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REFORM AND RESISTANCE IN AMERICAN LITERATURE
FRANK G. HEARING
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
In what follows, I argue for the need to cultivate relationships in which friends
(etc.) push and pull one another out of comfortable positions by playing upon each other's
multiple and contradictory identifications. I was fortunate to have such relationships with
the members of my dissertation committee. From the beginning of graduate school,
Stephanie Smith and David Leverenz have generously offered sympathetic yet challenging
comments on my writings. Without the many conversations I have had with them, I would
never have asked the questions I explore in what follows. Phil Wegner and Louise
Newman challenged me to make stronger arguments about the problems with reform and
the benefits of resistances while kindly offering suggestion for how to do so. Maude
Hines generously agreed to sit in on my defense of the dissertation and offered insights that
have helped me to revise my undefended manuscript. Even though they were not members
of my committee, Susan Hegeman and Kim Emery shared with me their insightful and
informed readings of Nella Larsen's Passing and Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoesat
the Whistle Stop Cafe. Last, but certainly not least, I would like to thank my parents,
Frank and Sharon; my wife, Beth Braccio Hering; and my son, Zachary, for all their
sacrifices and support, both emotional and financial. Without them, I would never have
been able to take advantage of the educational opportunities I have encountered over the
past ten years.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ................................................................ ii
ABSTRACT ...................................................................... v
1 INTRODUCTION................................ ............................. 1
Foucault's Critique of Reform ........................................................... 5
Creating Reform in the Present........................................................... 9
The Role of Literary Criticism ............................................................ 17
2 "IF YOU WANT WHAT WE HAVE, YOU DO WHAT WE DID":
TEMPERANCE AND ITS OTHERS IN
WHITMAN'S FRANKLIN EVANS ............................................... 23
Sobering Up(wards)....................................................................... 23
Founding Stories........................................................................... 26
Excessive Storytelling ..................................................................... 32
Good as Gold............................................................................. 40
Going Backstage .......................................................................... 47
3 ALL ABOARD: CORPORATE LIBERALISM VERSUS
COFFIN-ING IN MOBY-DICK...................................................... 52
Reform and the Liberal Tradition......................................................... 52
Looming Doubt........................................................................... 56
Traps and Quilts............................................................................ 64
The Personality and the "Personified Impersonal"....................................... 72
"A Dumb Blankness, Full of Meaning"................................................... 78
Conceits and Confidence Games......................................................... 91
4 SNEAKING AROUND: IDEALIZED DOMESTICITY,
IDENTITY POLITICS, AND GAMES OF FRIENDSHIP
IN NELLA LARSEN'S PASSING................................................... 96
The Politics of Safety...................................................................... 96
Idealized Domesticity ...................................................................... 101
Identity and Sneaking Around............................................................ 107
Games of Friendship ...................................................................... 117
5 ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE: MOTIVATING SOCIAL CHANGE
IN REAGAN'S AMERICA AND FANNIE FLAGG'S
FRIED GREEN TOMATOES AT THE WHISTLE STOP CAFE ............... 125
The Politics of N ostalgia.................................................................. 125
Nostalgic Anecdotes in the Eighties ......................................... .... 130
"Passing" and Anecdotes in the Depression-Era South ..... .................. 136
The 1980s' (Ab)use of Anecdotes.... .................................... 145
6 CONCLUSION ........................ .............................. ................. 152
REFERENCES.......................... ................................ .................. 155
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH............................................. .................. 163
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
REFORM AND RESISTANCE IN AMERICAN LITERATURE
Frank G. Hering
Chair: Stephanie A. Smith
Major Department: English
Reforms become oppressive when their power relationships cease to be reversibly
relational and instead become blocked or frozen. I turn to narratives that appeared when
these reforms were still new and fluid to find, through close readings, resistances that can
be reworked to acquire meaning in present struggles. For example, Alcoholics Anony-
mous-style treatment programs urge members to subordinate themselves to higher powers
by having them create narratives that decontextualize illicit behaviors from political activism
and social problems. Whitman's Franklin Evans suggests that instead of making people
conform to this temperance narrative, we all should be asking, "How many stories and
styles of producing stories can we generate as strategic responses to the failure of the social
order ever to achieve closure?"
Addressing such a question, Mobvy-Dick urges us to abandon our reliance on inner-
selves and unmodifiable law in order to engage constantly in remaking the present in such a
way that reminds others about that from which we are forever barred. This ethic is further
explored in Nella Larsen's Passing, which responds to post-Reconstruction reform
movements, particularly the fantasy that if everyone could be made to stay in his or her
"proper" place, all domestic problems would be solved. In the push-and-pull encounters
between the two main characters, Larsen's novel provides a model of friendship that could
usefully respond to today's dangerous appeals to the "safety" of idealized domesticity and
How these ethical responses can contribute to collective counter-formations is
addressed by my readings of Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop
Cafe. This novel shows how storytelling, especially the exchange of anecdotes, motivates
both individual and social change. Evelyn's Reaganite use of nostalgic storytelling is
countered by the omniscient narrator, who shows how Idgie and her friends create a
counterculture. By bringing together subjects from a plurality of social fields to exchange
anecdotes, the Dill Pickle Club creates opportunities to destabilize identities fixed in
inequality by presenting one another with alternate narratives and narrative positions, which
motivate social action.
Among the cultural inventions of mankind there is a treasury of devices, tech-
niques, ideas, procedures, and so on, that cannot exactly be reactivated but at least
constitute, or help to constitute, a certain point of view which can be very useful as
a tool for analyzing what's going on now- and to change it.
In Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, perhaps the most famous reform
novel ever, one of the slave characters frees herself and her enslaved friend not by aligning
her conduct with the Christian reform preached throughout the novel, but rather by taking
advantage of both the openings in and the failures of this reform message. When Cassy
approaches Uncle Tom with a plan for escape and revenge, one that requires him to behead
their master, Simon Legree, she receives the moralizing response he gave to St. Clare and
others: '"We must suffer, and wait [God's] time."'2 Uncle Tom then encourages her to
model her conduct on that of Jesus, who spilt no blood except his own and even loved his
enemies. Believing Jesus has already fought the battle, Uncle Tom tells Cassy their victory
is to come. Uncle Tom, however, goes on to show Cassy an opening in this moral vision.
one that allows her, like Eliza, to take advantage of her status as a mother, as a protector of
a child: "'Misse Cassy,' said Tom, in a hesitating tone, after surveying her a moment in
silence, 'if ye only could get away from here,- if the thing was possible,- I'd 'vise ye
and Emmeline to do it; that is, if ye could go without blood-guiltiness,- not otherwise'"
IFoucault, "On the Genealogy of Ethics," 261.
2Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, 344. Future references to this text will be cited as
(UTC, 345). Cassy sees no way they can escape except by killing Legree. for he would
use all his might to find them. But she suddenly gets an idea. "By what strange law of
mind," the narrator asks, "is it that an idea long overlooked, and trodden under foot as a
useless stone, suddenly sparkles out in new light, as a discovered diamond?" (UTC, 345).
Uncle Tom, having shown Cassy an opening, provides the conditions in which she can see
this overlooked stone in a new light, and she uses this diamond to cut through the lines of
force in which she now finds herself. This plan brings hope, where before none had
Cassy decides to haunt Legree to death. Her plan depends on the failure of the
Christian reform message preached most emphatically by Little Eva and Uncle Tom.
Legree's mother frequently preached this same moralizing message to him when he was
young, but "sin got the victory, and he set all the force of his rough nature against the
conviction of his conscience" (UTC, 323). Not only does Legree not reform, but he
actually becomes worse because of his mother's attempt. "That pale, loving mother, her
dying prayers, her forgiving love,- wrought in that demoniac heart of sin only as a
damning sentence, bringing with it a fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation.
... He tried to drink, and revel, and swear away the memory" (UTC, 323). However, the
his mother's ghost, Legree believes, continues to haunt him. Cassy takes advantage of his
belief, occasioned by the failure of reform and its apocalyptic Christian context, by making
it appear as if the garret is haunted. Furthermore, knowing that Legree would continue to
search for them, Cassy comes each night to his room, pretending she is his mother's ghost.
