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Readers of PWHNY know that Bryan and I have a thing for Melville’s Moby-Dick. And apparently we’re not alone.

Today is the first day of the “Moby-Dick Big Read,” sponsored by Plymouth University in the UK in conjunction with the Plymouth International Book Festival. According to the website, the project “grew out of the Peninsula Arts Whale Festival (2011) and was conceived and curated by Philip Hoare (winner of the 2009 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction for Leviathan or, the Whale) and the acclaimed artist, Angela Cockayne, whose exhibition, Dominon, also held at Peninsula Arts in 2011, provided vital inspiration.”

Starting today, the site will feature a chapter of Melville’s novel recorded by some well-known as well as not-so-well-known readers. I’m not sure what it means that a bunch of Brits are reading what the site calls “the Great Amertican Novel,” but it sure was fun to hear “Loomings” read Tilda Swinton, with her oh-so-plummmy English accent. Enjoy it below. We’ll embed each day’s chapter here on PWHNY, and you can also subscribe to the series as a podcast on iTunes.

Visit the site itself to see the piece of artwork chosen to accompany the day’s chapter.

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For a number of years, we offered this extra-credit question on the Writing New York final examination: “Who was Baron Axel von Klinkowstrom and what is his significance to our course?”

To answer this question, you would have to have read the draft of my essay “Whitman’s and Melville’s New York, 1819–1855,” assigned as secondary reading on our syllabus. There you would have discovered a discussion of Klinkowstrom (1775-1837), a Swedish naval officer, who visited the United States in 1818 and lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn from 1819–20. Klinkowstrom was a precursor of such distinguished European commentators on American affairs as Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Dickens, James Bryce, and (more recently) Bernard-Henri Levy

The primary purpose of Klinkowstrom’s visit to New York was to report on a new invention: the steamboat. He wrote a series of letters to the Swedish government in which he described not only the American development of steamboat technology, but also the state of American life, especially life in and around New York City.

“I was not prepared to find such a large and populous city on a coast where two hundred years ago there was only an insignificant village,” Klinkowstrom wrote on his first arrival in 1818. He added that “from the sea the city is not handsome, as the houses are not stuccoed, and the view is obstructed by the many ships whose tackle hugs the bridges in a double row, and whose masts form a forest.” He was immediately impressed by the city’s commercial spirit: “Although I have only hurriedly seen New York as yet,” Klinkowstrom wrote in 1818, “I do believe there is a livelier spirit of speculation there and that people are eager to become rich quickly through many enterprises.”

The following year, after he had taken up residence in Manhattan, Klinkowstrom commented on the city’s architecture and streets. Noting that “the houses in New York are usually painted in the English fashion, that is to say with a dark brick color and white trimming between the stones,” Klinkowstrom suggested that

the city would be rather gloomy if the streets were not wide and cheerful. Here and there trees are planted along the streets. The streets all have sidewalks which make walking very easy. In the newer part of the city, the streets are straight; but they seldom cross each other at right angles, and in the entire city there is not one handsome square.

Klinkowstrom praised Broadway and drew a watercolor of the intersection of Broadway and Fulton Street, facing City Hall, and he called this part of New York “really quite beautiful.” Klinkowstrom, however, wryly included a pig rooting about in the street on the right-hand side of the picture, and in his letters he noted the “harmful and unpleasant” custom of “allowing the swine to wander about freely on the streets. . . . These pigs have often caused ridiculous situations. Once during the fashionable promenade hour on Broadway I saw some of these animals rush on the sidewalk, making a sharp contrast with the elegant clothes, and one filthy pig bumped into a well-dressed woman. Often they trip people who are not sufficiently observant.”

New York, he concluded, “is not as clean as cities of the same size and population in Europe.”

[The picture, “Broadway-street and the City Hall in New York” (1824) is engraving by Carl Fredrik Akrell (Swedish, 1779–1868), after Klinkowstrom’s watercolor. It is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Read more about it here.]


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by Herman Melville

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh —
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh —
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there —
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve —
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.

more on Memorial Day poetry here.

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A little bit of Writing New York liveblogging here: Cyrus is, as I type, lecturing on Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which we situate in our course by taking seriously its subtitle, “A Story of Wall-street.” Today’s he’s added new material, inspired by a visit to the Hopper show at the Whitney (thru April 10). The connection, as I take it, is loneliness, but perhaps also voyeurism and the difficulty imagining the interiority of other urban dwellers.

