Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Late in 2010 the Johns Hopkins University Press issued these “publisher’s comments” on William V. Spanos’s THE EXCEPTIONALIST STATE AND THE STATE OF EXCEPTION: HERMAN MELVILLE’S “BILLY BUDD, SAILOR: “Critics predominantly view Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor as a ‘testament of acceptance,’ the work of a man who had become politically conservative in his last years. William V. Spanos disagrees, arguing that the novella was not only a politically radical critique of American exceptionalism but also an eerie preview of the state of exception employed, most recently, by the George W. Bush administration in the post-9/11 War on Terror. . . . Spanos demonstrates . . . that Melville’s uncanny attunement to the dark side of the American exceptionalism myth enabled him to foresee its threat to the very core of democracy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This view, Spanos believes, anticipates the state of exception theory that has emerged in the recent work of Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Judith Butler, and Jacques Ranciere, among other critical theorists.” Claiming that Melville was a seer (long bearded, swathed in his silken arabeseque gown?), writing his vision of 21st century America into his last long prose manuscript, was indeed eerie, I thought. I had become familiar with “Presentism” from the writings of Laurie Robertson-Lorant and Andrew Delbanco but this sounded a little creepier. The book as published early in 2011 is indeed overtly presentist but disturbingly personal. It contains (I almost want to say “consists of”) a multi-part rabid screed against Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., and against me in particular as a supporter of Hayford and Sealts in Reading “Billy Budd” (1990). In that book, as some of you know, I focused on the implications for criticism of the fact (demonstrated by Hayford and Sealts) that Melville left the manuscript uncompleted, with two plot lines going off in divergent directions. I was concerned with the waste of human life in writing criticism which the textual analysis of Hayford and Sealts showed was untenable. Spanos knows me better than I knew myself and better than I know myself. I thought I had suffered irremediable harm when W. J. T. Mitchell in the Introduction to AGAINST THEORY: LITERARY STUDIES AND THE NEW PRAGMATISM, called me a “textual objectivist.” Those were FIGHTING WORDS, I thought. I timidly I knuckled down and made no defense of myself. Spanos claims that my “real criticism is directed against critical perspectives, emerging in the context of the protest movement during the Vietnam War—and theoretically emanating from Europe (the “Old World”)—that was politicizing Melville’s text, indeed, reading it (and his earlier fiction) as a radical political critique of a conservative society” (60) . My stance, he trumpeted, “like Hayford’s and Sealts’s, is everywhere, in fact, informed by a conservative ideology” (61). I shuddered at Andrew Delbanco’s ascribing prurient thoughts to me during the 1990s and early 2000s, and I am not pleased by Spanos’s triumphant assertions that I hold political views which are alien to me. Already in the 1960s and still more so in 1988 when I wrote the book on Billy Budd I was informed by “a conservative ideology” only in regard to shoddy literary criticism and incompetent scholarship. In reading masses of literary criticism and what passes for scholarship while writing Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative I have not encountered much in the way of great criticism based on accurate textual, historical, and biographical scholarship. Instead, I see missed opportunities—in the 1970s, for instance, a myriad of opportunities to write fresh literary criticism based on new textual scholarship, in the 1980s a myriad of opportunities to write fresh literary history based on new historical and biographical research, and in the early twenty-first century a myriad of opportunities to explore episodes in Melville’s life using my two-volume biography and other tools as signals toward insufficiently explored archival material on Melville and on hundreds of people who came in contact with him—people such as those who attended Dr. John Wakefield Francis’s Sunday evenings with Melville. As far as presentism goes, my approach is opposite to Robertson-Lorant’s, Delbanco’s, and Spanos’s. My focus was so firmly on understanding Melville in relation to his own circumstances that I think I made not one comparison of anything in the narrative to anything in the twentieth century. Stephen B. Oates in “Biography as High Adventure,” reprinted from 1985 Timeline in Oates’s Biography as High Adventure (1986), identifies a position I share when he says the biographer “must keep his own voice out of the story so that the subject and his times can live again” (125). I may not have kept my voice out, but I think I managed to keep my politics out by writing straight-faced about things debatable, even sex. One left wing ideologue was horrified by my way of dealing with all the speculation about Melville’s having had premarital sex in the South Seas: of course, I think I observed, he could not have had premarital sex in the United States. A sweet lovely woman in the Atlantic Monthly understood my “sly, deadpan humor,” and intuited quite rightly that I was really, truly not a conservative ideologue. Phoebe-Lou Adams, bless her heart. If I remember right, she said one thing wrong with ideologues like William V. Spanos is that they have absolutely NO SENSE OF HUMOR or else (did she say, with eerie prescience?) they would never title a book THE EXCEPTIONALIST STATE AND THE STATE OF EXCEPTION: HERMAN MELVILLE’S “BILLY BUDD, SAILOR especially if you had earlier titled another book AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM IN THE AGE OF GLOBALIZATION: THE SPECTER OF VIETNAM. Why do these people fantasize about me and call me dirty names? Why don’t they just say, “Oh, Parker, that humorist, the Depression Okie”?

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