Friday, March 25, 2011

Series on Critics doing Historicism without doing the work of Historians, No. 2, Wai-chee Dimock

You can see the Little Jack Horner syndrome in action when an academic critic sticks a thumb into published books rather than actual archives. Wai-chee Dimock's Empire for Liberty (1989), an early contribution to the New Historicism, was praised by Sacvan Bercovitch for giving "a model of a new kind of historical scholarship that has absorbed (as distinct from imitated) 'European theory' and whose historicism is a form of sophisticated multidisciplinary analysis." This is from her second paragraph:

Far from being a liability, territorial expansion had come to be seen, by the 1830s, as a basic requirement for the nation's well-being, so basic that it became practically an alimentary need. Major Davezac, a speaker at the 1844 New Jersey Democratic State Convention, proceeded from just that premise when he alluded to America's "pasture grounds"--invoking, in his zeal, if not the "mighty bulk" of the whale, then something almost as bulky: "Make way, I say, for the young American Buffalo--he has not yet got land enough; he wants more land as his cool shelter in summer--he wants more land for his beautiful pasture grounds. I tell you, we will give him Oregon for his summer shade, and the region of Texas as his winter pasture. (Applause.) Like all of his race, he wants salt, too. Well, he shall have the use of two oceans--the mighty Pacific and the turbulent Atlantic shall be his.


Melville, Dimock declared, "could not have known about a speech at the New Jersey convention," but he and Davezac, "the enshrined writer and the forgotten speaker," together "inhabited a historical moment." Davezac was worth recalling, "obscure as he once was and discredited as he has since become."


Dimock gave no evidence that Davezac had become discredited except by her high standards of Political Correctness in which anyone is evil who advocated expansion. Her "historicism" had not driven her to find even the first name of this man who was anything but obscure. Auguste Davezac had had a remarkable life. Born in Santo Domingo in 1780, he was studying in France during the great uprising of 1791 in which two of his brothers were killed. The surviving members of the family fled to the new United States, settling in Louisiana, where Davezac rejoined them and studied law with Edward Livingston, of the prominent New York family, who became his brother-in-law. The great adventure of his life was being aide-de-camp to Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, and every American in the 1840s knew that whatever credit some precisionists gave to the Treaty of Ghent the war was really won at New Orleans on 8 January 1815. Jackson had sent Davezac to the Hague for much of the 30s as chargé d'affairs. As Jackson became more feeble and made fewer appearances even in Tennessee, Davezac was, by the 1840s, after his removal to New York, the cherished living Manhattan connection to that still-recent battle which Americans thought had ended the Second War for American Independence. At the dinner table in the Manhattan of the 1840s, with yet another war with England seeming imminent, over Oregon, that pasture ground for the bipedal American Buffalo, Davezac could tell intimate tales of Jackson and even tell about the legendary Jean Lafite.

Davezac was also a prominent literary man, capable of writing learnedly on Froissart's Chronicles in the November 1843 United States Magazine and Democratic Review, one of his favorite places to publish. His contemporaries would have hooted at the idea that he was obscure. To be sure, Whigs could attribute his fame to his publicizing himself, as when Thurlow Weed in his Albany Evening Journal on 12 November 1844 referred to him as "glorification DAVEZAC, who by his endless parrot songs of Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans" had "sickened and disgusted both friends and foes." (Everybody knew everybody: Melville gave Weed a copy of the Revised Typee in August 1846.)

Melville, Dimock was sure, "could not have known" about a particular 1844 speech of Davezac's. But how farfetched is it to think that Melville may have known a good deal about Major Davezac, and perhaps might even have read some of his speeches, perhaps even that particular one? Melville's older brother Gansevoort Melville in his instant-retrieval Index Rerum which he used in 1840 and 1842 noted a speech by Major Davezac "of New Orleans" and just where to find it ("the whole speech is contained in Bell's New Era for February 29, 1840"). In the 1840 campaign Gansevoort campaigned with Davezac, as Davazec wrote to Robert J. Walker, the Secretary of the Treasury, on 11 April 1845: “Soon after my arrival in the State of New-York, I became acquainted with Mr. G. Melville, by being fellow labourers in the cause of Democracy, in the canvass of 1840. Young as he then was, he gave indications of talents, as a popular orator, which his mature exertions, in the last memorable contest, have proved not to have been fallacious.”

