Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays

Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays

Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays

Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays

Excerpt

Although some of the essayists who contribute to this volume have reservations of various kinds about the art of Melville or the quality of his thought, none of them thinks it necessary to defend his greatness. To the literary historian, who perhaps has an eye for cultural ironies, this will seem remarkable, in view of the long time it took Melville to gain even half the recognition he deserved, not to mention the apparently unshakable reputation he now has. He now seems to most readers to be pre-eminent among the American "classic" writers whose genius for prose fiction flowered before the Civil War, such as James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. His writings are not so voluminous as those of Cooper, but they are more readable. He has something of Poe's talent for the macabre, but in Melville the macabre is only a part of a larger view of life and seldom becomes obsessive. He is not so graceful a writer as Hawthorne, but his range is greater and his imagination is more powerful and diverse. In Moby-Dick we see one of those unique productions into which have been drawn all of its epoch's significant and freshening currents of mind and imagination. Only Melville was able to perform this culminating act of vision in our classic literary period.

Perhaps this is easy enough to see as we read and ponder Moby-Dick in relation to the literature of the time. But we have come to see also that Melville and his writings occupy a more central position in the history of our culture than was formerly thought. The radical, realist critics of a former generation made no such provision for the importance of Melville. Vernon Lewis Parrington's Main Currents in American Thought (published during the late 1920's and early '30's) was for many years and perhaps still is for an older generation the overwhelmingly influential account of American literature. Its impress can be seen on dozens of lesser critical and scholarly works and on dozens of anthologies. Yet Parrington regarded Melville as an eccentric figure, an exotic plant among healthier organisms like Whitman, Emerson, William Cullen Bryant, and Horace Greeley. Parrington calls Melville without qualification a "pessi-

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