English 250

Research Seminar: Melville's Forms

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
4 Spring 2011 Otter, Samuel
Otter, Samuel
Thurs. 3:30-6:30 2523 Tolman

Other Readings and Media

Melville, H.: Typee; Melville, H.: Moby-Dick; Melville, H.: Pierre; Melville, H.: Israel Potter; Melville, H.: Tales, Poems, and Other Writings; Melville, H.: The Confidence-Man; Melville, H.: Poems of Herman Melville; Melville, H.: John Marr and Other Sailors; Melville, H.: Billy Budd; Howe, S.: The Nonconformist's Memorial; Olson, C.: Call Me Ishmael; Course Reader, available on bSpace.


In 1986, in the influential volume Ideology and Classic American Literature, Sacvan Bercovitch and Myra Jehlen used "the example of Melville" to make their case for a historically and politically informed literary criticism. In this seminar, at a different critical moment, we will see what Melville's career can tell us about the resurgence of interest in issues of form and aesthetics. We will resist the temptation to view this development as another pendulum swing in the supposed oscillation between "form" and "history." (As we will see, the past century of critical engagement with Melville's texts calls into question such familar options.) Instead, we will pursue a deceptively simple---and crucial---question: What do literary critics mean by "form"? We will read key statements from Shklovsky through Rancier and major analyses of Melville's texts, including those written by such creative writers as Charles Olson and Susan Howe.

We will read across Melville's career: not only the now-famous extended and shorter fiction (Moby-Dick, Pierre, The Confidence-Man, Billy Budd, "Bartleby," and "Benito Cereno"), but also the intricate verbal sketches (the ten "Encantadas" and the paired "Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids"), the poetry (Battle-Pieces and Clarel), and the late prose-and-verse works (John Marr and Other Sailors and unpublished writings). Considering Melville's literary experiments, shifts of genre, and regard for the visual arts, we will seek to make sense of literary "form" and reflect on how we do what we do: what we mean by style; how closely or distantly we read; how we make connections within, across, and beyond texts; the kinds of judgments we reach and their consequences; where we get the confidence to make our details count. Requirements include an oral presentation (or two) and a 25-30 page research essay written in stages across the semester. This essay need not be limited to Melville's texts.

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