The haunting has the same effect as his mother's preaching: Legree becomes an even
harder drinker, and he dies from it. By strategically reproducing the failure of Christian
reform, Cassy brings about her and Emmeline's escape without "blood-guiltiness."
This representation of Cassy and her "stratagem" parallels a Foucauldian resistance
to reform, one that locates and marks the weak points, the openings, and the lines of force
in power relations and strategically takes advantage of them in the present. Uncle Tom is
both an agent of moralizing reform and a co-sufferer of it. That dual expertise allows him
both to call upon Cassy to reform her conduct and to show her an opening in this moral
code. She then sees something she had known in a new light and forms a new plan, one
that takes advantage not only of the opening Uncle Tom's shows her, but also of the effects
of the reform's failure, which she had previously noted in Legree. Cassy's practice
therefore suggests that in order to resist both slavery and a moralizing reform that
prescribes to slaves a conduct of patient suffering, one needs to pay attention to the
moments of complicity between slavery and its reform and take advantage of the reform's
failures in order to resist both. Michel Foucault also argues that in order to live in power
relations, a necessary condition of any society, one needs to look for and strategically take
advantage of openings and weaknesses. In his critiques of reform, Foucault suggests that
because reforms fail, one needs to pay attention to these unintended effects, how they are
put to use by the institutions that were supposed to be reformed, and find ways to
appropriate these effects for creative resistances. Such acts of resistance provide ways of
living in the present, rather than patiently suffering until either the revolution or the time
when the reforms meet their stated goals. Moreover, by adding to or proliferating the
resistances that are already occurring as the necessary correlative of the power relationship,
Foucault's approach offers a way of going about the long and arduous task of changing the
The weak point Cassy marks and takes advantage of is that void created by the
inability to suture together all elements of an ideological fantasy. With the character of
Legree, Stowe shows how the millennial fantasy of a completely evangelized social space
fails because something necessarily remains outside of it. On the one hand, figures like
Legree were defined as un-American because they failed to adopt evangelized Christian
characters. On the other hand, an evangelized Christian America required unreformed
figures like Legree to mobilize against because evangelicals need to convert others. This
situation illustrates Slavoj Zizek's Lacanian argument:
|A]s soon as we try to conceive the existing social order as a rational totality, we
must include in it a paradoxical element which, without ceasing to be its internal
constituent, functions as its symptom- subverts the very universal rational
principle of this totality.... the point at which the Reason embodied in the existing
social order encounters its own unreason.3
The ghost of Legree's mother, then, is a phantom that results from this situation: on the
one hand, she haunts Legree in order to convert him, but on the other hand, her hauntings
only make Legree more unreformed. The contradictoriness of the ghost of Legree's mother
highlights a weak point in the ideologically fantasized social field. Cassy notes this point
and takes advantage of it. As I will show in this dissertation, such failures to actualize a
fantasized ideological field often offer the weak points Foucaultian politics can take
Cassy's stratagem, however, is the act of a charismatic individual. Her resistance
removes Emmeline and herself from the oppressions of both slavery and Christian
doctrine. But that is it. The resistance is not retained; nor does it lead to other resistances.
In fact, Cassy and Emmeline go on to work in the evangelized colonization effort Stowe at
the time supported as a solution to slavery. This movement is a type of talented tenth,
formed from "picked men Isic], who, by energy and self-educating force, have, in many
cases, individually, raised themselves above a condition of slavery" (UTC, 374). This
group is to become a shining example of American self-reliance, one that will be acknowl-
edged by the U.S. and looked to by other blacks as models for behavior. Born out of
resistances to evangelical reformism, this group has now become another evangelical
reform movement. In this dissertation, I will explore how resistances can be sustained
3Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 23.
through collective movements that exemplify the trans-liberal Leftist politics of Zizek and
In what follows. I will try to make a case for this trans-liberal Left, one that (1)
critiques both oppressive social conditions and the reforms that, in attempting to remedy
those problems, create new oppressions and (2) proliferates resistances to both of these
oppressions by suggesting practices capable of acquiring meaning in contemporary
struggles. Even though Foucault becomes more critical of reform after Discipline and
Punish, I will argue that we need not throw away reform after accepting his critiques.
Instead, we can read his critiques of the narratives forming the "common sense" that
supports reform as challenges that then become what reform needs to work on in order to
work on itself, to create itself in the present as part of the practices of freedom needed to
live in power relations. Understanding that the social-science disciplines involved in
reform will be slow to take up this work, this trans-liberal Left will also need to proliferate
resistances, which often come in the form of appropriations, as is the case with Cassy's
"stratagem." These resistances both help people to live in the present without having to
wait for the overthrow of intolerable practices and provide the antagonisms reforms need to
engage with in order to create themselves in the present.
Foucault's Critique of Reform
Foucault delivers his most sustained critique of the narratives upon which the
"common sense" of reform is based in three texts: Madness and Civilization, Discipline
and Punish, and The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. In each, Foucault suggests
reforms become "common sense" by forgetting their origins, by representing effects as
causes. In Madness and Civilization, Foucault claims, "What is constitutive is the action
that divides madness, and not the science elaborated once this division is made and calm
restored."4 In Discipline and Punish, he argues that punishment did not become more
lenient because reformers recognized the human (or soul) inside the criminal; rather,
punishment, to be more effective, had to become more lenient and did so by producing the
human (or soul) as the limit beyond which punishment could not go and, later, as the target
of a disciplinary power that sought to increase, use, and control bodies and their forces. In
the first volume of The History of Sexuality, he concludes that sex is not that which we
must engage in to free ourselves from power; rather it is the imaginary element produced by
the biopower that gives access both to the life of the body and the life of the species,
enabling both the analysis and mastery of individuality. By taking reform's effects as its
causes, the "common sense" of reform's worth- the insistence that the conditions in
which the mad are treated, the criminal are punished, and the perverted practice sex have
greatly improved directs attention away from the effects of modern power relations by
portraying them as only repressive.
Foucault's method, therefore, is to write new narratives of reform, ones which
return effects to causes and causes to effects in order to show how these effects are being
used in the present. Not only do such narratives show how power is constitutive (and not
just repressive), but by doing so also show how the "common sense" view has kept reform
retrying the same old tired solutions to social problems. Foucault was particularly worried
about power relationships ceasing to be reversibly relational and instead becoming
"blocked, frozen, blocking a field of power relations, immobilizing them and
preventing any reversibility of movement."5 For example, he is concerned with how
penal-system reforms keep turning to the same solutions that assume "depriving people of
their liberty is really the simplest, most logical, most reasonable, most equitable form of
4Foucault, Madness and Civilization, ix.
5 Foucault, "The Ethics of the Concern of the Self," 283.
punishing someone for an infraction of the law" and that therefore assume the need for
prisons.6 To return the penal power relationship to a more fluid state, he shows that the
"common sense" about the penitentiary is relatively recent, that the technical invention of
the penitentiary was integrated into the penal system and penal rationality only by the end of
the 18th century and then for very specific, strategic reasons. By writing a genealogy of
problems, by asking, "Why a problem and why such a kind of problem, why a certain way
of problematizing appears at a given point in time," Foucault seeks to undermine the
"common sense" of reform and give back to these practices "the mobility that they had and
that they should always have."7
In the last part of Discipline and Punish, Foucault returns to the present concern
over prisons and addresses how the effects of the penal relationship miss their goals and
have continued to miss their goals even with reforms. He asks, "[W]hat is served by the
failure of the prison; what is the use of these different phenomena that are continually being
criticized[?]"8 Foucault sees a consequence rather than a contradiction:
[T he prison, and no doubt punishment in general, is not intended to eliminate
offenses, but rather to distinguish them, to distribute them, to use them; that it is not
so much that they render docile those who are liable to transgress the law, but that
they tend to assimilate the transgression of the laws in a general tactics of subjec-
tion. Penality would then appear to be a way of handling illegalities, of laying
down the limits of tolerance, of giving free rein to some, of putting pressure on
others, of excluding a particular section, of making another useful, of neutralizing
certain individuals and of profiting from others. (DP, 272)
Reforms fail to reach the goal of rehabilitating the criminal, but produce unforeseen effects
that are then put to use. The prison, unable to rehabilitate all, has served rather well as a
6Foucault, "What Our Present Is," 412.