During the final weeks of the campaign Herman was in New York with Gansevoort and Allan and would have been aware of his older brother’s association with a hero of the Battle of New Orleans. On 14 June 1843 Davazec and Gansevoort both championed the dissolution of the Union between Ireland and Great Britain at a great Repeal meeting, Davezac speaking at length as one of the stars and young Gansevoort speaking more briefly. In 1844 the next younger Melville brother Allan was saving in a "bushell" basket dozens of newspapers containing Gansevoort's speeches, and might well have saved some of Davezac's along with his brother's, since the two had been political allies. When Davezac rode in the great Democratic torchlight procession in Manhattan on 1 November 1844, in which Gansevoort and Allan Melville also took part, and which Herman almost surely witnessed, he carried a banner and a flag, the banner proclaiming "THIS FLAG WAS AT THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS 8TH JANUARY, 1815: MAJOR A. DAVEZAC." For all Democrats he was a national hero. Early in 1845, while Melville was writing Typee in Manhattan, Davezac was everywhere in the press. The Democratic Review in February, out in late January, carried an article on him accompanied by "a Portrait on Steel," and the article was reprinted in the Broadway Journal and the New World and perhaps elsewhere. Davezac in the 11 April 1845 letter to Walker was championing Gansevoort Melville for an appointment from President Polk on the basis of his great services in 1844. For a time Gansevoort had possession of the strong letter of support which Davezac wrote for him, and typically would have shown it to Allan. Herman might have been in Lansingburgh by then, but he might have heard of the letter from Gansevoort or Allan. Certainly to Melville there was nothing obscure and nothing discredited about Auguste Davezac. A historian judging by modern standards of Political Correctness might well find grounds on which to disapprove of Davezac, as when he worried, after Mexico decided that blacks could not be enslaved, that New Orleans slaves would run off along the coast of Texas and take refuge in the newly independent country. Dimock, however, seems arbitrarily to have declared Davezac discredited because he believed, half a decade before the admission of California to the Union, that the United States should expand to the Pacific.

What Dimock practiced in Empire for Liberty, and what many of her New Critical and New Historicist peers practiced, was historicism without historical research. Names of historical figures? pieces to be used as decorations. Yet she traveled to libraries: "I would like to acknowledge my indebtedness to the Melville Collection at the Newberry Library, which has compiled the nineteenth-century reviews." "Which" is revealing: the impersonal "Collection" had compiled "the" reviews. She had the thrill of discovery by opening a drawer and finding reviews compiled by the "Collection"! She could not visualize my compiling the files during repeated trips to the New York Public Library Annex, the New-York Historical Society, and many other repositories. The "Collection" had compiled "the" reviews--meaning all the reviews that existed? I was engaged in an ongoing compilation of reviews but it plainly never occurred to her that she could have joined in the hunt, perhaps in papers especially apt to take a political slant congenial to her. "Which has compiled" reveals her failure to visualize real people doing productive work in her own time. Similarly, she is thrilled by dipping into books written by people who have gone to libraries more remote even than faraway Chicago and have handled special books with their own hands. She cites a book by R. W. Van Alstyne for the source of her quotation from a 1776 book, not just any old book but "a rare book in the Huntington Library"--way out in California! This is breathless flirtation with the trappings of scholarship.

Dimock had absorbed without question her New Critical and New Historicist training. For her there were no living researchers engaged in ongoing archival scholarship, and there never had been living writers engaged in ongoing creative projects. For her, the "standard critique of the notion of 'creativity' is Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production" (which she cites in a late translation). She cites approvingly Jerome McGann, a follower of James Thorpe's theory of the socialized text, and cites Paul Feyerabend's "Creativity--A Dangerous Myth." The creative author is a myth (the reader, academics had known since the 1970s, creates meaning) and the idea of individual creativity is dangerous to critical theory. As Joel Myerson said in Text (1994), McGann suggested "an almost Marxist, collective ownership of the text among the authors and other participants in its creation: the 'workers' of the text have indeed united." Dimock does not cite the great 1979 book by Albert Rothenberg, The Emerging Goddess, which she ought to have known as the "standard" book on creativity, and does not cite exciting new work done on creativity and in the cognitive sciences in the 1980s. She turns her back on real creative writers, showing no understanding of creative writers as real people. She turns her back on real scholars who compile evidence exhaustively before daring to try to interpret it wisely. No wonder she typically takes her quotations at second hand, from people who have quoted passages from other books: picking her quotations from other books distances her from real scholars working with real documents.

It is typical that Dimock takes the item about Davezac "as quoted in" Albert Weinberg's Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalistic Expansion in American History (1935), the way, as I show elsewhere, that Andrew Delbanco picks up phrases "as quoted in" my biography of Melville. Dimock's New Critical teachers apparently did not tell her that it is disreputable to take a quotation from another book or article rather than going to the original, to be sure what it really says. Even if the words are quoted accurately, one cannot know the contexts from which they were quoted. Also, it is curious that so much of the scholarship she relies on was published before the New Criticism. It seems as if the decade of the rise of that long-dominant approach to literature somehow gives the American New Historicists a cut-off decade, the early 1940s, beyond which histories such as Weinberg's can be taken as sacred texts. Critics such as Dimock, however much they are praised as models "of a new kind of historical scholarship," are not in fact not doing historical research, and they learn nothing from the archives about Melville any more than about Major Auguste Davezac. You stick a thumb in a 1930s history and pull out what may be a veritable truth and may be an earnest attempt at truth which has been supplemented over the decades and perhaps even superseded.

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