Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Images from leftist artist Rockwell Kent's 1930 illustrated version of Moby-Dick, which was sold through the Book-of-the-Month Club and revived the book's popularity. Kent was asked to do a version of Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, but proposed the Melville classic instead. Weirdly enough, the cover of this version did not credit Melville (is Moby-Dick himself the author? V. fitting).

Title: Moby-Dick, or, The Whale (1851). I read the Penguin Classics edition, introduced by Andrew Delbanco.

Author: Herman Melville, 1819-1891. It's sad to think how early in his life he wrote this amazing book, and how anti-climatically it was received. Melville's first couple of books, which were more conventional adventure stories, got a degree of popular acclaim, but Moby-Dick didn't sit so well with the type of readers who had gone for his more salty (sorry) stuff. Melville saw a revival in the 1920s, spearheaded by the writing of several biographies (Lewis Mumford wrote one in 1929! was there anything the Mum couldn't do?), as well as the belated publication of Billy Budd, Sailor in 1924. See above caption for info about the popular revival of Moby-Dick. There have also been a couple of film version of this book, including one made in 1930 and one in 1956, directed by John Huston and script-written by Ray Bradbury, which I would really like to see.

Some words: This book was totally wasted on seventeen-year-old me the first time I read it. It's a fever dream, it's obsessive, it's beautiful, it's funny and very sad.

I appreciated Andrew Delbanco's introduction for a number of reasons, but I most profited by keeping in mind his comment about the looseness of the narrative form. He writes that there are times in the novel when there's no way that Ishmael can still be the narrator, in the traditional first-person sense, and the reader must give up on wondering "How could Ishmael know what Ahab said to himself in the belowdecks...or what Starbuck said to Ahab in private conversations..." etc.

Forewarned, I pictured the narrative more as Ishmael's scrapbook on the fall of the Pequod, a series of texts, accounts of things he witnessed, reports of his studies, but also things he might have imagined or foreseen or projected. (I suppose you could also look at the book as alternating between first and third person narrators, but I think my way is more fun.)

I kept a list of the different narrative forms that these small texts/chapters took, and I came up with: Dramatic script or soliloquy; affadavit; natural history (these were the chapters on the whale's anatomy, which I thought were hundreds of pages long when I was in high school reading this, but were actually much shorter); adventure story; yarn-within-a-story, a la Heart of Darkness (the chapter on the Town-Ho!); Emersonian essay (the amazing "Whiteness of the Whale"); object study resulting in multiplicity of character perspectives (the chapter in which each character reacts to the doubloon pounded into the mast); and horror story (the appearance of the dead Parsee, lashed to Moby-Dick's back and staring at Ahab, was an indelible image worthy of Poe). This is a very postmodern book, perhaps. I'm sure somebody has written on that.

I am going to forebear to comment too much on the questions of what Moby-Dick means for America or American literature, since I'm pretty sure a couple of the authors I have yet to read will do that, but I am interested to know if anyone has written an ecocritical or animal-studies analysis of the book. The chapter on the possible future extinction of the whale (in which Ishmael points to the buffalo, who, he argues in 1851, are commonly slaughtered without going extinct, as evidence of the whale's similar ability to withstand constant culling - heh) is one candidate for an analysis, but I also kept fixating on how Ishmael constantly points out how ironic it is that the whale lights the scene of his own slaughter. There's something here about the way that the body of the animal is made to betray itself, and how the nineteenth-century character sees this as somehow grotesque yet inevitable.

Also, the entire project of Moby-Dick could be seen as a forced re-marriage of production and consumption; during a time in which whale oil is used to light the ceremonies and celebrations of humanity, Ishmael writes, fewer and fewer humans seem to understand the risks and death involved in the killing of whales (risks and death both for the whales and the humans). The chapters on the floating factory that is the Pequod after a kill point toward a sort of a Jungle for the whaling industry, but with a less activist slant - it seems as though Ishmael simply wants the landlubber to realize the ultimate madness of technological achievement that their desires can stimulate.