7Foucault, "What Our Present Is," 413-14.
8Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 272. In the future, references to this text will be
cited as DP.
mechanism for managing illegalities and thus managing populations of bodies. In
particular, the production of delinquency allows for such management by allowing the
police-prison system to segment a manipulable delinquency and thus separate delinquents
from the population with which they remained linked. For Foucault. then, reform does not
periodically shake the institution of the prison; nor is reform the dupe of the dominant
class. Rather, reform is part of the carceral system itself. "Prison 'reform' is virtually
contemporary with the prison itself: it constitutes, as it were, its programme" (DP, 234).
Therefore, Foucault concludes, "Illegal punishments are to be resituated in an overall
strategy of illegalities" (DP, 272). The "common sense" of reform, in other words, needs
to be returned to politics.
Penal reforms, by producing a penitentiary that functioned independently of judicial
punishment, adjusting the punishment to rehabilitate the criminal, created the "carceral
archipelago"- a series of institutions that function beyond the frontiers of criminal law
(DP. 297). This carceral archipelago produces, by the same techniques, both docile-
normalized bodies and delinquents. The delinquent is not produced outside the carceral
network; nor is s/he cast out of it. There is no outside. The carceral network "saves
everything" and uses it in the management of illegalities (301). As Francois Ewald notes,
"The norm integrates anything which might attempt to go beyond it- nothing, nobody,
whatever difference it might display, can ever claim to be exterior, or claim to possess an
otherness which would actually make it other"; instead, the difference manifests a
possibility.9 The result, then, is a carceral net, not one that catches us, but one in which
individuals and society itself is constituted through power relations:
Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organization. And not only do
individuals circulate between its threads; they are always in the position of
simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power. They are not only its inert or
9Ewald, "A Power Without an Exterior," 173.
consenting target; they are always also the elements of its articulation. In other
words, individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application.
In fact, it is already one of the prime effects of power that certain
bodies, certain gestures, certain discourses, certain desires, come to be identified
and constituted as individuals.... The individual is an effect of power, and at the
same time, or precisely to the extent to which it is that effect, it is the element of its
articulation. The individual which power has constituted is at the same time its
So, while there is still a valuation at work, it is not grounded in anything outside.
Therefore, Foucault's definition of power stresses how practices create power
relations. A society cannot exist without power relations. "if by that one means the
strategies by which individuals try to direct and control the conduct of others," but
domination does exist when the options people have "are ultimately only stratagems that
never succeeded in reversing the situation" ("Ethics for the Concern for Self" 298).
Foucault, therefore, suggests that in such cases of domination, we need to know where
resistance will develop. Once domination is overcome, then, we need to develop practices
of freedom- "acquire the rules of law, the management of techniques, and also the
morality, the ethos, the practice of the self, that will allow us to play these games of.power
with as little domination as possible" (298). Because Foucault sees reform as reiterating
the same old options. leading to a state in which power relations rigidify, he argues for a
need to do something else.
Creating Reform in the Present
By writing narratives that undermine the narratives of progress that support the
repetition of reform, Foucault presents challenges to do something other than reiterate past
solutions. By pointing out how reform fails and how the unintended effects of its failures
are put to use in the management of illegalities, which in turn allows for the management of
bodies and populations, his work invites us to put these effects to different uses. He does
iOFoucault, "Two Lectures." 98.
not call for an end to any practice, for he knows no practice can simply be removed: it
needs to be transformed by altering the contemporary practices that leave vacant the hollow
space which that practice actualizes. According to Paul Veyne, Foucault's most insightful
Ja] practice gives rise to the objectivizations that correspond to it, and it is anchored
in the realities of the moment, that is, in the objectivizations of neighboring
practices. Or, to be more precise, a practice actively fills the void left by neighbor-
ing practices; it actualizes the potentialities that these neighboring practices prefigure
in hollow form. If these practices are transformed, if the periphery of the hollow
shifts, .... the practice will actualize these new potentialities, and it will no longer
be the same as before. I1
Therefore, one cannot compare torture and the prison under reforms; each of these practices
owes its odd shape to the place left vacant for it by other contemporary practices.
Furthermore, this thesis suggests the difficulty of reforming any practice: such a change
would involve changing all the other practices that surround it because in Foucault's
dialectics every practice is related to every other contemporary practice. Therefore, Foucault
draws our attention not only to incarceration, but to other educational, military, labor, and
social-science practices. Because of this, those interested in social change, in keeping
power relations from becoming non-reversible and predictable, need to proliferate the
resistances that already exist as the necessary correlative of power relations.
Proliferating resistances. I will argue, need not occur only among nondominant
populations, such as the criminals, the insane, and the perverted, though these populations
have had to become experts at enacting truly creative resistances in order to defend
themselves. Those involved in reform- criminologists, sociologists, psychologists,
social workers, education experts, etc. can take up the challenges of Foucault's
narratives and the resistances seen in such things as the prison revolts in order to create
I IVeyne, "Foucault Revolutionizes History," 162.
reform in the present, a reform that arrives in the present with truly creative responses to
social problems rather than a repetition of old solutions and forms.
Foucault's attitude toward reform was ambivalent. In his biography of Foucault,
David Macey notes that until 1974 Foucault had little interest in helping reformers and was
content that "legislators and reformers should be left to their own unfortunate devices."12
Instead, Foucault saw the role of the intellectual as denunciatory and critical. His aim,
Macey states, was "to ensure that certain 'obvious truths' and cliches about madness or
criminality become more and more difficult to use, to ensure that, say, social workers in the
prison service no longer know what to do or say, that words and practices which seemed
self-evidently true become problematic."13 In order to challenge the "common sense" to
which reform appeals, the Groupe d'information sur les prisons (GIP), with which
Foucault was allied, sought to make sure that "those held in various prisons had the
opportunity to say for themselves what their conditions of detention are, what they find
particularly intolerable, and what actions they wish to see developing"; this, the group
argued, was the "only way to avoid 'reformism'."'4 The GIP, therefore, did not promote
specific reforms, but sought to gather and disseminate information about the prison system.
Yet, the purposes Foucault describes here suggest something more than anti-
reform. In attempting to make it difficult for reform to continue its "common sense," such
criticism and problematization challenges reformers to reinvent reform. In a later statement,
Foucault, writing on behalf of a political activist group, suggests, "Let us avoid the
hackneyed problem of reformism and anti-reformism. It is not up to us to take responsibil-
12Macey, The Lives ofMichel Foucault, 374.
13Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, 404.
14Quoted in Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, 266, emphasis in original.
ity for institutions which need to be reformed. It is up to us to defend ourselves so well
that the institutions will be forced to reform themselves."' 5 Refusing to suggest that people
wait for reforms to change or succeed, Foucault stresses the importance of defending
oneself by working on one's existence. Nevertheless, Foucault sees such a defense as
related to reformers' changing themselves, creating reform in the present in response to the
antagonism coming from those who must defend themselves. When people defend
themselves by changing or creating practices, reform practices must also change in
response, and vice versa. Thus Foucault stresses that "resistance comes first, and
resistance remains superior to the forces of the process; power relations are obliged to
change with resistance."16 But these changes in practices must be creative-and not
simply negations ("anti-reformism") in order to antagonize other practices to change and
not just rigidify themselves through repetition reformismsm").
Foucault's discussion of Ancient Greek ethics, particularly the work on oneself in
order to create oneself as a work of art, has been seen as an abandonment of the critique in
Discipline and Punish. 7 The call to defend oneself, however, can be seen not only a
response to the conditions of a normalizing disciplinary power, but also an attempt to
change it. As Foucault shows, the Ancient Greek practice of caring for the self encom-
ISQuoted in Macy, The Lives of Michel Foucault, 418. Macy writes that in 1980,
Foucault was involved with the Association Ddfense Libre, whose aims were to "denounce
the limitations placed upon defense lawyers, abuses of the accusatory system and violations
of the rights of those facing prosecution" (418). The quote is from the group's
introductory statement, partially drafted by Foucault.
16Foucault, "Sex, Power, and the Politics of Identity," 167.
