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Melville on the Beach: Transnational Visions of America


This dissertation examines the transnational visions of America Herman Melville cultivated in his encounters with heterogeneous cultures, especially Polynesia. I name Melville’s fluid, drifting mind-set as being “on the beach,” where he is both threatened by and liberated from Victorian cultural codes of race, class, and gender. What is striking about Melville’s writing is the rapturous delight with which he depicts being in-between, though coupled with colonial anxiety and fear. Although the joy of being on the beach dims as Melville loses hope in his country, he does not hesitate to place himself in this liminal, transnational space and to identify himself with this in-between state for the rest of his literary career.

The Introduction compares Perry Miller’s coherent American nationhood with Melville’s transcultural approach to the nation and the world to define Melville’s transnationalism and his location in American studies. The first chapter explores how Melville uses the motifs of ‘turning Turk’ in Barbary captivity narratives to recount Tommo’s experience of nearly going native in Typee. The next chapter continues to discuss the question of Western self in scenes of colonial encounters, with more focus on minor, in-between characters in Typee and Omoo. Chapter three delves into the significant role the American whaling industry played in exploring the Pacific, relating America’s imperialistic enterprise to conquer Asia, especially Japan, to Ishmael’s narration of Ahab’s drive to harpoon the inscrutable whale. In addition, I attempt to historicize Fedallah and his comrades as shipwrecked Japanese sea-drifters. Chapter four analyzes Melville’s critiques both of biography as a nationalistic literary genre and of capitalism through the lawyer’s defective portrait of Bartleby, a devoted practitioner of what Max Weber calls “the spirit of capitalism.” Chapter five, which interrogates the formation of racial identities through the masquerade of slavery in “Benito Cereno,” delineates how the doubling of master and slave in a liminal space turns them both into in-betweens and thus enables a scathing critique of racism. The last chapter introduces an example of Melville’s transnational influence, his impact on Natsuki Ikezawa, a Japanese writer, and compares their views on nature as the ultimate other.

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