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Words are Things

Herman Melville and the Invention of Authorship in Nineteenth-Century America


André Kaenel

This study examines Herman Melville's literary trajectory in the context of the discourse and practice of authorship in 19th-century America. Theoretically placed under the double aegis of Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, it recontextualizes Melville's 20th-century classic status by projecting his attempts at fashioning a distinct, distinguished authorial self against a broad range of 19th-century texts defining the cultural and political roles of American authors. It takes its cue (and its title, «Words are Things») from an American Review piece of 1847 warning American authors to be vigilant in a period, the pre-Civil War years, when the relations between words and deeds, literature and the polity were extremely charged. The Melville who emerges from close readings of relevant literary and cultural material is an author who had not become «Melville» yet, a figure of comparative indistinction to his contemporaries despite his aspirations to transcendent authorship. This discrepancy is analyzed in the last chapter, which reflects upon Melville's marginality in the 19th-century literary field until his reinvention as a canonical author in the 1920s.
Contents: «Words are Things»: Literature and Politics in an Age of Anxiety - Public Author, Private Genius: Toward a Poetics of Failure - Fashioning an Authorial Self: Egotism, Anonymity, and Literary Property - Typee and Pierre: Genre, Gender and Domesticity - Authors on the Democratic Ship of State: White-Jacket and Billy Budd - Words as Words: Character and Capital in The Confidence-Man - «Permanent Literary Fame»: Words and Things in the (Re)Invention of Melville.