17See, for example, Pizzomo, "Foucault and the Liberal View of the Individual."
Pizzomo argues that Foucault, like Durkheim and Weber, was unable to finish the story of
liberal-democratic regimes. Canguilhem, however, suggests that we read The Uses of
Pleasure and The Care of the Self as a response "in the face of normalization and against it"
(Canguilhem, "On Histoire de lafolie as an Event," 32).
passed one's relation to others as well: one could govern others well only if one governed
oneself well, and vice versa. Foucault did not see the individual as the only one who needs
to do reflexive work. Instead, he sees it as necessary for a society and justice to work on
themselves as well, "If]or. like society, a justice which always has to question itself can
exist only if it works on itself and its institutions."'8 The problematizations posed to
reform and institutions by intellectuals and by those who have had to learn to defend
themselves create the antagonisms society, justice, reform, and selves need to work on
In a late interview, Foucault redefines his works as studies of how the human
subject fits into certain games of truth. Earlier, he says, he worked on this problem either
in terms of coercive practices, such as those of psychiatry and the prison system, or in
terms of theoretical or scientific games, such as the analysis of wealth, of language, and of
living beings. His later works approach the problem in terms of the practice of the self.
For Foucault, the subject is not a substance, but a form that is not always identical to itself.
That form, that relation to oneself, is different each time one engages in a different practice.
Undoubtedly there are relationships and interference between these different forms
of the subject; but we are not dealing with the same type of subject. In each case,
one plays, one establishes a different type of relationship to oneself. And it is
precisely the historical constitution of these various forms of the subject in relation
to the games of truth which interests me. 19
In The Sublime Object :I /, .., i .', Slavoj Zizek argues against the theory of the
subject Foucault implies in his discussion of self-stylization. The subject, Zizek argues,
cannot be reduced to the positions of the subject, since before subjectification, the subject is
the subject of a lack. For Zizek, this lack is the Lacanian objeta, which he sees as best
defined by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe as that positivization of a void opened in
18Quoted in Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, 421.
19Foucault, "The Ethics of the Concern for Self," 290-1.
reality by antagonism, a traumatic social division which cannot be symbolized.2" Any
attempt at guaranteeing the identity of an object, such as the democratic state or the self, by
naming it does so retroactively: the object has no positive consistency, but is discursively
constructed by a positivization of the void, which is the only thing about the object that
stays the same. For Zizek, then, the subject is nothing but the name given to the
positivization of the void from which the subject can perceive itself as something lacking.
In order to escape the things which would point us toward the existence of this void, we
use ideology. For Zizek, then, we do what we do because the level at which we act,
ideological reality, is structured by fantasy, which is an escape from knowledge about the
Foucault also takes into consideration the status of a void. According to Veyne, for
humann phenomena are exceptional: they are not ensconced in the plenitude of
reason; there is empty space around them for other phenomena that we in our
wisdom do not grasp; what is could be otherwise. ... [These phenomenal cannot
be taken for granted, although for contemporaries and even for historians they seem
to be so self-evident that neither the former nor the latter notice them at all.21
According to Foucault, we do what we do because of a preconceptual practice, which is the
actualization of the space left by other contemporary practices, which in turn are determined
by history as a whole:
These conditions of possibility inscribe all reality within a two-homed polygon
whose bizarre limits never match with the ample folds of a well-rounded rationality
[or ideology]; these unrecognized limits are taken for reason itself and seem to be
inscribed in the plentitude of some reason, essence, or function. Falsely, for to
constitute is always to exclude; there is always emptiness around, but what
20See Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.
2 IVeyne, "Foucault Revolutionizes History," 147.
emptiness? Nothing, a void, a simple way of evoking the possibility of polygons
cut out differently at other historical moments, a mere metaphor.22
In other words, because we ensconce our behavior in rationalizations ("things being as they
are ..."), we blind ourselves to the void surrounding each exceptional practice. The void
that for Zizek results from the failings of the social is for Veyne's Foucault also the result
of the failings of the social, the difference between the preconceptual practice and the
reasons we give to ourselves and others for our behavior, the reasons we give for the
exclusions we make whenever we act.23
Foucault's method, therefore, was two-fold. First, he set out to show that the
rationalizations his adversaries gave for their preferences were genealogically wrong. He
did this by noticing phenomena in their exceptional form, paying attention to actions or
practices rather than lofty notions. Second, noting the tendency to remain unaware of the
emptiness around practices, Foucault tried to show how we should learn to live with this
condition by understanding that things (line prisons) are only objectivizations of determined
practices and that determinations must be brought to light since consciousness fails to
conceptualize them. Foucault most clearly worked out an example for how to do this late in
his life when he returned to the Enlightenment he had infamously criticized. In "What Is
Enlightenment?" Foucault discusses Kant's answer to the same question. Kant sees the
Enlightenment as a bargain, as "the contract of rational despotism with free reason: the
public and free use of autonomous reason will be the best guarantee of obedience, on
condition, however, that the political principle which must be obeyed itself be in conformi-
22Veyne, "The Final Foucault," 228.
23For Veyne, "the aim of Foucault the philosopher was not to claim that, for
example, the modern state is characterized by a grand act of setting aside, of exclusion
rather than of integration; his aim was to show that every gesture, without exception, at the
level of the state or not always fails to fulfill the universalism of a reason and always leaves
emptiness outside, even if the gesture is one of inclusion and integration" (Veyne, "The
Final Foucault," 228).
ty with universal reason."24 Thus Kant's present moment required critique to play the role
"of defining the conditions under which the use of reason is legitimate in order to determine
what can be known jconnaitre], what must be done, and what may be hoped."-2" Drawing
his inspiration from Kant, Foucault defines modernity as an attitude rather than a period of
history and defines the present as a motive for a particular philosophical task:
But if the Kantian question was that of knowing [savoir] what limits knowledge
[connaissance] must renounce exceeding, it seems to me that the critical question
today must be turned back into a positive one: In what is given to us as universal,
necessary, obligatory, what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent,
and the product of arbitrary constraints? The point, in brief, is to transform the
critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that
takes the form of a possible crossing-over [franchissement] 26
Towards the end of this essay, Foucault spells out how this attitude addresses the
frequent debate over reform versus revolution. "If we limit ourselves to this type of always
partial and local inquiry or test," he asks, "do we not run the risk of letting ourselves be
determined by more general structures of which we may well not be conscious and over
which we may have no control?"27 Foucault answers this question in the affirmative, but
notes we must give up the fantasy that we will ever gain a point of view giving us access to
any complete and definitive knowledge of what may constitute our historical limits. We
are, however, always in the position of beginning again. Foucault's conclusion here, I
would argue, returns to reform but with an emphasis on the re-. If we do what we do
because of theforms of preconceptual practices, then we must attempt to become aware of
these limits, to make them conscious, so that we can experiment again and again with going
24Foucault, "What Is Enlightenment?" 308.
25Foucault, "What Is Enlightenment?" 308.
26Foucault, "What Is Enlightenment?" 315.
27Foucault, "What Is Enlightenment?" 316.
beyond them. changing our practices, and thus antagonizing other practices into transform-
If Veyne's Foucault helps us understand why a particular fantasy at a particular
time, Zizek's discussion of ideology helps us to understand why we offer rationalizations.
why we have difficulty in making the preconceptual conscious: in order to avoid the Real,
the void surrounding the exceptional practice formed through the antagonism (to use Laclau
and Mouffe's term) among contemporary practices. There will always be antagonism in
the social, and therefore, Zizek argues, the only way to break the power of ideology is to
confront the impossible kernel which announces itself in our ideological system. One must
learn to recognize the Real in order to articulate a way of living with it. To do this, Zizek
argues, one must look for those ideological figures we use to stitch up the inconsistency of
our own ideological system, the lack or void opened up by necessarily antagonistic social
relations, and adopt a subjective position which finally accepts contradiction as an internal
condition of every identity. The recognition of the role these ideological figures play
shows us what is, in Foucault's terms, "singular, contingent, and the product of arbitrary
constraints," those things that serve to cover over the necessary failures in the social. Such
a recognition should then serve as impetus for experiments with other ways of drawing
constraints, of re-forming the present.
