British Association for American Studies


Review: The Eleventh International Melville Society Conference

The Eleventh International Melville Society Conference, Kings College London, 27-30 June 2017

The eleventh international Melville Society conference was a leviathan of an event, demonstrated by its need for two reviews. Spanning four days, it offered an intensive and diverse range of panels, seminars and activities, which allowed the participants to engage actively with an impressive range of various aspects of current Melvillean scholarship. Unified under the umbrella term of ‘Melville’s Crossings’, the event encompassed discussion of both geographical and ideological boundaries, particularly within a transatlantic ‘frame’. This led to many unusual parallels, comparisons and insights, all pointing towards the extensive reach of Melville, his works, and the ways in which both relate to broader issues.

Sir John Franklin

The opening keynote by Hester Blum (Penn State) excellently introduced this approach, whilst serving as a basis for later panels. Blum’s talk introduced the gripping real-life story of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated Arctic voyage in 1845. Stranded in the Arctic ices, the crew whiled away the hours by availing themselves of the books contained in the ship’s library–Melville’s early novels, among others. The title of the talk, ‘Melville and the Arctic’ initially implied Poe-esque imagery of albino sea-birds screaming ‘Tekeli-li’ whilst pursued by the White Whale, yet the subject-matter posed a poignant question: how should Melville’s novels of distant tropical lands be read in a hostile Arctic context? Blum noted that records of the sailors’ library aboard the wrecked HMS Erebus, located in 2014, showed it to include copies of Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). This seemingly minor fact raised, for Blum, a range of questions regarding the usefulness of travel narratives—such as Melville’s novels—as parable or instruction to travellers. The broader issues followed, including the way the travellers perceived their encounters with representatives of other cultures, the effect of imperialism on those, and the uncomfortable notions of cannibalism and cultural relativism. Blum’s provocative and diverse analysis provided a perfect start to an intellectually rigorous day.

A multi-faceted approach continued in the ‘Melville and Capitalism’ panel. Joel Pfister (Wesleyan) focused on Melville’s diptychs, and the subtly-veiled exploration of such themes as subjugation, martyrdom and toxicity emerging in Melville’s description of his time in England. Pfister hinted at how Melville viewed English modes of distribution of wealth as a problematic and uncomfortable concept, uniting the notion of English exceptionalism with the quasi-cannibalistic imagery of the wealthy stealing, like true cannibals, the very scraps that the poor feed upon. Pfister argued that Melville wanted neither the rampant opportunistic capitalism seen in the U.S. nor the cannibalistic charity he observed on English soil; rather, in his diptychs, he draws attention to the deficiencies of both. Yu Otake (Ibaraki National College of Technology) proceeded to discuss want and loss in Typee, drawing a fine distinction between bodily and mental labour, questioning the point at which physical or mental force employed to serve the needs of a community becomes an instrument of oppression. Returning to the transatlantic concepts, Timothy Marr (North Carolina) discussed Melville’s impressions of the English nature and particularly of the English countryside at the convergence of the two worlds: English and American, old and new. In this he noted the increasing American admiration for English heritage and the growing connection between the two diverse cultures of nobility (represented by England) and democracy (personified by America). Retaining a transnational focus, Maki Sadahiro (Meijigakuin) explored the reason to Herman Melville’s sudden popularity after years of obscurity, connecting it with the nascent notions of socialism, newly-relevant at the beginning of the twentieth century.

‘Melville in Dialogue: Activism’ provided an opportunity to view Herman Melville not just as an author solely preoccupied with his written works, but as an active participant or influencer in the social discourses taking place at the time. Amber Shaw (Coe College) began discussions by comparing the real-life phenomenon of the Lowell Mills in Massachussetts of 1840, with the impressions recorded by Melville in ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids’ (1855). She presenting a sharp contrast between the widespread myth of the happy and productive life of the mill-workers and the tragic vision put forth by Melville, who outs the seemingly halcyon images of factory life—as presented in literature at the time—as essentially hypocritical. The subsequent paper, by Olga Akroyd (Kent), gave a transnational perspective on Herman Melville as a proto-realist, emphasising the flawed nature of the established social order in Redburn (1849) before the emergence of ‘true’ realist writers, such as Dostoyevsky. Nancy Goldfarb (Indiana State) portrayed Melville as a scion of the Protestant religious tradition, outlining his reaction to the problematic nature of organised charity specifically in England, as presented in ‘The Rich Man’s Pudding and the Poor Man’s Crumbs. Grace Heneks (Texas A&M) then considered wanderlust in Redburn, giving an engaging overview of the gradual loss of innocence and incipient understanding of the world’s flawed order experienced by Wellingborough Redburn on his travels. In this, she subtly connected it to quest narratives as depicted in modern cinema. Finally, Matthew Bruen (Young Harris College) gave a stirring, if somewhat unexpected comparison between Herman Melville’s poem ‘Donelson’, and Walt Whitman’s reaction to the bloodshed and the anguished waiting at home experienced by the civilians during the Civil War.

The four days of the conference were fittingly concluded by a visit to Oxford University, hosted by Rothermere American Institute and the Humanities Division, where Professor Anna Brickhouse (Virginia) delivered a lecture titled ‘The Earthquake and the Whale’, combining transnational and trans-historic approaches. Focusing on the concept of ‘southernizing the catastrophe’, Brickhouse asked whether the very real catastrophes taking place in remote lands are perceived as ‘real’ by the writers who focus on them. In so doing, Brickhouse united the seemingly unconnected figures of Herman Melville and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616), the first writer born on the actual New World soil who wrote according to the Western literary canons. She also linked the well-documented Lisbon earthquake of 1755 with the far less-studied (at the time) Lima/Callao earthquake of 1746, which surpassed it in magnitude leaving the listeners wondering, what can be described as ‘near’ or ‘far?’ Yet the pivotal subjects of the lecture were the characteristically Melvillean notions of imminent apocalyptic doom and retribution, personified in the interweaving images of an actual earthquake and the fictional White Whale, who arrive as both the feared catastrophe, and the punishment for sins incurred within a narrative influenced by colonialism.

As the conference concluded, it remains to be said that the topic of Melville and his works had taken the delegates on a fascinating journey that commenced in the Arctic wilderness and concluded on South American shores. Upon its finale, being ever the enigmatic ‘eternal traveller’, Herman Melville has left us with more questions and wonderings. These will hopefully will be discussed at the next Melville Society conference, in New York in 2019.

About the Author

I am an independent researcher, graduated from Queen Mary, University of London, and University of Oxford, and I am currently gathering materials for a prospective PhD thesis on moral relativism and perception of evil as a social construct in a comparative analysis of USA and Russia in the 19th century. My key interests include USA-Russian relations from the antebellum period to the present day, presidential philosophy, and the life and works of Herman Melville.