From the Mast-Head

By Bryant, John | Leviathan, March 2004 | Go to article overview

From the Mast-Head


Bryant, John, Leviathan


When you say "Melville," do you mean the man or the text? Do we envision the biographical person--a writer writing--or the sum total of his work--the writings alone. For many readers, the word "Melville" actually means only "Moby-Dick" (not the whale but that single book, nicely hyphenated in emulation of the first American edition's title). "Have you read Melville?" "Oh yes, I know that book." This is a common trap: the reduction of all of Melville's work to one text. Granted, Moby-Dick is a fine book, the best there is. But the man produced more than one text. From Typee to Billy Budd. And perhaps more to the point, the man seemed addicted to writing. His life was so thoroughly committed to that process that it seemed a ceaseless act of writing, interrupted only by death. Biographers tell us there was certainly more to Melville's life than just the writing, and it would be just as erroneous to equate Melville and Writing as it would be to reduce all of his writings to just one book about a whale. Even so, we have a way, in our language, to use the word "Melville" not only as a name for a person but metonymically as a reference to that person's text. "Have you read Melville?" "Yes, I know those works."

Why do we conflate person and text? writer and writing? Literary theories and critical approaches generally asks us to separate the two and focus solely upon the text. And for good reason: the person is dead, his life irretrievable; but the writings survive. Text transcends time. And yet critics still ponder the writer, if only as an "agent" or "function" of culture. As Roland Barthes put it, "I desire the writer; I need his figure."

Literary scholarship has its own "desire." It is not to isolate text from writer, or writer from text; it is to discover evidence of the writer writing, and to give a meaning to the process. When we imagine a writer writing, we recognize that the creation of a text involves the dancing of a creative mind between private and public spheres: the writer writing is essentially a discourse that integrates mental, familial, intellectual, social, cultural worlds. We know, of course, that these past worlds no longer exist except as influences of and remnants in our own world. Even so, these vestiges are not lost worlds. We perceive them dimly or sharply, depending upon the impact of material artifacts: manuscripts, letters, annotated books, and the like.

The Special Issue of Leviathan before you demonstrates how we may access these past worlds of discourse. Expertly assembled by guest editor Steven Olsen-Smith, these pages feature two venerable endeavors in Melville scholarship: the recovery of the writer's library and the study of his use of sources. Melville was an inveterate reader. As Olsen-Smith reminds us in his own contribution to the issue, "A Cumulative Supplement to Melville's Reading," which updates us on new findings over the past decade, Melville had acquired in his life over a thousand books. …

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