American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Melville

Nauseating Flatteries

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The upsurge in far-right violence, gathering momentum with the current President’s coaxing, has taken the removal of Confederate monuments as a cause, most recently in an assault on the city of Charlottesville, Virginia. That city has two such monuments, one of Robert E. Lee, an equestrian statue whose much-debated fate is now in the hands of the courts.

Following from afar the awful events, and then their aftermath (including the stirring destruction of monuments), I was moved to reread Melville’s long poem in Battle-PiecesLee in the Capitol.” It did not suit the moment, but seemed instead to belong to the long recuperation of this treasonous general, defender of slavery. More pertinent was an editorial by Frederick Douglass in his Reconstruction-era newspaper New National Era. Under the headline “Bombast,” he denounced the growing chorus of voices in the North as well as South eulogizing Lee.

Writing a month after Lee’s death, Douglass asked:

Is it not about time that this bombastic laudation of the rebel chief should cease?

And he continued:

We can scarcely take up a paper that comes to us from the South, that is not filled with nauseating flatteries of the late ROBERT E. LEE; and many Northern journals also join in these undeserved tributes to his memory.

The Library of Congress has digitized the paper. I reproduce the editorial from the 10 November 1870 issue below:


sift through from (not remove (as noted by Siva Vaidhyanathan in an essay of cool, necessary fury) voted two years ago to relocate


Written by Ben Friedlander

August 17, 2017 at 12:05 pm

Philip Freneau or Raymond Queneau?

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By circumstance, not design, I’ve been on vacation from this blog for a few months, with much of my attention focused on Charles Olson, a poet who flourished long after the age of Whitman and Dickinson … though he certainly had his roots in that age. Olson began his career as a Melville scholar, tracking down Melville’s library and writing a superb book on Moby-Dick. Unlike many other Melville scholars, moreover, he was also pretty engaged with the poetry. He owned the Constable edition of Melville’s works and heavily annotated the volume of Poems, as well as the two volumes of Clarel, a book Olson wanted Grove Press to reprint with his own introduction. I hope to post a few notes on all that in the coming months.

But right now I want to mark an anniversary. Forty-five years ago today, on July 23rd, 1965, Olson closed the Berkeley Poetry Conference with a notorious reading: there was very little recitation involved; Olson spoke instead in a stream of consciousness, tripping on the edge of coherence. Libbie Rifkin has written a fine analysis of this reading, which she takes to be a defining moment … not so much for what Olson said, as for the social vectors he tried to direct. As she writes in Career Moves:

It was a difficult speech act to bring off. Olson’s performance — considered by some to be a tour de force, while others walked out — embodied the contradictory dynamics at work in the conference and the tensions within the community at large. Billed as a “reading,” identified by the poet himself as a “talk,” and later derided as a “filibuster,” it has been viewed both as a brilliant enactment of the open-form poetics that Olson is credited with founding, and as a drunken ramble.

Rifkin’s book is on the avant-garde as “counter-institution,” a word whose equivocal meaning reproduces the equivocal status of Olson’s reading.

In 1966, the text of Olson’s reading was published as a pamphlet by Coyote Press (in a transcript by Zoe Brown; a later transcript by Ralph Maud formed the basis for the version in Muthologos). Here’s the ending of Maud’s version; Olson is riffing here off  a name from his adolescence:

It’s like Frenaud, that poet, the French poet, whom we — you know, the French poet that was at Spoleto was a man I never heard of, named Frenaud. And I said, “You don’t mean Philip Freneau?” (LAUGHTER.) You know, like, I’m so fucking American I didn’t even know that there was some guy like Quasimodo, a French poet named Frenaud. (LAUGHTER.) Sounded like Qu-Quineau or some — I mean, a water — I mean, I don’t know. But if there’s only — if I ever heard a name Frenaud, it was Philip Freneay; you know, that contemporary of the American Revolution and that very good, by the way, writer of Castle Otranto literature, better than it. You know, the commonness of John Smith, who replaced, I believe directly, William Shakespeare, has only been caught up with, in fact, I think, I really think, and it’s not plop and shit, in Berkeley since the — the day this fucking Conference started. And that’s why we were all fucked up two years ago; literally, like the eighteenth century. I mean, what a — what a breakthrough! (TAPE ENDED HERE.)

The poet at Spoleto was, in fact, named Frenaud, but better than the echo of Freneau is the leap Olson makes to Queneau. Talk about your long eighteenth century. It swallows the nineteenth century whole. Another white whale.