The Role of Literary Criticism
This dissertation attempts to demonstrate and contribute to the trans-liberal Leftist
project I defined above, a project that both proliferates resistances by making creative
appropriations and that problematizes the "common sense" of reforms in order to antago-
nize reform into creating itself in the present, rather than repeat old solutions. Each chapter
will offer a mapping of how these texts responded to the reforms of their day and, as with
the above discussion of Cassy, mark practices that, in the words of Foucault, "cannot
exactly be reactivated but at least constitute, or help to constitute, a certain point of view
which can be very useful as a tool for analyzing what's going on now- and to change
it"'2 Through such readings, then, I hope to provide a discussion of current issues raised
by reform, identify what in them is carried over from earlier periods, and look to earlier
narrative texts for practices, overlooked by the "common sense" of reform, that may prove
useful in proliferating resistances today and antagonizing reforms- and those living with
or defending against reforms- to create themselves in the present.
Chapter 2 opens with a critique of New Temperance movements, such as Alcohol-
ics Anonymous, which coerce members into accepting the identity of "addict" as their
"true," foundational selves by requiring them to produce experience narratives in accor-
dance with a particular style and form. This chapter revisits the historical roots of A.A. and
the narratives that appeared when confession-style mutual aid was still new and fluid in
order to find resistances that can be reworked to acquire meaning in present struggles
against this reform's oppressions. Walter Whitman's Washingtonian novel, Franklin
Evans; or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times (1842) offers such a source. Franklin Evans
shows how Washingtonianism attempted to cover over the social symptom described by
Zizek, as its sobered hero comes to inhabit a utopia of peace, goodwill, and diffidence,
while its "author" concludes with a vision of a mobilized citizenry preparing to create a
nation-on-the-make. But the novel also offers moments that contest such temperance
work. By drawing connections between inebriates, on the one hand, and Indians,
"mulattas," and speculators, on the other, Franklin Evans points to how these figures were
used to avoid the symptom in the social order. The fantasy of temperance movements
offers people a way to avoid recognizing the necessary failure in the social order by
mobilizing them against those who allegedly obstruct the actualization of their temperate
28 Foucault, "On the Genealogy of Ethics," 261.
utopia. By recognizing the role these figure play in the utopian imaginary, we are
confronted with the need to identify with the failure to actualize a utopia rather than to act as
if the nation-on-the-make's identity can be fully realized. Evans's drinking buddies point
him in the direction of recognizing and identifying with this failure.
Chapter 3 argues that in Moby-Dick, Ishmael confronts this failure, this social
symptom, and develops an ethics in response to it. Here, I read Melville's novel as a
response to Emerson's corporate individualism, an attitude shared by liberal reformers,
then and now. Emerson mediates the conflict between America's competing demands for
self-sovereignty and group unity by imagining selves whose surface differences can be
dismissed because of an underlying, unchangeable unity to which they should submit.
Through this process, defiance and obedience- obedience to a higher authority that cannot
be remade- become the same thing. Emerson, then, imagines a cure to the social
symptom by putting everyone in his or her proper place through a three-step process. He
(1) summons the reader to rely on what he or she knows from within, (2) defines this self-
trust as accepting one's place in his or her age, and (3) locates the source of insight beyond
one's contemporaries in transcendent destiny. In contrast, Moby-Dick mediates this same
conflict by doubting Emerson's underlying universal and portraying the appeal to the "little
lower layer" as a trap set by authoritarianism.29 Moby-Dick contradicts Emerson's
optimism about arriving at a founding Truth by portraying such completion as that which is
forever barred to human beings. Yet the novel also recognizes our desire for this
completion. How to deal with this desire becomes central to Ishmael's quest. Emerson's
expectations result in phantoms that haunt us because they seem graspable but always turn
out to slip away. When we see these phantoms as graspable, deep, universal meaning,
instead of recognizing them as the results of our own Renaissance, Orientalist, and
29Melville, Moby-Dick, 143.
transcendental expectations, we are tricked into sublimely drowning in submission to
corporations. The ethics of Moby-Dick can offer a useful response to an America where
corporate individualism attempts to make us feel that this loss of both private autonomy and
public sovereignty feels OK and where liberals and reformers celebrate the loss of control
to the forces shaping modem economies. This ethics, which I call "coffin-ing," urges us to
abandon our reliance on inner-selves and unmodifiable law (Nature, Truth, forces, etc.)-
so often portrayed in antebellum America as archeological digs through the Egyptian
pyramids- in order to engage constantly in remaking the present in such a way that
reminds others about that from which we are forever barred.
The kind of work Moby-Dick suggests as an ethics is further explored in Chapter 4.
Here, I discuss how Nella Larsen's Passing responds to idealized domesticity, particularly
as it was marshalled by post-Reconstruction African-American reform movements. In the
face of segregation's horrors, African-American novelists and social activists like Mary
Church Terrell preached the need for homesme, more homes, better homes, purer homes"
and engaged in the task of showing others their "proper" places in respect to this domestic
ideal.30 While these novelists and activists attempted to counter the rhetoric and the effects
of segregation, they did so by appealing to the same fantasy as segregationists and
eugenicists, the fantasy that if everyone could be shown and made to stay in his or her
"proper" place, all domestic problems- both in terms of the nation and the home- would
be solved. In the process, they both relied on and produced normative identity categories
that served a disciplinary system of "race," class, gender, and sexuality. Larsen's novel
offers a resistance in the series of intense and complex encounters between Irene and Clare
that take place around the issue of passing, both in the sense of "racial" passing and
"sneaking around." As Irene comes to feel torn between both identifying and
3OQuoted in Knupfer, Towarda Tenderer Humanity, 19.
disidentifying with Clare, these encounters problematize Irene's stubborn belief in the
safety of "black" middle-class home-life and seduce her into joining in some of Clare's
"risky" practices. Together these encounters offer a model for a push-and-pull game of
friendship, a relationship of problematization as a practice of freedom rather than one of
disciplinary positioning for visibility in an ordered public sphere. I conclude that the model
of friendship offered here can acquire meaning in the present struggles of AIDS activism,
as it suggests friends (etc.) can push and pull each other out of fantasies of domestic safety
and into experimental responses to what is dangerous now by drawing upon each other's
multiple and contradictory identifications.
Chapter 5 shows how the ethics of earlier chapters can be used to form collective
responses to oppressions. Here, I read Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the
Whistle Stop Cafe as a response to the Reaganism that swept the country in the 1980s.
Reagan attracted so many voters to his movement to reform big government by appealing to
a paradise lost to which the U.S. could and should return. The parts of the novel that focus
on Evelyn and Ninny reiterate Reaganite ideology, but the novel avoids portraying
Reaganism as permanently triumphant. Fried Green Tomatoes shows how the exchange of
anecdotes can be used both to support, in the cases of Ninny and Evelyn, and to resist, in
the case of Idgie, the dominant culture's structures of subordination. The novel's various
accounts of Whistle Stop represent a contest over how the 1930s will be remembered and
how such accounts of that decade will be put to political use. Ninny's attachment to her
Depression Era results in nostalgic otherness. Evelyn uses that decade in order to revive
the 1950s in the 1980s. Evelyn's Reaganite use of nostalgic storytelling is countered by
the omniscient narrator, who represents the 1930s in terms of a 1960s that can provide
hope for future generations of activists. The omniscient narrator's anecdotes show how
Idgie and her friends create a space that gestures toward a counterculture. By bringing
together subjects from a plurality of social fields to exchange anecdotes, the Dill Pickle
Club creates opportunities to destabilize identities fixed in inequality by presenting each
other with alternate narratives and narrative positions. These possibilities lead to collective
acts of resistance, such as continuing to sell food to black railroad workers in defiance of
the Klan and robbing government supply trains for impoverished blacks in Troutville. I
conclude by suggesting how cooperative-learning classrooms and the kind of groups that
are being increasingly formed around hobbies and self-fashioning can be sites for such
countercultural work, the revising of past responses for present struggles.
