Cast by Means of Figures: Herman Melville's Rhetorical Development

By Bryan C. Short | Go to book overview

1
Manifest: "Cast by Means of Figures"

For the magic of it lay in the interpretation of dreams, and their application to the foreseeing of future events; so that all preparatory measures might be taken beforehand; which would be exceedingly convenient, and satisfactory every way, if true. The problems were to be cast by means of figures, in some perplexed and difficult way, which, however, was facilitated by a set of tables in the end of the pamphlet.

-- Melville, Redburn

This book addresses two audiences: students of Herman Melville and students of literary and rhetorical theory. To the former it offers a fresh look at the development of Melville's fiction. It begins by assessing the decisive influence which the immensely popular eighteenth-century literary rhetoric of Hugh Blair had on Melville's creative beginnings. It traces his struggle, ultimately successful, to supplant Blair's neoclassicism with a high Romantic rhetoric in line with his emerging itch for "that play of freedom & invention accorded only to the Romancer & poet" (Letters 70). It describes, in the fiction after Moby-Dick, the growth of a post-Romantic rhetoric conditioned by Melville's strong-minded reaction to the aesthetic underpinnings of his earlier work.1 In carrying out these tasks, I have employed the accepted tools of critical biography -- factual evidence, some of it familiar and some of it less so, sources, letters, and close readings of the fiction -- with an eye to producing a description of Melville's development that is not just innovative but compelling from the perspective of traditional humanistic criticism.2

The need, in performing the tasks outlined above, for an elaborate theoretical framework derives from Melville's own cast of mind. His aesthetic, insofar as he thinks about it -- and he thinks about it all the time -- combines high selfconsciousness with breathtaking rhetorical sensitivity and a passion for dialectical oppositions and departures. In uncovering the keys to Melville's development, the present study describes a creative process that reacts incessantly, consciously, and dramatically to its own rhetoric, to its sense of the capacity, limits, and patterns of its literary techniques. To complicate matters further, Melville has a photographic memory for his aesthetic experiments. Nothing tried is lost. Images, figures, strategies, tonalities, and structural principles get carried along, revised, commented on, combined, turned upside-down, elabo-

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