Academic journal article Leviathan

Of Sharks and Pilot-Fish: Melville's Prophetic Art and the Dream of (French) America a Reprise and Reappraisal

Academic journal article Leviathan

Of Sharks and Pilot-Fish: Melville's Prophetic Art and the Dream of (French) America a Reprise and Reappraisal

Article excerpt

Having considered the proceedings of a painter that serves me, I had a mind to imitate his way He chooses the fairest place and middle of any wall ... wherein to draw a picture, which he finishes with his utmost care and art, and the vacuity about it he fills with grotesques .... monstrous bodies, made of various parts, without any certain figure ... order, coherence, or proportion. Desinit in piscem mulier formosa superne.

Michel de Montaigne, "Of Friendship"

From time immemorial many fine things have been said and sung of the sea. And the days have been, when sailors were considered veritable mermen; and the ocean itself, as the peculiar theatre of the romantic and wonderful.

Herman Melville, Review of Etchings of a Whaling Cruise

In a letter of 21 August 1847 to her new stepmother, Elizabeth Shaw Melville tallied her impressions of Quebec city, where she had "strolled about on the ramparts" the preceding day. "[C]old and forbidding and comfortless," she writes of the "huge citadel bristling with cannon." (1) That the visit also left an indelible imprint on the mind of her companion at the time is suggested by a passage in Moby-Dick (1851): whaleman-preacher Father Mapple, having ascended to the lone captaincy of his pulpit, draws in the "ship's" ladder, "leaving him impregnable in his little Quebec." (2)

Not surprisingly, Melville's readers in Quebec have been struck by the suggestiveness of his allusion. Most notably, Robert Major's revisionary history The American Dream in Nineteenth-Century Quebec (1996) is framed by the relation of two such cross-border journeys mapping, in his view, antithetical and mutually exclusive apprehensions of his topos. (3) Major begins by sighting the above record in Moby-Dick of the Melvilles' honeymoon trip to Lower Canada Quebec as foil to America, resisting the tides of its modernism and materialism: so Major glosses Melville's text;--it is, in his view, an allegory of the religious and social conservatism of the Old Order.

This first "reading" of American / Quebec relations in the nineteenth century is subsequently revised by Major so as to fit the more expansive worldview professed by Ralph Waldo Emerson to a receptive Montreal audience between 19 and 24 April 1852: at a dinner held by the Saint George's Society, for example, Emerson pictured England as "a ship anchored in the sea, at the side of Europe, & right in the heart of the modern world," and the English--those "sailors & factors of the globe"--as masters in "the game of annexation." (4) Understandably, though, given its context and direction, it is not this lecture, but rather the one Emerson read before Londoners at Exeter Hall, in 1848, which receives Major's careful treatment. Delivered in the enemy's cultural stronghold, capital to the "merchants of the world," the Sage of Concord's whimsical portrayal of a French general as antitype to the modern captain of industry, levelling the Alps and transforming "old, iron-bound, feudal France ... into a young Ohio or New York," (5) is a tactical coup worthy of the general himself, according to The American Dream in Nineteenth-Century Quebec. Nor does the author of The American Dream hesitate to bring the example home. If Emerson's Napoleon speaks the lingua franca common to "Paris and London and New York," that of "commerce ... money and material power," it is a language equally familiar to Major's subject, Antoine Gerin-Lajoie, and particularly to his stepfather Etienne Parent, the influential lecturer of Montreal's elite Institut canadien convinced, in his own way, of American Manifest Destiny. (6) "La carriere ouverte aux talens"--or, in Thomas Carlyle's famous translation, "The Tools to him who can handle them" (7)--is the Romantic gospel which The American Dream sings in concert with that nineteenth-century elite, as it goes on to hymn the virtues of the "self-made man." (8) In defense against an ever-encroaching cultural imperialism, Major enjoins Quebeckers to follow the example of a hero schooled "a l'ecole des Anglo-Saxons," and so to put an end, at last, to their "habitudes collectives suicidaires. …

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