After the Whale: Melville in the Wake of Moby-Dick

After the Whale: Melville in the Wake of Moby-Dick

After the Whale: Melville in the Wake of Moby-Dick

After the Whale: Melville in the Wake of Moby-Dick

Synopsis

After the Whale contextualizes Herman Melville's short fiction and poetry by studying it in the company of the more familiar fiction of the 1850s and 1890s. The study focuses on Melville's vision of the purpose and function of language from Moby-Dick through Billy Budd with a special emphasis on how language - in function and form - follows and depends on the function and form of the body, how Melville's attitude toward words echoes his attitude toward flesh.

Excerpt

Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges. --Billy Budd

AMONG THOSE nineteenth-century American writers who maintain canonical status, Melville continues to attract, almost simultaneously, both an extreme attention and a benign neglect. As with most authors whose reputations have grown from the single seed of one great book, the light shed on the "supporting" works, those leading to and away from the chef d'oeuvre, is not only less strong but tends, more often than not, to catch only the burnished surfaces of arguably weaker texts in whose pages readers often find the shrunken, sometimes warped image of the principal work. Such a method is both understandable and practical; nevertheless, in certain cases, it seems to promote a continuous inattention to those individual productions that stand furthest from the masterwork in accomplishment as well as to the process by which the author discovers new forms and expression.

In this respect, a large portion of Melville's career--the period extending from Pierre to Billy Budd--has itself suffered not so much from a lack of interest as from a willful dissociation, a frequent refusal to envision this long period of generic uncertainty as a whole, to see Melville not simply as the author of a few famous prose fictions but as a writer whose lifelong engagement with language pushed him through generic boundaries in search of new ways of shaping and questioning his world. This study attempts just such a vision of the middle and later Melville in the hope that by linking prose to poetry, short tale to novel, epic to sketch, we can begin to examine Melville's later work consecutively and completely and understand the development of his attitude toward reality and language as it unfolds from work to work.

As every Melvillean seemingly does, I too have begun with Moby-Dick, because it remains the center, the vortex toward which the early fictions swirl and out of which pour the troubled waters of the still mysterious later career. I have argued that this vast dispersal and dissemination of energies flows principally from the dualistic conflict, both linguistic and philosophical, that Ishmael and Ahab embody, that it is their voices, ele-

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