In a way, the madness of Ahab is the ultimate extension of an endeavor (whale-hunting) which comes about because of the mad strivings of humanity. Even Starbuck (aka reasonableness/rationality) is unable to stop it. The human bond, as between Ahab and Starbuck, is finally unable to slow down Ahab's mad desires - after Ahab bids Starbuck to come close and "let [him] look into a human eye", which gaze is "better than to gaze upon God" (591), the bond that's created doesn't stop Ahab from continuing, but seems rather to seal Starbuck's fate. The first mate is unable to make a moral stand against Ahab's madness, because he sees Ahab's humanity. So, Melville says, we are all complicit in allowing each other to run amuck with doing and fixing and pushing and achieving.

Other books I've read which analyze this one: In Aaron Sachs, The Humboldt Current, he points to both Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1938) and the writings of J.N. Reynolds (most prominently the story "Mocha-Dick" [1839]) which he describes as antecedents to Moby-Dick. Leo Marx's Machine in the Garden juxtaposes the chapter in which Ishmael sits on the masthead and meditates on the meaning of life and the dirty, dark production chapters, in order to show the conflict in American life between lofty transcendentalism and the underpinnings of capitalism and material progress.

Vocab words: "puissant" ("possessed of or wielding power"); "poniard" ("a small, slim dagger"); "tierce" ("a third part").

Sunday, December 23, 2007


Machu Picchu. The Inka, for Mann, are a paradigmatic example of the role of disease and political fragmentation in the conquest of American civilization by the Europeans.

Title: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Vintage, 2005).

Charles C. Mann, journalist, who writes (mostly) science coverage for the Atlantic Monthly, Nat'l Geo, Vanity Fair, etc. His other books include @ Large: The Strange Case of the World's Biggest Internet Invasion (1998, with David Freedman); Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species (1996, with Mark Plummer); The Aspirin Wars: Money, Medicine, and 100 Years of Rampant Competition (1991, with Mark Plummer); and The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics (1986, with Robert Crease).

My review: Mann's book is an overview of debates in archaeology, anthrophology, ethnobotany, paleontology, paleography, paleobotany, ancient history, and any number of other specialized fields, all of whom are trying to determine what the "New World" looked like before Europeans got here. The overall impact is a shift from a view of a sparsely populated, wild place filled with primitives who lived by the grace of the land, to a conception of continents covered with people who maintained the landscape for their particular needs, sometimes living in balance with the ecology and sometimes failing to do so.

Mann echoes Shephard Krech and William Cronon's lines of argument, discussing some of the same examples as Krech (including the controversy over the Pleistocene extinctions) and citing both authors. He also owes a major debt to Alfred Crosby, previously of UT American Studies, and geographer Jared Diamond.

The book covers a very wide range of subjects, and does a very adroit job of using early chapters to set up a trio of final chapters that bring together his conclusions into a neat bundle. For example, Mann discusses the debates over demography, which run like so: Some posit, based on the difference between early travelers' accounts and later observations, that so many Indians were killed off by early epidemics transmitted by arrivistes such as De Soto that by the time more Europeans came to survey and colonize, there weren't nearly as many Indians as there were a short time before. Thus, when we estimate how many Indians used to inhabit the continent, we should assume many more than we previously thought.

Moreover, those Indians that were left were in a state of political turmoil. Mann illustrates this theory using the story of Squanto, reconstructing it in such a way that Squanto's friendliness toward the Europeans can be explained by the deaths of most of his tribesmen, leaving him vulnerable; and that the willingness of Massasoit of the Wampanoag to cooperate with the Plymouth colony could be due to the same thing (since most of M's tribesmen had died, he was left with little choice but to ally with the English against the Narragansett).

