to the phases of Euro-American Romanticism, post-Romanticism, and nascent Modernism; his relationship to his wife, Lizzie, to Hawthorne, and to his father, all of whom figured in the crisis that made for Pierre. The title essay, "Exiled Royalties," takes its origin from Ishmael's account of "the larger, darker, deeper part of Ahab"--Melville's mythic projection of a "larger, darker, deeper part" of himself. How to live nobly in spiritual exile--to be godlike in the perceptible absence of God--was a lifelong preoccupation for Melville, who, in lieu of positive belief, transposed the drama of his spiritual life to literature. The ways in which this impulse expressed itself through Melville's forty-five year career, interweaving itself with his personal life and the life of the nation and shaping both the matter and manner of his work, is the unifying subject of Exiled Royalties.


I will keep this brief. Except for the chapters on democratic tragedy and Moby-Dick, the ten essays in this book were conceived independently and are unified chiefly by my belief that “Melville’s work,” as Charles Olson said, must “be left in his own ‘life.’” the quotation marks are Olson’s and reflect his feeling that writers’ “lives” are things that within the boundaries of informed scholarship and responsive criticism we bring forth ourselves. Why should we bother? John Bryant broached the question when he asked whether by “Melville” we mean “the man or the text,” “the biographical person—a writer writing—or the sum total of his work—the writings alone.” There are other things we might mean, among them “Melville” as a function of or index to the various discourses of his time. Bryant’s position—that “literary scholarship has its own ‘desire’”: “to discover evidence of the writer writing, and to give a meaning to that process” —is close to my own, save that I believe “literary scholarship” is a house with many windows and that authorial criticism (the writing as it emerges from and relates to the writer) is only one of them.

Carlyle argued the case for an authorial criticism when he claimed that

It is Biography that first gives us both Poet and Poem, by the signifi
cance of the one elucidating and completing that of the other. That
ideal outline of himself, which a man unconsciously shadows forth
in his writings, and which, rightly deciphered, will be truer than any
other representation of him, it is the task of the Biographer to fill-up
into an actual coherent figure, and bring home to our experience, or at
least our clear undoubting admiration, thereby to instruct and edify us
in many ways.

I would shear away Carlyle’s “undoubting admiration” and retailor his “instruct and edify” to mean the kind of satisfaction that comes with broadly contemplating the shape of a writer’s career. What I would emphasize is “that ideal outline of himself, which a man unconsciously shadows forth in his writings,” and which the authorial critic tries to understand both . . .

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