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Life Arts    H4'ed 10/17/21

Mary K. Bercaw Edwards on Melville (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Herman Melville by Joseph O Eaton.
Herman Melville by Joseph O Eaton.
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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) October 17, 2021: As a child and a teenager, Mary K. Bercaw Edwards learned sailor talk (see esp. page ix in her 2021 book Sailor Talk: Labor, Utterance, and Meaning in the Works of Melville, Conrad, and London [Liverpool University Press]). Good for her!

Disclosure: I do not have any first-hand experience of sailor talk, and so I was happy to learn about sailor talk in her 2009 book Cannibal Old Me: Spoken Sources in Melville's Early Works (Kent State University Press). I was especially interested in her final chapter on Melville's narrative voice (pages 133-201), most notably in her discussion of sailor talk and coterie speech. But I am not especially interested in her meticulous discussion of sailor talk and Melville in her new 2021 book. Let me explain why not.

If sailor talk was so important in Melville's narrative writings, why doesn't Mary K. Bercaw Edwards discuss Melville's third ambitious experimental novel Pierre; or, the Ambiguities (1852) or his 18,000-line 1876 centennial narrative poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land?

Let me put my question differently: Was sailor talk just a passing phase in Melville's development as a narrative writer in his first six published narratives (1846, 1847, 1849a, 1849b, 1850, and 1851), but then it has no significance in his seventh published narrative, Pierre (1852)?

But if it was not just a passing phase in his development as a narrative writer, then Mary K. Bercaw Edwards should show how sailor talk also decisively influenced Melville's narrative writing in his 1852 ambitious experimental novel Pierre -- and even in his centennial 1876 narrative poem Clarel.

I know, I know. Publish or perish, eh? So she moves laterally and discusses sailor talk in Joseph Conrad and Jack London in her new 2021 book Sailor Talk (esp. pages 119-182 and 183-232, respectively). Granted, Conrad and London lend themselves to the kind of meticulous scholarship that she tends to scrupulously favor (e.g., in the Works Cited [pages 239-256]; but note that Ilse Vickers' book discussed on page 68 in note 14 is not listed in the Works Cited).

But for an interesting discussion of Melville's Clarel (1876), see Chapter 18 in Hershel Parker's meticulously argued 2012 book Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative (Northwestern University Press, pages 433-457).

On the back cover of Hershel Parker's 2012 book, Marianne Jankowski, then a designer for Northwestern University Press (but now retired), is credited with the excellent design of the front cover. Her excellent cover design features the fanned out pages of a printed book with a photo of Melville superimposed over them so that certain features of his face emerge more clearly on one side than on the other - thereby wonderfully suggesting that we may still be trying to bring Melville into our own clear view of him as a person and as an author, a task that Hershel Parker has significantly contributed to with respect to Melville's biography.

However, the task of the literary critic, such as Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, is different from the task of the biographer. To be sure, the literary critic should be informed by Hershel Parker's biographical discoveries about Melville. But the literary critic then needs to bring his biographical discoveries about Melville to bear on his published literary works. Up to a certain point, Mary K. Bercaw Edwards ably carries out the task of the literary critic of Melville's published works in her 2009 book and in her new 2021 book. My far more humble task as a reviewer of her books is to express my judicious appreciation of her positive contributions to our understanding of Melville's literary works, but also to judiciously call attention to certain limitations of her positive achievements.

Now, new to Mary K. Bercaw Edwards' new 2021 book Sailor Talk is her discussion of what she refers to as plain style, which she did not explicitly refer to in her 2009 book. For her discussion of plain style, she claims (page 68, including note 14) that she is drawing on Margaret Cohen's 2010 book The Novel and the Sea (Princeton University Press) and Ilse Vickers' 1997 book Defoe and the New Sciences (Cambridge University Press).

However, I would point out that Harvard's Americanist Perry Miller (1905-1963) discusses the plain style in Chapter XII: The Plain Style in his massively researched 1939 book The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Harvard University Press, pages 331-362). Granted, a sermon (or a theological treatise) is usually not an extended story - and definitely not a novel.

But did the seventeenth-century New England Puritans come to favor the plain style in sermons (and in their expository books in theology) because they had encountered sailor talk on the ships that brought them from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony? In all honesty, I have no idea.

But Perry Miller celebrates one of the most effective later practitioners of the plain style in sermons in his 1953 essay "Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening [of 1740]" in the 1956 essay collection Errand into the Wilderness (Harvard University Press, page 153-166). Also see his important 1950 piece "The Rhetoric of Sensation" (pages 167-183). I agree with his ordering them in this order, and I would urge you to read them in this order, if you are interested in reading them.

Perry Miller also discusses the plain style favored by New England Puritans in his ambitious 1958 essay "An American Language," first published in full posthumously in the 1967 essay collection Nature's Nation, edited by Elizabeth W. Miller (Harvard University Press, pages 208-240).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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