Here’s one of the images he’s put on screen, Hopper’s painting “Night Windows” (1928):

Cyrus suggests this is a view from the El, which reminds me of one of my favorite passages from W. D. Howells’ New York novel A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), which I’ve quoted on this blog before. Here’s the bulk of the description, from the perspective of upper-middle-class train-riding voyeurs Mr. and Mrs. March, who think

the night transit was even more interesting than the day, and that the fleeting intimacy you formed with people in second and third floor interiors, while all the usual street life went on underneath, had a domestic intensity mixed with a perfect repose. [The train allows one] to see those people through the windows: a family part of work-folks at a late tea,  some of the men in their shirt sleeves; a woman sewing by a lamp; a mother laying her child in its cradle; a man with his head fallen on his hands upon a table; a girl and her lover leaning over the window sill together. What suggestion! what drama! what infinite interest!

The couple thinks these views — better than attending the theater — offer ideal material for modern painters. Hopper appears to have taken them up on that point.

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Bryan and I were pleased to host a visit by Ric Burns to NYU last night, for a special screening of his most recent documentary, Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World. Many of our readers no doubt are familiar with Burns’s monumental, eight-part New York: A Documentary Film, and those of you who are persuaded by our arguments that Herman Melville is a central figure in the literary history of New York (and that Moby-Dick is inspired, in part, by the energies of mid-nineteenth-century New York) will find the new film illuminating as a follow-up to the earlier film.

As Burns explained in his opening remarks, Into the Deep turns on three interlinked stories: the story of the American whaling industry from its origins in the seventeenth century through its heyday in the mid-nineteenth to its sudden demise by the start of the twentieth; the story of the catastrophic voyage of the whaleship Essex, which was wrecked by a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean 1820; and the writing and publication of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). The film is a cautionary tale about what happens when you base an industry on a finite natural resource and suggests that the rise and fall of American whaling might be an allegory for our present-day infatuation with another natural resource — not whale oil but petroleum. At the same time, however, the film is also a case-study in globalization: for all its rapaciousness, the whaling industry also Americans to explore the wide world and come into contact with racial and cultural others — a daunting prospect for some but a source of wonder and opportunity for others, like Herman Melville.

Watching the film again, I was struck by the gorgeousness of its depictions of a whaleship under sail and the skill with which Burns staged “re-enactments.” And I realized that the film is in fact making a case for a re-evaluation of the story of American industrialization that we commonly tell ourselves, forcing us to remember the pivotal role played by whale oil and other whale products. As one of our students suggested during the question-and-answer period that followed the screening, that’s not a story that’s customarily told in high school history courses. In our historical memory, the significance of the story of American whaling has disappeared along with the industry, lost like the Essex and Melville’s Pequod.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago. (Moby-Dick, Chapter 135).

We were fortunate enough to be able to record the question-and-answer session, so we’ll be posting material from it in the near future. In the meantime, if you were there at the screening last night, or if you’ve seen Burns’s film and found it provocative, please leave a comment below.

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As previously tweeted on @pwhny and @_waterman and @TeriTynes:

More here and here.


This week in my graduate seminar on the American novel to 1855, we discussed Melville’s 1852 novel Pierre, which was almost universally reviled on its publication and still remains the subject of much debate about its artistic flaws and merits. Most contemporary critics recognize it as some sort of masterpiece, though exactly which kind and exactly what the novel is trying to do remain somewhat open. I find it maddening in many ways, but a challenge too — and hey, it’s Melville, and it doesn’t get better than that, so I keep coming back to it.

Pierre tells the story of an almost cartoonish young man from the Massachusetts countryside — a setting portrayed by Melville almost as some sort of proto-Loony Tunes, Grieg-soundtracked acid trip — who makes his way to New York with a dark and sexy woman he presents as his wife and who may or may not be his half sister by an adulterous affair his father possibly had with a refugee from the French Revolution. Melville’s descriptions of the city in the latter part of the novel are phenomenal: the motley crew that populates the city watch-house, the hordes of promenaders on Broadway, curious old men, hard of hearing, hawking periodicals in newsstands.

Our colleague Tom Augst includes a thorough treatment of the novel’s turn toward the urban gothic in his essay on Melville in our Cambridge Companion; I recommend his essay to anyone who wants to take up this admittedly difficult novel for the first time. Augst’s treatment includes a lengthy discussion of my own favorite among the city scenes Melville describes: a peek into a bohemian enclave living in the attic apartments of an old abandoned church downtown. (The Melville lower Manhattan walking tour I tweeted about the other day identifies this “Church of the Apostles” as a Baptist church at 82 Nassau, which was deconsecrated in 1848 and used for commercial and residential purposes.) This is one of the earliest descriptions I know of a bohemian enclave in New York; the crowd at Pfaff’s, farther up Broadway, where Whitman was a regular, wouldn’t materialize for a few more years. Melville deliciously describes the old church’s new inhabitants, savaging its lawyers and relishing the intellectual clamor that was taking place over their heads:

