Melville and Repose: The Rhetoric of Humor in the American Renaissance

Melville and Repose: The Rhetoric of Humor in the American Renaissance

Melville and Repose: The Rhetoric of Humor in the American Renaissance

Melville and Repose: The Rhetoric of Humor in the American Renaissance


John Bryant's book is a strong and significant argument for the centrality of the comic and repose in Melville's novels. The purpose of Melville and Repose is dual: to ground the uses of romantic humor in Melville in sensitive readings of contemporaneous European and American writings, and to offer a definitive account of the comic as the shaping force of Melville's narrative voice throughout the major phase of his literary career. Bryant argues that Melville fused a "rhetoric of geniality" and "picturesque sensibility" adopted from the British with a "rhetoric of deceit" borrowed from the American tall tale in order to create his own amiably cosmopolitan "rhetoric of aesthetic repose." Thorough research into American culture and recent Melville manuscript findings, an engaging style, and full, scholarly readings combine to make this historicist study a welcome addition to the libraries of Americanists and Melville scholars and enthusiasts.


It is but nature to be shy of a mortal who boldly declares that a thief in jail is as honorable a personage as Gen. George Washington. This is ludicrous. But Truth is the silliest thing under the sun. Try to get a living by the Truth--and go to the Soup Societies. . . . It can hardly be doubted that all Reformers are bottomed upon the truth, more or less; and to the world at large are not reformers almost universally laughing stocks? Why so? Truth is ridiculous to men. Thus easily in my room here do I, conceited and garrulous, reverse the test of my Lord Shaftesbury.

Letters, 127

These words conclude Melville's opening to a letter to Hawthorne. the letter itself is an expansive ramble that begins with farming, ends with Goethe, and in between touches upon democracy, aristocracy, literary fortune ("Dollars damn me"), head, heart, and intellectual "unfolding." Melville's jaunty but obsessive tone--"I feel cheerfully disposed, and therefore I write a little bluely" (Letters, 128)--echoes Ishmael, and understandably so; Moby-Dick was near completion. Shandyean in its pronouncements and tentative reversals, the heft of the letter obliged Melville to invert the postal custom of that day and pay the freight himself. At issue in these lines is Melville's reversal of Shaftesbury's familiar comic test for truth. Melville's good-natured humor makes a political point even as it suggests the failure of the amiable mode to survive amid the hurly-burly of democratic politics. the amiable undoing of amiability strikes to the heart of America's comic debate.

In privileging humor over wit, Shaftesbury had envisioned a new era of truth in which falsity would be laughed "out of court." But he had not planned on America, where factionalists and frontiersmen only muddied "truth," and any position could be sanctioned with a laugh. It was a divisive age of satire sorely in need of the integrative calm of humor. Melville's "reversal" of Shaftesbury acknowledged the low state of geniality in the culture. in developing his own humor, he was attempting to give new vitality to an increasingly ineffectual but still valued mode. in this project he backed Hazlitt, who had bemoaned the atrophying of amiability in Britain, and the encouragement of Young America, the New York literary group headed by Evert Duyckinck, for whom humor was a means of "building up good. . . ."

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