I take, then, Foucault's longing as my own:
In reality, what I want to do, and here is the difficulty of trying to do it, is to solve
this problem: to work out an interpretation, a reading of a certain reality, which
might be such that, on one hand, this interpretation could produce some of the
effects of truth; and on the other hand, these effects of truth could become
implements within possible struggles. Telling the truth so that it might be
acceptable. Deciphering a layer of reality in such a way that the lines of force and
the lines of fragility come forth; the points of resistance and the possible points of
attack; the paths marked out and the shortcuts. It is the reality of possible struggles
that I wish to bring to light.3
3 lFoucault, "On the Genealogy of Ethics," 261.
"IF YOU WANT WHAT WE HAVE, YOU DO WHAT WE DID":
TEMPERANCE AND ITS OTHERS IN WHITMAN'S FRANKLIN EVANS
Who can tell how many Franklins may be among you?
Thomas Mercein, President
New York's General Society
of Mechanics and Tradesmen t
In a 1987 New York Times article, Major League Baseball pitcher Dwight Gooden
described his stay at the Smithers Center in New York, where he had been sent for cocaine
"abuse." Gooden found himself berated by fellow residents: "My stories weren't as good
[as theirs].... They said, 'C'mon. man, you're lying.' They didn't believe me.... I
cried a lot before I went to bed at night."2 Each year, thousands of people are coerced into
treatment programs, the vast majority of which are based on the Alcoholics Anonymous
(A.A.) model. Much criticism has been directed at the A.A. model, particularly its
ineffectiveness and its requirement that members subordinate themselves to a "higher
power."3 Gooden's comment raises another, related problem: A.A.-style treatment
lQuoted in Rock, Artisans of the Young Republic, 138. Mercein went on to
promise his audience of apprentices that if, with the help of the society, they would shun
"the alluring but fatal paths of vice and dissipation," then "industry, ardour, sobriety and
perseverance in your different pursuits, will lead to successful competition in the world."
2Quoted in Brodsky and Peele, "AA's Coercive Tactics Are Harmful," 96.
3Studies suggest that A.A.'s success rates do not differ from rates of recovery
without any treatment. See Bufe, "Studies Show Alcoholics Anonymous Is Ineffective,"
programs coerce members into accepting the identity of "addict" as their "true." foundation-
al selves by requiring them to produce experience narratives in accordance with a particular
style and form.
As Stanton Peele has observed, the narrative style and form required by the A.A.
model and used in its advertisements "combine the direst possible predictions: if you think
you have a drinking problem- you do; a drinking problem can only grow worse; a
drinking alcoholic ends up either dead or institutionalized."4 This narrative form has a
history older than the meeting of A.A.'s founders, Bill W. and Doctor Bob. It finds its
historical roots in antebellum temperance movements, particularly that of the Washingtoni-
ans, a temperance organization named after the heroic founding father.5 Beginning in
1840, when a group of six tippling artisans turned its informal drinking club into a society
for mutual assistance in adhering to the teetotal pledge, the Washingtonians sought to
reform even the most confirmed drunkard through personal and public confession. This
emphasis on speaking and writing one's experience narrative achieved great popularity in
the early 1840s, but fell out of favor as members left for rival, particularly prohibitionist-
oriented and elitist organizations. In 1935, A.A. unknowingly returned to the Washingto-
nian emphasis on confession.6
4 Quoted in Wagner, The New Temperance, 68.
5Alongside the Washingtonian societies for men, the Martha Washington
organizations for women soon emerged and rivaled the men's societies. Like their male
counterparts, members of the Martha Washington organizations were of modest means.
Women in these organizations helped provide clothing, money, and shelter for the
reformed man and for women and children who suffered in intemperate households. They
also provided publicity for women's temperance reform by speaking out on the problems
of male intemperance and, less often, on the need to reform female inebriates as well. See
Tyrrell, Sobering Up, 179-83.
6When a fellow A.A. member brought to Bill W.'s attention the parallels between
their group and the Washingtonians, the founder was struck by the A.A.-style mutual aid
Washingtonians offered a hundred years ago. See Wilson (a.k.a. Bill W.), The Language
By revisiting the historical roots of A.A. and the narratives that appeared when
confession-style mutual aid was still new and fluid, one can find resistances that can be
reworked to acquire meaning in present struggles against this reform's oppressions.
Walter Whitman's Washingtonian novel, Franklin Evans: or The Inebriate: A Tale ofthe
Times (1842) offers such a source.
On the one hand, the novel provides a typical Washingtonian narrative. Evans, a
young man from the country, comes to New York City, where he falls in with a group of
tipplers who introduce him to the alcoholic drinks to which he later becomes addicted. His
downward career is marked by a loss of employment and property, the death of his first
wife, and his involvement in a catastrophic love triangle. In the end, he inherits a large
sum of money, signs the teetotal pledge, and enjoys a quiet, uneventful life. The novel
ends with a "Conclusion" in which the author imagines the country coming together to
drive out Old-World vices in preparation for America's emergence as an international
power, one that reclaims the mantle of "City on the Hill." Whitman's temperance novel,
then, offers a source for understanding the narrative patterns inherited by A.A.
While Franklin Evans accomodates Washingtonianism in many way, it also
deviates from other Washingtonian narratives. Whereas other narratives portray an artisan
(like Perth in Moby-Dick) who had attained a comfortably successful shop and had lost it
because of tippling, Evans loses his property while sober and returns to alcohol because of
its loss.7 Other narratives portray a confirmed drunkard who begins his reformation by
signing the teetotal pledge; Evans, however, signs the pledge as an afterthought, after he
of the Heart, 4-5 and Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 125. See also
Crowley, Introduction, 17-19.
7See, for example, the excerpt from Arthur's Six Nights with the Washingtonians
in Crowley, Drunkard's Progress, 33.
has already sobered up.8 Whitman's novel also contains an Indian tale and several chapters
narrating Evans's hasty marriage to a "mulatta." Though these interpolated tales have been
described as unnecessary, they draw telling parallels between the roles of Indians, African-
Americans, speculators, and inebriates in antebellum hopes for and fears of progress. In
these deviations and "excessive" additions, one can find both the forgotten logic of
temperance and overlooked strategies for responding to the nation-on-the-make's
The "higher power" A.A. members must subordinate themselves to is the model
narrative of the alcoholic's "downward career." Members use this model to construct their
own experience narratives, the central activity of A.A. As one proponent describes it, one
becomes a member of the group by learning how to tell one's story.9 After attending a few
meetings, one reads and discusses the Twelve Step literature, particularly Alcoholics
Anonymous (or the "Big Book"), which contains the experience narratives of Bill W. and
Doctor Bob. The stories follow the same narrative pattern: what we used to be like, what
happened (with "hitting bottom" as the climax), and what we are like now. The stories
routinely portray ambition as a lethal illusion and sobriety as a utopia of quiet, peace, and
goodwill. The narratives ignore social problems and portray social and political critique as
distractions from working on sobriety. Finally, these stories are continually occupied with
what is real and what is fake, portraying the alcoholic's "true" self as illusionall" or
8See the excerpts from Narrative of Charles T. Woodman, A Reformed Inebriate
(1843) and from An Autobiography by John B. Gough (1845) in Crowley, Drunkard's
Progress, 880 and 155-158, respectively.
9See Gorski, "Alcoholics Anonymous is the Most Effective Treatment for
"false." 1 Eventually, members produce narratives of their own downward careers.
Through this procedure, they come to identify with the founding fathers, an important
component of the program, one of whose mottos is "If you want what we have, you do
what we did.""
By coercing people to identify with Bill W.'s and Doctor Bob's experience
narratives, A.A.-style programs (and those who coerce others into such treatment) attempt
to limit the available responses to socioeconomic problems. A.A. narratives portray the
alcoholic's "true" self as based on a "false" foundation.'2 Yet one could argue that the
selves produced by temperance movements are false: they result from narratives that
decontextualize the behaviors they stigmatize, particularly by ignoring social problems and
political critique. Sociologist David Wagner argues that these narratives of the addict draw
upon "dry logic," a late-twentieth-century return of the antebellum era's slippery-slope
argument that one drink (or toke) leads to utter destruction. Dry logic works by
IOThis description of A.A.'s "Big Book" is indebted to O'Reilly, "'Bill's Story.'"