Having set this up, in later chapters Mann describes the new understandings we have of the way in which Amazonian Indians may have managed the growth of fruit trees and sowed charcoal into the soil in order to create a more human-friendly environment. He concludes that, in fact, the entire "untouched" Amazon may be a human artifact. He then adds this to the knowledge we have of the way that Indians on the East Coast burned their forests for ease of access and management of food species (see Krech, Cronon again).

Combining the knowledge we have of these systems of ecological management, with the ideas coming to the fore about the way that populations were affected by early epidemics, Mann posits that the "wild" forests that the Pilgrims saw thronging the coastline, the throngs of passenger pigeons, many of the signifiers of "abundant America", may all have been due to the recent disappearance of the groups of managing Indians who had previously kept these ecosystems at equilibrium. Wow! Now, that's what I call a revelation.

I admire the way that Mann handles the issue of the impact of these debates over the past on the current political situation. Although I was wary of the fact that the New York Sun endorsed the book, and was occasionally annoyed when Mann came down heavily on the wise-use side of environmental ethics, he definitely recognizes that the information in the book could prove useful to conservatives wanting to expiate ancestors from charges of genocide and environmental misuse (like so: "well, if the Indians were all killed by germs, and they were ecological abusers anyway, then what's the big deal?") To this end, Mann distinguishes carefully between the conventional idea of Indians at the mercy of their environment and the importance of a new understanding of Indians as creative maintainers of the landscape.

Artist's rendering of what the city around Cahokia, in modern-day Missouri, may have looked like around AD 1000-ish. This was a real revelation to me, though others may have heard of it - the mounds in that area reveal evidence of a city of 120 acres, holding between 10,000 and 20,000 people.

All of the popular press reviews of this book were totally in love with it, so there's that.

I love reading the paperback copies of these kinds of books, because the afterwords often tell you exactly what specific criticism the authors received after the publication of the hardback. Mann stepped into many already raging controversies, and he acknowledges that he was bound to make some people mad and get some arguments wrong. (The great thing about this kind of intelligent-layman book is that he has an automatic out whenever questioned on technical matters - well, at least, I think so.) The most pressing criticism is that a lot of these "revelations" are actually over fifty years old - but, as Mann says, if the general public/those in public schools aren't taught about them, they lose their importance. Hence, the book.

Yanomami family, by Victor Englebert (photographing for an advocacy group). Mann points out that by the time the Yanomami were encountered in the seventeenth century, they may already have moved from an agricultural lifestyle to a hunter-gatherer one because of the upheaval caused by disease communicated by other groups which had made contact with Europeans. Thus, the conventional image of their lives is one that fails to acknowledge the full history of the tribe before contact and assumes that they have always been so.

Vocab words:
"ramose" ("branching"); "theogony" (theology which studies the origins of gods); "coruscate" ("to give forth intermittent or vibratory flashes of light"); "fissiparous" ("producing new individuals by fission").

This book has an extensive bibliography. Secondary: Frances Fitzgerald, America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century (1980); C. Ponting, Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (1991); Stephen Pyne, Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (1982); R. Temple, The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention (1998).

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Devil in the Shape of a Woman

"Examination of a Witch", by Thompkins H. Matteson, 1853. Karlsen points out that artists, writers and historians who have been interested in Salem stretch in a continuous genealogy beginning with the events themselves.

Title: The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York: Norton, originally published in 1987)

Author: Carol F. Karlsen, professor of history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Minimal information available on the departmental website, but Karlsen graduated from Yale history dept. in 1980, and thanks John Demos, Edmund Morgan, Kai Erikson, and Nancy Cott for their help in the process of writing the book. It looks like she's come out with one other book, an edited diary of a colonial woman, and was at one point working on another one about gender relations and the Iroquois, though I don't think it's come out.

My review: For Karlsen, the black hole in the middle of all other explanations of the social meanings of witchcraft has been the gender question. She acknowledges that class-based rationales for the crises have found some kind of pattern, but then seeks to more conclusively situate these class patterns within questions of gender.