Written by Ben Friedlander

July 23, 2010 at 2:21 pm

In Praise of the Variant

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One of the more depressing things I’ve read lately:

Jo Ann Boydston, the editor of the complete thirty-seven-volume edition of John Dewey’s writings, dolefully reports that to her knowledge not a single study of Dewey has ever referred for evidence to the enormous end-of-volume apparatus of rejected variants.

That’s from D. C. Greetham’s 1996 PMLA article “Textual Forensics,” a nice summary of the state of textual studies at the end of the last century.

Boydston’s comment gave me an idea for a new feature here … “Variant of the Month.” A chance to draw some attention to the unsung labor of editors, and a chance also to share to some of the delights of a scholarly edition.

With specific regard to nineteenth-century American poetry, the pool of available authors will not be very large. But there are still some options. Dickinson and Whitman, of course; and Emerson too. Also Stephen Crane, Jones Very … and there’s an interesting variant noted on occasion in a reading edition. I may even mention a variant I’ve discovered on my own.

But since Melville’s poems have only just been published as part of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville, I thought I’d begin with something from that volume, which was edited by Robert C. Ryan, Harrison Hayford, Alma MacDougall Reising, and G. Thomas Tanselle. [1] Read the rest of this entry »

Moby Dick Meets Eel Queen

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Click on image for larger view

By way of Caleb Crain’s blog, I’ve just learned about a wonderful online resource: a complete archive of the Melville Society Extracts, covering the years 1969 to 2005 (link). There are 127 issues in all, one an index of issues 49 to 72. Each issue has its own link, but the pages are reproduced as image files, so this is not a searchable database. But a useful one? Hell yes.

Fun too. The page shown to the right (from issue 2 [August 15, 1969]) includes the following tidbit under the heading “Media”:

Saturday morning TV pabulum this summer includes an animated children’s series in color on the doings, mostly beneath the surface of the sea, of Tom and Tug and their attendant seal. They are extricated from assorted difficulties by a benign and cuddly white whale. The episode I saw on WVTW-TV of Charlotte, N.C., was entitled “Moby Dick Meets Eel Queen.” When I sought further information from my fellow TV-viewers, ages six and seven, they expressed mild surprise that I didn’t know about white whales.

It looks like I have another project to keep me busy: going through the archive, in search of entries on Melville’s poetry.

Meanwhile, the Moby Dick FAQ (link), devoted to the Hanna Barbera cartoon, not Melville’s novel, provides a thumbnail of Moraya, The Eel Queen. Minimal searching turns up a few snippets of the cartoon, though I’ve no idea how long those will remain online. Moby Dick and the Iceberg Monster is one, available complete.

Written by Ben Friedlander

April 7, 2010 at 9:14 am

Posted in Melville, scholarship

Tagged with ,

Lines of Inquiry

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Eliza Richards

A few weeks back, I spent some time with “Poetry, Journalism, and the U.S. Civil War” by Eliza Richards, part of a special issue on nineteenth-century American poetry (ESQ 51.1-4). Richards begins with an essay on the war news by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (whose prose writings on the Civil War are key texts in my view — and not only mine: Tyler B. Hoffman, Alice Fahs, and Franny Nudelman make canny use of him in scholarly works that I much admire).[1]

Here are two important sentences from Holmes that Richards cites, the second with a little abridgment (the date refers to the South’s attack on Fort Sumter):

Now, if a thought goes round through the brain a thousand times in a day, it will have worn as deep a track as one which has passed through it once a week for twenty years. This accounts for the ages we seem to have lived since the twelfth of April last, and, to state it more generally, for that ex post facto operation of a great calamity, or any very powerful impression, which we once illustrated by the image of a stain spreading backwards from the leaf of life open before us through all those which we have already turned.

The previous illustration to which Holmes refers is a passage from The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858):

A great calamity … is as old as the trilobites an hour after it has happened. It stains backward through all the leaves we have turned over in the book of life, before its blot of tears or of blood is dry on the page we are turning. For this we seem to have lived…. After the tossing half-forgetfulness of the first sleep that follows such an event, it comes upon us afresh as a surprise, at waking; in a few moments it is old again, — old as eternity.

Holmes belongs, clearly, to a small number of theorists whose models of the mind look forward to Freud. And like Freud, Holmes was a medical doctor. This surely gave his models a clinical authority to readers of the time. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 27, 2010 at 9:16 am

Of Petra

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Annie Finch wrote a note for the Poetry Foundation about the name “Petra,” which she associates with a nineteenth-century poem by the British Anglican John William Burgon. This brought to mind the Petra section of Herman Melville’s Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), which I’ve been rereading lately for an essay that Sean Reynolds commissioned for his new journal Wild Orchids. I may post excerpts from that essay in the coming weeks. In the meantime, here is a comment I left in response to Annie’s note: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 5, 2009 at 5:10 pm