[F]rom some time after its throwing open, the upper stories of the less ancient attached edifice remained almost wholly without occupants; and by the forlorn echoes of their vacuities, right over the head of the business-thriving legal gentlemen below, must — to
some few of them at least — have suggested unwelcome similitudes, having reference to the crowded state of their basement-pockets, as compared with the melancholy condition of their attics; — alas! full purses and empty heads! This dreary posture of affairs, however, was at last much altered for the better, by the gradual filling up of the vacant chambers on high, by scores of those miscellaneous, bread-and-cheese adventurers, and ambiguously professional nondescripts in very genteel but shabby black, and unaccountable foreign-looking fellows in genteel blue spectacles; who, previously issuing from unknown parts of the world, like storks in Holland, light on the eaves, and in the attics of lofty old buildings in most large sea-port towns. Here they sit and talk like magpies; or descending in quest of improbable dinners, are to be seen drawn up along the curb in front of the eating-houses, like lean rows of broken-hearted pelicans on a beach; their pockets loose, hanging down and flabby, like the pelican’s pouches when fish are hard to be caught. But these poor, penniless devils still strive to make ample amends for their physical forlornness, by resolutely reveling in the region of blissful ideals.

They are mostly artists of various sorts; painters, or sculptors, or indigent students, or teachers of languages, or poets, or fugitive French politicians, or German philosophers. Their mental tendencies, however heterodox at times, are still very fine and spiritual upon the whole; since the vacuity of their exchequers leads them to refuse the coarse materialism of Hobbes, and incline to the airy exaltations of the Berkeleyan philosophy. Often groping in vain in their pockets, they cannot but give to the Descartian vortices; while the abundance of leisure in their attics (physical and figurative), unites with the leisure in their stomachs, to fit them in an eminent degree for that undivided attention indispensable to the proper digesting of the sublimated Categories of Kant; especially as Kant (can’t) is the one great palpable fact in their pervadingly impalpable lives. These are the glorious paupers, from whom I learn the profoundest mysteries of things; since their very existence in the midst of such a terrible precariousness of the commonest means of support, affords a problem on which many speculative nut-crackers have been vainly employed. Yet let me here offer up three locks of my hair, to the memory of all such glorious paupers who have lived and died in this world. Surely, and truly I honor them — noble men often at bottom — and for that very reason I make bold to be gamesome about them; for where fundamental nobleness is, and fundamental honor is due, merriment is never accounted irreverent. The fools and pretenders of humanity, and the impostors and baboons among the gods, these only are offended with raillery; since both those gods and men whose titles to eminence are secure, seldom worry themselves about the seditious gossip of old apple-women, and the skylarkings of funny little boys in the street.

It’s hard to say what my favorite part of this description is. One thing I especially love comes near the end, where the narrator inserts himself using the first person, then aims to intrude even bodily by cutting his hair in sentimental tribute to these bohemians. The narrator in Pierre is a tricky beast, but one that any reader of the novel has to grapple with. After all, in spite of the fact that that novel led some reviewers — and family members — to doubt Melville’s sanity, the narrator famously holds his own in a sentence often used to characterize Melville himself: “I write precisely as I please.”

Illustration above from the Kraken Edition of Pierre, illustrated beautifully by Maurice Sendak.


With the The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York on the verge of appearing in bookstores around the town and online, we begin our series of profiles of contributors to the volume. Today we profile Thomas Augst, the author of the chapter entitled “Melville, at Sea in the City.”

Tom is Associate Professor of English at New York University. He received his doctorate in the History of American Civilization in 1996 from Harvard University. He also holds a masters in History from Harvard (1992) and did his undergraduate work at Yale, where he majored in Literature and History.

He is the author of The Clerk’s Tale: Young Men and Moral Life in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago, 2003), which was a finalist for the Modern Language Association’s Prize for a First Book. The originality of the book arises from its treatment of the figure of the “clerk” as the focal point for an interdisciplinary history of U.S. antebellum literary culture. Tom uses unpublished manuscript sources — primarily young men’s diaries and letters — to recover a world of marginal and ephemeral literary production, thereby revealing the emergence of a new gender- and class-based sub-group of literate culture, a group with a distinct and sometimes abrasive relation to the higher literary culture emanating from the more elite schools and universities. Tom shows how these young men use reading and writing as the tools of self-making, not in order to achieve the kind of abstract “self-reliance” that Ralph Waldo Emerson extols in the first half of his career, but rather to find their way into the networks of commerce and social life that marked the antebellum U.S.

Tom has also co-edited the collections Institutions of Reading: The Social Life of Libraries in the United States (University of Massachusetts, 2007) and Libraries as Agencies of Culture (University of Wisconsin, 2002). Taken as a whole, his scholarship explores the historical and social contexts of reading, writing, and speaking, seeking to interpret how literary institutions and practices have shaped the moral life of liberalism. His essay “Temperance, Mass Culture, and the Romance of Experience,” culled from his current manuscript-in-progress, appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of the journal American Literary History.

