Melville's Folk Roots

Melville's Folk Roots

Melville's Folk Roots

Melville's Folk Roots

Synopsis

Herman Melville's reputation as a great writer has gradually developed throughout the past century. Tempered by studies which emphasized the Western literary tradition, literary appreciation for Melville's use of folklore has been slow in developing. This groundbreaking study brings to the forefront the depth of Melville's immersion with and borrowing from oral traditions, both music and narrative; talltale humor; nautical folklore; superstition; and legend.

Though intended as a survey of Melville's use of folklore, this book also is important as a general introduction to his work. Unencumbered by critical jargon and narrated in an engaging manner, this book will appeal to general readers as well as seasoned scholars of Melville.

Excerpt

When Fletcher S. Bassett assembled Legends and Superstitions of the Sea in 1885, he cited several of Herman Melville's works to illustrate different aspects of nautical folklore. He cited Moby-Dick not only for whaling legends but also in his discussions of the luminous phenomenon known as St. Elmo's Fire and the omens associated with seals' cries and other mysterious sounds at sea. Furthermore, Bassett footnoted White-Jacket, mentioned the story of spontaneous combustion from Redburn in his treatment of traditional stories containing similar motifs, and elsewhere referred to "The Encantadas." The multiple references show that Bassett was among the few who read and appreciated Melville during the 1880s. Needless to say, Melville's reputation went through a metamorphosis over the next several decades, during which he received his due recognition as a great writer. Though enthusiasm for Melville continues to grow, those who have appreciated his use of folklore remain few.

Literary appreciation for Melville's use of folklore began with Constance Rourke American Humor. A Study of the National Character. Rourke, like those who have extended the study of Melville's humor, such as Edward Rosenberry, Jane Mushabac, and John Bryant, made broad generalizations about Melville's tall-tale humor, yet even she gave little attention to his specific borrowings from the oral tradition. Starting with Richard Chase Herman Melville: A Critical Study, scholars began to scrutinize Melville's use of folklore more closely. After Chase, Daniel Hoffman devoted separate chapters to Moby-Dick and The Confidence-Man in Form and Fable in American Fiction, and Janez Stanonik examined Melville's debt to whaling lore in Moby Dick: The Myth and the Symbol, A Study in Folklore and Literature. Both Chase and Hoffman associated Melville Confidence- Man with the traditional Yankee huckster, an interpretation which Johannes Dietrich Bergmann largely rendered out of date with his . . .

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