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

Held in London, the eleventh International Melville Society Conference took a transatlantic starting point, with a theme inspired by Melville’s travels to London and Great Britain. Organised around the focus of ‘Melville’s crossings’, it covered the breadth and depth of Melville studies and paid close attention to Melville’s dialogues with philosophy and aesthetic theory, his own travels across the globe, and the idea of borders and thresholds within his works. Echoing these crossings, the event itself traversed the boundary between the academic and the public, including panels, seminars, and plenaries but also public engagement in the form of an afternoon at the British Library.

The afternoon ‘Looking for Melville’—co-organised by King’s and the Eccles Centre—was an important contribution, bringing Melvillean scholarship and art to the public. Philip Hoare, award-winning author of Leviathan (2008), spoke on the maritime and oceanic cultures Melville would have encountered whilst living in London in 1849. John Bryant (Hofstra) read from his forthcoming Melville biography, drawing connections between Melville’s visit to Brazil, its slave trade, and his oceanic fiction. Dawn Coleman and Martin Griffin (Tennessee) reflected on their own Melville public engagement project – a festival including a marathon reading of ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ and a dramatisation of Moby Dick. Similarly, David Schaerf (Oakland) screened part of his new documentary Call Us Ishmael (2017), which explores the appeal of Moby Dick for the US public. Finally, a panel of British artists (Caroline Hack, Michael Hall, and Shelley Piasecka) discussed how Moby Dick had influenced their own visual and performance work, from cuddly toy whales to ensemble performances of the novel. These projects highlighted the range in Melville reception on each side of the Atlantic. In the US Melville is a canonical part of national culture (even if only a minority have actually read his work), hence the documentary and public readings, whereas in the UK he remains an obscure figure, resulting in more eclectic projects.  Coleman, Griffin and Schaerf, and the British artists not only discussed their work—of interest to both the public and academics—but also the practical organisation of these projects, their challenges and benefits.

Nineteenth-century Americanist work of the last five years has sought to return formal concerns to literary criticism, to bring aesthetics into conversation with the historicist questions that have led the field for three decades. Melville scholarship has influenced this aesthetic turn, notably Samuel Otter and Geoffrey Sanborn’s edited collection Melville and Aesthetics (2011). The panel ‘Bodies, Tones, Gestures, Diptychs’ brought together four papers building on Otter and Sanborn’s work and all interested in Melville’s formal concerns – be it biological, visual, aesthetic or literary. Branka Arsiç (Columbia) argued for an entomological reading of Moby Dick. Ahab sees life not in the body itself but through it, just like insects burrowing under the surface of the earth. In order to find this life force he destroys and discards bodies, such as the whale. Jennifer Greiman (Wake Forest) tracked the influence of JM Turner’s theory of colour on Pierre (1852). The repetition of gloom and light in Book IX’s title (‘More Light, And The Gloom Of That Light; More Gloom, And The Light Of That Gloom’) demonstrates the visual roots of Melville’s rhetorical tone, and the syntactic reversals evince Pierre’s own tortured mental state. James D. Lilley (Albany, SUNY) read ‘Benito Cereno’ (1855) as a series of inscrutable physical movements and gestures. From these failed gestures, the short story becomes an empty modern allegory and a puzzle that cannot be solved. Otter (UC Berkeley) considered the diptych form in Melville’s paired short stories ‘Poor Man’s Pudding and Rich Man’s Crumbs’ (1854) and ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids’ (1855). These ‘couplets’ of sketches utilise the same sequential overstatements, exaggerations and inversions as the antebellum visual diptych, for example satirical sketches comparing US and UK slavery.

The keynote given by Professor Paul Gilroy (Kings College London), ‘Melville’s Drowned and Saved’, traced the transnational, pelagic and postcolonial provocations in Melville’s work. Bringing together critical race theory and the anthropocene, Gilroy discussed a tradition of black intellectual thought responding to Melville, and in turn using Melville to challenge contemporary anti-human sentiment. He argued that as an isolator who challenges concepts of stable identity, Melville is an attractive figure for writers and thinkers like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and CLR James. Writing Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (1953) whilst imprisoned on Ellis Island, James drew a parallel between the detention centre and the Pequod, and in Moby Dick’s factory-like ship he saw the future of capitalism and its inextricable relationship to race. Turning to Europe’s postcolonial state and its migrant crisis, Gilroy asked the audience to think about those drowning in Melville’s works – the exploited figure of Pip the black cabin boy. In his attention to the drowned and the saved, Melville turns against the anti-human sentiment that witnesses yet disregards the suffering of Middle-Eastern and African migrants. Spanning Moby Dick, twentieth-century black intellectual thought, and present crises, Gilroy’s plenary was deeply engaging and reaffirmed Melville’s position as a writer not only relevant but necessary for contemplating the contemporary world.

As Gilroy’s emphasis on the drowned highlights, bodies were a prominent focus of the conference, with papers covering diverse aspects of corporality including the senses, labouring bodies, deformity and disability, race, and medicine. ‘The Melvillean Body: Mind and Body’ contributed to these conversations by uniting scholars working on the relationship between the body and the mind in Melville’s 1850s novels. Ralph James Savarese (Grinnell College) and Pilar Martinez Benedi (Sapienza Università di Roma) gave a joint paper on acquired mirror-touch synaesthesia (MTS) in Moby Dick. As an amputee, Ahab develops too much empathy from MTS, which forces him to avoid situations where he has to care. Yet, touch-based encounters, like that between Ahab and Pip, offer the possibility of erasing racial difference. Hannah Lauren Murray (Nottingham) examined the role of Isabel’s spiritualist séance in Pierre. The séance acts as alternative means of communication for people on the margins of society, such as Isabel, a haunting illegitimate woman excluded from her own family history. Christine Walsh (Arizona) tracked the development of metempsychosis from Mardi (1849) to The Confidence Man (1857). Rather than depicting the continuation of souls in new bodies, metempsychosis in The Confidence Man only transfers a void, demonstrating the irrelevance of identity and precarity of knowledge in the novel. Monica Urban (Houston) argued that fashion is a reliable form of evidence in The Confidence Man. The multiple outfits encourage readers to study surfaces, which trains them how to view as well as read the world around them.

As the closing roundtable reflected, a single author conference carries an enormous amount of privilege, in that delegates possess a shared knowledge of a body of work and the vocabulary to discuss it. In practical terms this meant that papers were ambitious in their arguments, because time was not spent explaining plots, but could also carry out granular work by focusing on just one character or even a single chapter. At the same time, Melville remains a touchstone author, not just for nineteenth-century Americanists, but also those who work more broadly on American literature, and Victorianists. An extensive conference, it requires two reviews to convey the many strands of scholarship at work in this vibrant field. One continuing question for the field is how to make scholarship publicly engaging. The British Library event offered possibilities for the public presentation of nineteenth-century American writers in the UK. As the recent celebrations of Austen’s bicentenary demonstrate, there is an appetite for literary history events and Americanists can make the case for public discussion of writers like Melville who have a transatlantic connection, such as Irving, Douglass and Stowe. The 12th International Melville Society Conference will be held in New York in 2019.