Like A.A., the Washingtonians produced experience narratives that told what they used to
be like, what happened, and what they were like now. They also portrayed success and
ambition as dangerous and sobriety as a utopia of quiet, peace, and goodwill. Here too
politics was seen as a distraction from temperance and even as a cause of inebriation.
Drinking and discussing politics are linked in such works as T. S. Arthur's Six Nights
with the Washingtonians (1842) and John Cotton Mather's (pseudonym) Autobiography of
a Reformed Drunkard (1845). Finally, like A.A. narratives, Washingtonian stories are
continually occupied with what is real and what is fake. John B. Gough, the most famous
of the Washingtonian orators, linked his inebriation to his acting career and to the imitations
with which he had entertained friends. Excerpts from these Washingtonian texts are
reprinted in Crowley, Drunkard's Progress.
I Quoted in Gorski, "Alcoholics Anonymous Is the Most Effective Treatment for
12The most influential- and positive- analysis of A.A.'s theory of the alcoholic's
"true" self being based on a "false" or illusional foundation is Bateson, "The Cybernetics of
decontextualizing the behaviors it stigmatizes.'3 It also works by ignoring how such
"intemperate" behaviors may be strategic responses to psychological troubles, personal
problems (such as divorce), and racial, gender, and class pressures. Campaigns against
adolescent sex, for example, can present this stigmatized behavior as economic and social
suicide only by ignoring how teen pregnancy may be an advantageous strategy for those in
the lower classes. With few career opportunities awaiting them, some are having children
at a time when only the fewest and lowest-earning jobs exist, when free child care from
relatives is most available, and before most of the medical problems associated with
poverty tend to occur. By portraying these stigmatized behaviors as killers instead of as
potential health risks, dry logic helps people and governments ignore troubling socioeco-
nomic problems and, in effect, tries to eliminate other strategies besides middle-class
liberalism for living with (as well as reacting against) those conditions.
Dry logic supports the central binary logic of liberalism by producing people who
perceive themselves and others as either out of control or in control. According to this
binary logic, to have self-control, one must subordinate the self to a higher-power model of
control. Middle-class liberalism, therefore, implies a paradoxical internalization of a higher
power to gain a selfhood that is really the self being controlled by that higher power. In
A.A., the experience narratives of the founding fathers Bill W. and Doctor Bob serve as
this higher-power model of control (or of an uncontrolled self that becomes controlled). In
the early republic, founding fathers such as George Washington (the namesake of the
Washingtonians) and Benjamin Franklin (the namesake of Franklin Evans) served as such
13For example, studies reporting the deaths, illnesses, and accidents due to drug
use (including cigarette smoking and drinking alcohol) decontextualize by ignoring multiple
or ambiguous causes. "Thus, for instance, a percentage of, say, the lung-cancer deaths of
blue-collar workers who smoked (even for only a part of their lives) are declared to be
'smoking deaths' even when the work settings, living conditions, environment, genetic
makeup, and other circumstances of these workers may have contributed to or been the
'cause' of their deaths" (Wagner. The New Temperance, 80).
models of character. As Barry Schwartz argues, the early republic saw George Washing-
ton as both an esteemed role model and a sacred possession because his self-control
exemplified how subordinating selves to the public good could resist tyrannical designs.
Washington's representation came to embody "a society that valued character over genius,
conservatism over dedication to change, land] diffidence over ambition," a representation
that would inform the utopia for the recovering addict.'4
The paradox of self-control of a self-control achieved through the self's
subordination to a higher power, such as "the public good"- has caused some doubts.
A.A. has been haunted by doubts over the sincerity of its members' transformations from
prideful and ambitious to humble and content. As Edmund O'Reilly states, "Overly
effusive self-proclamations of inner harmony, tranquility and emotional growth |in the
conclusions to members' experience narratives]... veer too close to the display of pride or
complacency for the liking of A.A. audiences."15 Bill W. found himself tempted by the
spotlight into which he was thrust and warned members and the organization against
becoming involved in politics, religious controversy, and social reform.16 At the
beginning of the nineteenth-century, Schwartz notes, people feared public virtue was in
decline, and although they clung to the Washingtonian ideal, especially when voicing fears
of a new monarchy, they also questioned the authenticity of Washington's character.
Eulogists had to address whether Washington might have used history for his own vanity,
acting like a self-sacrificing patriot at the moments he knew he would have to in order to
14Schwartz, "The Character of Washington," 202 and 204, respectively.
50O'Reilly, "'Bill's Story,'" 196.
16See Bateson, "The Cybernetics of 'Self,'" 333-34.
become a hero. 17 After 1830, middle-class Americans' fear of such insincere selflessness
dominated advice manuals and periodicals. As Karen Halttunen states, middle-class
Americans worried that, in an urban world of strangers where hypocrisy paid off, the
founding fathers' model characters were being replaced by the American-on-the-make's
manipulation of surface impressions.'8
Since the early antebellum era, these "fake" selves have functioned as what Slavoj
Zizek calls the social symptom, that which is both "heterogeneous to a given ideological
field and at the same time necessary for that field to achieve its closure, its accomplished
form."'9 Temperance movements appeal to a utopia of peace, goodwill, and diffidence, a
utopia that will be achieved once intemperate selves have been re-formed based on the
founding fathers' model characters. As seen in the author's "Conclusion" to Franklin
Evans, the peace, goodwill, and diffidence of individuals is used to organize a nation-on-
the-make. But, Zizek writes,
as soon as we try to conceive the existing social order as a rational totality, we must
include in it a paradoxical element which, without ceasing to be its internal
constituent, functions as its symptom- subverts the very universal rational
principle of this totality, ... the point at which the Reason embodied in the existing
social order encounters its own unreason.20
On the one hand, these fake selves were defined as un-American because they seemed not
to subordinate themselves to the higher-power model of self-control (the founding fathers)
which defined the ideal citizen. On the other hand, these fake selves were necessary
because middle-class liberalism could only achieve its accomplished form by posturing
17Schwartz, "The Character of Washington," 212-14.
18See Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women.
19Zizek, The Sublime Object of deology, 21.
20Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 23.
against the "false" foundations of fake selves: by comparison, the paradoxical foundation
of the middle-class self (a self whose self-control depends on subordination to a higher-
power) is "true." The "fake" selves of intemperates, therefore, represent the paradox. the
unreason within the Reason of the temperance utopia.
Franklin Evans shows how Washingtonianism attempted to cover over the
symptom, as its sobered hero comes to inhabit a utopia of peace, goodwill, and diffidence,
while its "author" concludes with a vision of a mobilized citizenry preparing to create a
nation-on-the-make. But the novel also offers moments that contest such temperance
work. Franklin Evans, through its frequent references to banks, borrowing, confidence
men, and embezzlers, suggests that worries over inebriates, as well as Indians and
"mulattas," were tied to the Jacksonian era's worries over the gold standard- whether
money was real or fake, whether paper money was creating a contentious country of
phonies and cheats, and whether credit was producing out-of-control buyers.2t These
references suggest that the reliance on the founding fathers' as "true" characters is similar to
the reliance on gold as the "true" standard of value: in both cases, the "true" is fetishized as
that which will maintain "civilization" in the face of "barbarism" and heal the symptom in
the social order.
By drawing connections between inebriates, on the one hand, and Indians,
"mulattas," and speculators, on the other, Franklin Evans allows us to see what dry logic
and narratives of antebellum progress ignore: one narrative is always in a dialectical
relationship with other narratives. The presence of these other narratives in Franklin Evans
points us to the common goal shared by campaigns to remove or assimilate Indians, (ex-)
slaves, and inebriates: the desire to create a nation-on-the-make, composed of mobilized
2 The most influential account of these anxieties is Halttunen's Confidence Men
and Painted Women. These worries remain with us, as easy credit has led to increasing
anxiety over (consumer) choice and, as Sedgwick has stated in "Epidemics of the Will," the
feeling that we are all addicted to something.
yet quieted citizens identified with the founding fathers, by eliminating other visions of
progress and other responses to revolutionary changes in socioeconomic conditions. As
both a contribution to and an intervention in Washingtonianism, Franklin Evans can
contribute as much to resisting the New Temperance as it did to A.A. By including tales of
Indians, "mulattas." and speculators that seem both connected to and in excess of the story
of an inebriate, Franklin Evans points to how these figures were used to mask the
symptoms in the social order. By recognizing this masking, we are confronted with the
need to identify with the failure to actualize a utopia rather than to act as if the nation-on-
the-make's identity can be fully realized.
