Why Captain Ahab is worthy of our fear—and our compassion
Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab is perennially seen as the paradigm of a controlling, tyrannical agent. Ahab Unbound leaves his position as a Cold War icon behind, recasting him as a contingent figure, transformed by his environment—by chemistry, electromagnetism, entomology, meteorology, diet, illness, pain, trauma, and neurons firing—in ways that unexpectedly force us to see him as worthy of our empathy and our compassion.
In sixteen essays by leading scholars, Ahab Unbound advances an urgent inquiry into Melville’s emergence as a center of gravity for materialist work, reframing his infamous whaling captain in terms of pressing conversations in animal studies, critical race and ethnic studies, disability studies, environmental humanities, medical humanities, political theory, and posthumanism. By taking Ahab as a focal point, we gather and give shape to the multitude of ways that materialism produces criticism in our current moment. Collectively, these readings challenge our thinking about the boundaries of both persons and nations, along with the racist and environmental violence caused by categories like the person and the human.
Ahab Unbound makes a compelling case for both the vitality of materialist inquiry and the continued resonance of Melville’s work.
Contributors: Branka Arsić, Columbia U; Christopher Castiglia, Pennsylvania State U; Colin Dayan, Vanderbilt U; Christian P. Haines, Pennsylvania State U; Bonnie Honig, Brown U; Jonathan Lamb, Vanderbilt U; Pilar Martínez Benedí, U of L’Aquila, Italy; Steve Mentz, St. John’s College; John Modern, Franklin and Marshall College; Mark D. Noble, Georgia State U; Samuel Otter, U of California, Berkeley; Donald E. Pease, Dartmouth College; Ralph James Savarese, Grinnell College; Russell Sbriglia, Seton Hall U; Michael D. Snediker, U of Houston; Matthew A. Taylor, U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Ivy Wilson, Northwestern U.
In the fast changing culture of antebellum New York, writers of every stripe celebrated "the City" as a stage for the daily urban encounter between the familiar and the inexplicable. Probing into these richly varied texts, Hans Bergmann uncovers the innovations in writing that accompanied the new market society— the penny newspapers' grandiose boastings, the poetic catalogues of Walt Whitman, the sentimental realism of charity workers, the sensationalism of slum visitors, and the complex urban encounters of Herman Melville's fiction.
The period in which New York, the city itself, became firmly established as a subject invented a literary form that attempts to capture the variety of the teeming city and the flaneur, the walking observer. But Bergmann does not simply lead a parade of images and themes; he explores the ways in which these observers understood what was happening around them and to them, always attentive to class struggle and race and gender issues.
God in the Street shows how the penny press and Whitman's New York poetry create a new mass culture hero who interprets and dignifies the city's confusions. New York writers, both serious and sensationalist, meditate upon street encounters with tricksters and confidence-men and explore the meanings of encounters. Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrinever" underlines the unrelenting isolation and inability to control the interpreter. Bergmann reinterprets Melville's The Confidence Man as an example of how a complex literary form arises directly from its own historical materials and is itself socially symbolic. Bergmann sees Melville as special because he recognizes his inability to make sense of the surface of chaotic images and encounters. In mid-century New York City, Melville believes God is in the street, unavailable and unrecognizable, rather than omnipresent and guiding.
“Who would have looked for philosophy in whales, or for poetry in blubber?” the London John Bull remarked in October of 1851. And yet, the reviewer went on, “few books which professedly deal in metaphysics, or claim the parentage of the muses, contain as much true philosophy and as much genuine poetry as the tale of the Pequod's whaling expedition.” A decade and a half before surprising the world with a book of Civil war poetry, Melville was already confident of what was “poetic” in his prose. As Hershel Parker demonstrates in this book, Melville was steeped in poetry long before he called himself a poet.
Here Parker, the dean of Melville studies, gives a compelling, in-depth account of how one of America’s greatest writers grew into the vocation of a poet. His work corrects two of the most pernicious misconceptions about Melville perpetuated by earlier critics: that he repudiated fiction writing after Pierre, and that he hadn’t begun writing poetry (let alone had a book of poems ready for publication) as early as 1860. In clearing up these misapprehensions, Parker gives a thorough and thoroughly involving account of Melville’s development as a poet. Parker demonstrates for the first time just how crucial poetry was to Melville from childhood to old age, especially its re-emergence in his life after 1849. Drawing on Melville's shrewd annotations of great British poets and on his probing, skeptical engagement with commentaries on poetry (particularly by the great Scots reviewers), Parker paints a richly textured portrait of a hitherto unseen side of Herman Melville.
Browse our collection.
See BiblioVault's publisher services.
Files for college accessibility offices.
UChicago Accessibility Resources
BiblioVault ® 2001 - 2024
The University of Chicago Press