By performing a series of parsings of demographic information, Karlsen arrives at the conclusion that an accused witch was likely to be a woman who stood to inherit or had recently inherited property, because of a lack of brothers or sons in her family, thereby exposing the fault lines of a society based on the orderly succession of possession from father to son.

Other demographic characteristics of accused witches were advanced age, in a time during which older women were seen as a burden because of their inability to bear children or do work; contentiousness or dissatisfaction with their lot, which Karlsen compassionately ascribes either to the "eye of the beholder" or to the fundamentally unfair social conditions of the time, instead of to the personalities of the accused, as previous historians had done; or a family relationship to an accused witch or an executed witch. Karlsen goes beyond other analysts in asking not only which persons were accused - a number which would include men, young women, and even children - but which were actually convicted, and given severe punishments. This group most often included women of the older, property-holding persuasion.

Karlsen writes that the social conditions of gender relations in the colonies were set up to foment maximum confusion and upset on the part of male members of the society when it came to their view of women. The sexual double standard meant that, in order to allow for their own sexual freedom, men had to also allow women to occasionally have adulterous affairs, which might disrupt succession of property; the economic dependence of women meant that men had to support women; and the laws of primogeniture meant that they had to live with whatever their fathers decided to do in the matter of property (which might sometimes include making decisions which favored mothers or sisters over brothers, or favored only one older son while slighting younger ones). Meanwhile, older religious views of women held that these Eves were the temptresses who had caused mankind to fall. Although Puritan elders tried to set up a more kind attitude toward women, in order to facilitate harmony between the sexes in the small-scale enterprises of living in the colonies, this fundamental view of female treachery surfaced when females threatened the gender hierarchies of life. "It was," she writes ominously, "a formula which invited the Devil" (218).

"Repentance of Judge Sewall", a painting whose provenance I cannot seem to figure out for the life of me, though it is in the "Examination of a Witch" style (I got it from a site that doesn't cite authors/painters...but has a nifty "Salem Jeopardy" feature, which kind of makes up for it.) Judge Sewall, who publicly apologized for his role in the trials no more than five years after their conclusion, also became an anti-slavery advocate. There are a couple of books about his life, one of which, by Richard Francis, was well-reviewed. Karlsen points out that a remarkable feature of the Salem trials was how definitively they marked the end of an era. She writes that Enlightenment thinking finally began to predominate in the colonies, which made witchcraft obsolete as a concept (some, like Sewall, had already had mixed feelings about the validity of executing people accused of it).

Reviews of others: Paul Boyer, in the Journal of American History, called Karlsen's interpretation "provocative" and lauds it for its subtlety and reach, but says that she does not sufficiently confront the established scholarship on the subject. In the New England Quarterly, Bernard Rosenthal wrote that the book advanced a very valuable argument, but took a couple of pages to quibble with various points of historical interpretation, particularly when it comes to the analysis of the possessed children/women who accused women in Salem (this is a criticism that Karlsen also discusses in her afterword). Rosenthal also pointed out, somewhat weirdly, that any explanation of why witches were mostly women would have to reach back to Europe, and says that Karlsen could solve that problem by either looking at particular conditions of New England, which, Rosenthal says, would "falsify" the issue, or by skirting it. I don't get why incorporating elements of English tradition with local conditions in the analysis (which is what I thought Karlsen did, by the way) would be "falsification".

Leads: Secondary: Mary Douglas, Implicit Meanings (1975)

Poster from the 1996 version of The Crucible, dir. Nicholas Hytner. (Interestingly enough, this jpg was taken from a site called If this is love, I'll take tomato juice.) Karlsen argues that the vision of Miller's play, in which the sexpot servant Abigail Williams screws everyone over by accusing her master/lover's wife of witchcraft, minimizes the true sexual politics behind the witchcraft scares, which were more based on boring questions of property ownership than on adulterous affairs like this fictional one.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Children in the House

"Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary", Artist unknown, Massachusetts, 1674 (now in the Worcester Art Museum); Calvert points out the stiffness of the baby figure as an example of the favored attitude toward children, who were to be straightened out and formed into humans in order to escape the curse of four-legged animality.

