Correspondent Colorings: Melville in the Marketplace

By Sheila Post-Lauria | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
Originality: The Case of Moby-Dick

WHILE MOST TEXTUAL CRITICS assert that Melville planned his "market" novels, Redburn and White-jacket, by deliberately employing popular forms of the day, they locate Melville's "creativity" and "originality" instead in his "unplanned" works. In these critics' view, creativity and originality bear little relation to compositional planning and indeed seem antithetical to it. For these reasons, genetic theorists have continued to endorse the idea that Melville did not plan what is considered his most original and creative work, MobyDick. Yet we have already seen how Melville deliberately -- and creatively -- employed popular forms in Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, and White-Jacket. We have also discovered how innovative Melville was in these "market" novels -- a term that applies equally to all of these early works. Such exceptions to standard formulations of Melville's compositional methods should encourage modern readers unfamiliar with the literary trends of antebellum culture to adopt Ishmael's suggestion and "look at this matter in every light."

Beyond a linear realism, the author's compositional method is commonly associated with the improvisational habits of realist writers. With meaning derived from minute observations of experience, these writers reputedly discovered the thematic significance and content of their stories not through a priori schemes, but rather through the act of writing. As Edwin Eigner has painstakingly recovered in his examination of Victorian attitudes toward literary writing, many realist writers upheld the romantic theory of literary inspiration: Scott maintained that he "could never lay down a plan," Trollope never

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