Here is the opening of Tom’s piece for the Companion:

Like a stranger suddenly sidling up as you walk down Broadway, or perhaps some young eccentric sitting alone at a bar determined to bend your ear a little, Herman Melville’s novel of 1851, Moby-Dick, introduces itself to readers in an abrupt but engaging manner. Through a narrator named Ishmael, Melville gives voice to a modern consciousness as original as any in American literature. It is a voice as startling and unselfconscious as the manner in which people sometimes talk to themselves as they walk crowded streets of modern cities, or wander crowded thoughts of modern life.

Though Melville will devote most of his novel’s great length to a whaling enterprise and shipboard life, the first chapter of Moby-Dick remains anchored in a brief tour of lower Manhattan (see Figure 5 ). Before returning to sea to be cured of his melancholy – “the drizzly November in my soul” — Ishmael insists we see where he is coming from: “Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, Northward.” Taking us from the Battery to the seaport, along a part of what is now FDR Drive, past the financial district toward the west-side piers, Ishmael points out peculiar sights: “What do you see? – Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the piles: some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster – tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.”We never learn where Ishmael was born and raised, but as his walk downtown makes clear, he is familiar not only with the geography of Manhattan but with the anomie of modern life it seems to harbor. He walks anonymous streets, amongst the seaward-gazing masses that he points out along the way: “Look at the crowds of water-gazers there”: “But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water.” Ishmael speaks with a peculiar attitude, at once rude and sophisticated, sarcastic and sincere -– with the boisterous savvy of someone who long ago learned never to become “pent up in lath and plaster,” spiritually and physically immobilized by the routines and cares of work. Wherever he came from, and wherever he will go, Ishmael is a New Yorker.

Tomorrow: Robin Bernstein.

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The novel, that is, not the Park itself. If you’re interested in finding out more about the Park, past and present, we recommend exploring the archives of this excellent blog.

My initial impulse in teaching James’s novel has always been to take the title and setting seriously, to take what we know about the actual history of the development of Washington Square — its origins as a Potter’s Field, the history of class conflict surrounding its development and renovation over time — and read it against the narrator’s account, early in the novel, of the Square’s development and the Slopers’ place on it. (In taking the setting seriously I’m following Marcus Klein’s excellent treatment in Arizona Quarterly many moons ago, which is worth digging up if you have access to the print run in your library.) Last year Cyrus posted an overview of the approach we’ve taken and I offered up the timeline I use in lecture to contrast the novel’s admittedly partial memory with a more verifiable set of events.

One of the more interesting disjunctions between the novel and the Square’s actual history is the fact that the Slopers arrive on the Square — ostensibly to escape the clamor of commerce farther downtown — right on the heels of the Stonecutters’ Riots, in which laborers and masons resisted the city’s and University’s decision to use convict labor to build what would be NYU’s gothic University Building (pictured). I wrote a little bit about this issue last year — as well as about the contemporaneous development of another ritzy neighborhood, Colonnade Row, on the newly cut Lafayette Place, which bisected a mixed-class leisure space, Vauxhall Gardens, and undoubtedly helped pave the way for the Astor Place Riots there only a few years later. All of this unrest the novel would push to its symbolic margins. The Washington Square of James’s novel exists blissfully unaware of class conflict pushing right up against its borders.

Yesterday morning in lecture I took this contextualization so far as to suggest a parallel between the lawyer in Melville’s Bartleby and Dr. Sloper: each is subject to a certain blindness, to borrow a phrase from Henry’s older brother, William. Certainly the lawyer’s cozy kissing up to John Jacob Astor in Bartleby anticipates Dr. Sloper’s complicity in a market economy he thinks he has risen above. (We talked earlier in the semester about ways to read Bartleby in the context of the class conflicts that culminated in the Astor Place Riots.) And just maybe, I suggested, Catherine Sloper has a little bit of Bartleby himself in her. When it comes time to get married at the novel’s end, as good heroines are supposed to do, she simply prefers not to.

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melville.jpgOnly three days left in the Metropolitan Playhouse’s Melvillapalooza fest, which has been going on for the last few weeks: original plays, poetry readings, and general Melville-inspired mayhem on E. 4th St.

Several of the remaining events are free (though they require reservations as seating is limited), including the final “scholar’s roundtable” on Sunday evening at 7:00 pm. The roundtable will be made up of — ahem — the two of us plus our colleague Thomas Augst, who wrote about Melville in his book on nineteenth-century clerks in the city and is the author of our Melville chapter in the forthcoming Cambridge Companion. We’ll be talking about Bartleby, Ishmael, and Pierre, showing some slides of Melville’s New York, and eliciting lots of audience participation.

So if you’re inclined, as I am, to fall on your knees and thank the deity of your choice for producing someone who wrote so much fantastic prose, head on over to and save a seat or two. Hope to see you there!

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