Title: Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1900 (Boston: Northeastern UP, 1992)

Author: Karin Calvert, who was an assistant professor of history at UPenn, but appears to now be an independent scholar. I don't think she's written any other books, but the Internet is strangely decentralized on the topic of her whereabouts. Her affiliation with the Winterthur Center led to this book.

My review: Calvert uses material culture sources as well as textual ones to delve into the changing meanings of early childhood for Americans between the colonial and Victorian eras. Paintings, furniture, clothing, diaries, and writings of medical professionals make up the substance of her argument.

She describes colonial parents as somewhat afraid of, or disgusted by, their infants' abjectness. Crawling or creeping was seen as a sign of the animal within the child, to be avoided at all costs; therefore, colonists created clothing which would "straighten" the child out and render it immobile and easily tended, and built furniture such as the "walking stool" which held the child upright in an effort to teach it to walk early.

The era of the "natural child", which roughly corresponded with the Revolutionary and antebellum periods, saw greater influence of theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that children were going to develop into humans without the need for the strict clothing and furniture which previous generations saw as so necessary. Clothing standards relaxed, and cradles came into fashion, but without the apparatus on the sides intended to lace swaddled children in so firmly that they could not escape.

The Victorian era, the final one Calvert examines, saw the child as a precious, innocent talisman of the family's intact and holy nature, and doted on infants by placing them in show-offy carriages and prams, intended for display value. (This doting, however, did not go so far as to allow the children to run around freely; Calvert writes that the heavily decorated homes of Victorian gentlepeople would be under serious threat by a toddling family member, so cribs with high sides could be used to "jail" children up to age four or five, if necessary.)

"Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge and son William", Ralph Earl, Connecticut, c. 1790 (now at the Litchfield Historical Society); Calvert uses this painting as an example of the newly relaxed attitude toward childhood - little William's hair is loose and his attitude playful.

Reviews of others: In Contemporary Sociology, Paula Fass wrote that the strength of the book lay not in any originality of overall argument, but rather in moments of insight surrounding the material objects analyzed. Fass wishes that the book had taken a more broad approach to the possible significance of childhood in light of broader social trends - with the exception of the section on the Victorian era, she writes, Calvert seems to shy away from making broader cultural insights. This narrowness, Fass finds, sometimes leads to what seems like a wilfull ignorance of issues relating to class. In the American Historical Review, John Demos (this book got reviewed by the big guns!) saw a lot of value in the book, arguing that its approach to already recognized changes in American family setup added a lot of nuance to a possibly reductive subject. The material culture artifacts integrated into this analysis, Demos says, add greatly to this sense of depth and nuance.

New words: "Ideotechnic", which seems like it might have gone out of style.

Victorian woman pushing a pram (image not from Calvert's book, but rather from a BBC series on successive ideals of British womanhood): The pram, for Calvert, symbolizes the new desire to display babies as icons of the successful domesticity of the Victorian household; prams go hand in hand with the rise of new park-based urbanism (see Olmsted in New York); and they configure the infant at the center of a much larger display, making him or her appear even smaller and more helpless, qualities which were prized in the Victorian era in a marked departure from previous years.

Leads: Primary: Lucy Larcom, A New England Girlhood (1889). Secondary: I have to read the Phillipe Aries book, Centuries of Childhood (1965), at some point. Also: Kenneth Ames, "Material Culture as Non-verbal Communication" (1980); Bernard Mergen, "Toys and American Culture: Objects as Hypothesis" (1980); Linda Pollock, Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900 (1983).