Gay Wilson Allen has shown that Franklin Evans's much-criticized interpolated
tales came from materials Whitman had on hand. Following this discovery, critics have
seen the tales as peripheral to or in excess of the temperance narrative. Leslie Fiedler writes
that the chapters narrating Evans's marriage to the "mulatta" Margaret "intrude so
inappropriately upon Whitman's temperance novel." Agreeing with Fiedler, Karen
Sinchez-Eppler analyzes the chapters narrating Evans's marriage as a separate text,
unconnected to either temperance or the rest of the novel. David Reynolds, criticizing the
"tawdriness" of the novel, claims the Indian tale and most of the incidents surrounding
Evans's marriage have "nothing to do with temperance reform."22 While Reynolds and
Sanchez-Eppler have produced insightful discussions of these tales in terms of the
trajectory of Whitman's career, they have left unaddressed what effects the inclusion of the
22Allen, The Solitary Singer, 57; Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel,
301; Sinchez-Eppler, Touching Liberty, 57-63: Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America, 97.
In "Whitman's Literary Intemperance," Dalke argues that the Indian tale and the chapters
narrating Evans's second marriage are related to the text as a whole, but she does so by
seeing anti-alcoholism, Indian removal, and slavery as shields for Whitman's criticism of
the lack of "friendliness, love and sympathy for an erring man" (17).
Indian story and Evans's second marriage have on reading the novel, regardless of
authorial intentions and later works. How do the inclusions of Indians, ex-slaves, and
"mulattas" affect the temperance movements' representations of inebriates? How might the
Indian tale and the chapters narrating Evans's marriage point to contexts for and problems
with temperance reform?
The Indian tale itself is an anecdote of intemperance. Chief Unrelenting, whose
very name suggests intemperance, invites a travelling stranger to spend the night in his
lodge. While the stranger sleeps in the corner, Unrelenting tells his own son, Wind-Foot,
of one skirmish in a long war between his tribe and the Kansi. As a young man. Unrelent-
ing had come upon a Kansi man and child sleeping in the woods. Full of hate, Unrelenting
was ready to murder both, but decided to spare the child, for "were they both slain, no one
would carry to the Kansi tribe the story of my deed. My vengeance would be tasteless to
me if they knew it not."23 It turns out that the stranger had been that child, and hearing this
story (while pretending to be asleep) arouses his desire for revenge. The next day, the
stranger sets out to kill Wind-Foot while Unrelenting is away. Unrelenting arrives in time
to see his son killed and, in turn, to kill the stranger.
Throughout the Indian tale, Whitman includes a number of words and descriptions
that call to mind anti-alcohol rhetoric. The narrator describes Unrelenting in a way similar
to how inebriates are described both later in this novel and in other Washingtonian tracts.
Like the speech of a loud drunk, "The chief's speech trembled with agitation. He had
gradually wrought himself up to a pitch of loudness and rage; and his hoarse tones, at the
last part of his narration, rang croakingly through the lodge" (49). Similarly, the narrator
describes the eavesdropping stranger as if he were an alcoholic with the d.t.'s: "His lips
were parted, and his teeth clenched; his neck stretched forward- every vein in his
23Whitman, Franklin Evans; or. The Inebriate. In the future, references to this text
will be cited internally by page number alone.
forehead and temples bulged out as if he was suffocating- and his eyes fiery with a look
of demoniac hate" (50). The portrayal of the angered stranger's eyes as "two fiery orbs"
(50) finds its echo not only in "fire-water," but also in Evans's later description of a man in
a state of drunkenness who has "eyes inflamed" (69). Finally, the story's narrator
associates the enraged Indians with "serpents," a word later used in connection with
alcoholic beverages. The Kansi stranger justifies his murder of Wind-Foot by saying,
"Serpents are small at first... but in a few moons they have fangs and deadly poison"
(52). When the stranger dies, he twists "his body like a bruised snake" (55). In an
epigraph to a later chapter, alcohol is portrayed as a "stinging serpent" (141), and in
Evans's vision of a completely temperate nation, drink is "the Snake-Tempter" (169).
The chapters narrating Evans's marriage to the "mulatta" Margaret provide another
story of intemperate revenge. While in the South, Evans takes up residence at Bourne's
plantation. He becomes attracted to Margaret, one of Boume's slaves, and when she
strikes an overseer after he harasses her, Evans intervenes in her favor. Eventually, he
marries Margaret, who is happy with the arrangement because both she and her brother are
manumitted and because she rises in class and "race" hierarchies. The morning after,
Evans regrets his deed, portraying it as the result of being drunk on wine, and eventually
begins to court a "white" widow, Mrs. Conway, who turns out to be a relative of the
unforgiving overseer. Margaret, jealous of this woman, arranges a complicated plan to kill
her. After some twists and turns, Margaret kills the widow, is discovered by the overseer,
confesses to Evans, and kills herself.
The descriptions and rhetoric from the Indian tale appear in the chapters about
Evans's marriage to Margaret. She is described as "unrelenting" (161), the name of the
chief in the Indian tale. Like the Indians, she has fire in her eyes. Her presence near the
widow is made known to the reader when "two bright small orbs, fixed, and yet rolling in
fire" appear in the window (162). Finally, just as Unrelenting lost Wind-Foot, Margaret
loses her brother, whom she thinks of as a son, while pursuing her revenge.
By forming such connections among the anti-alcohol narrative, the Indian tale. and
the chapters concerning Evans's marriage to a "mulatta," Franklin Evans suggests that in
antebellum America, images and narratives of inebriates, Indians, and African-Americans
were connected. All three figures were symbols of disorder and opposition to national
progress. To remove them was the dream of those seeking to create a nation of quiet yet
mobilized citizens poised for progress. As Daniel Feller has argued, during the Jacksonian
era, "more than at any other time in our history, citizens believed in their ability to mold and
direct their own destiny and that of the world."24 This optimism, they felt, was justified
because of their liberty. These three figures- enslaved to drink, the past, and to the
condition of chattel came to symbolize for many what held America back. As one
preacher complained, "Every drunkard opposes the millennium; every dram-drinker stands
in the way of it, every dram-seller stands in the way of it."25
These figures, seen as obstructing progress, actually faced problems caused by
American "progress," particularly westward expansion, industrialization, urbanization, and
internal improvements in transportation. Westward expansion was supposed to guarantee
liberty and equality by keeping America free from the British urbanization and industrializa-
tion that exemplified class conflict for Thomas Jefferson and others. Jefferson had hoped
that with the completion of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 Americans would spread out
and pursue the traditional goal of agrarian and familial independence. He and others had
not foreseen, writes historian William Barney, that "the settlement of the West [would act]
24Feller, The Jacksonian Promise, xiii.
25Quoted in Feller, The Jacksonian Promise, 108.
as a catalyst for, not a deterrent against, urban and industrial development."26 By linking
East and West, the transportation revolution provided the labor and markets for the West to
produce large surpluses of foodstuffs for the East and for the East to produce large
surpluses of textiles and iron products for the West. The enlargement of domestic markets
helped make the Eastern port cities, such as the New York where Franklin Evans occurs,
the seedbeds of industrialization. This market revolution ushered in by Western expansion
and the transportation revolution created a number of problems for the nation. Indians"
native lands became increasingly desirable, and their occupation of them blocked plans for
"progress." With the addition of states and territories to the union, the U.S. was increas-
ingly torn by arguments over slavery, especially since the illegality of importing slaves
created a lucrative market for human chattel in the new territories. Finally, the market
revolution, in tandem with the transportation revolution, disrupted traditional drinking
patterns, making inebriation much more worrisome.27
26Barney, The Passage of the Republic, 11. While an average of 60,000 people a
year migrated to the West between 1820 and 1860, the percentage of Americans living in
urban areas (defined by the census as places with a population of 2,500 and over) tripled
from 7 to 20 percent in the same period. From 1810 to 1860, farm employment dropped
from 81 percent to 53 percent of the total work force, while manufacturing employment
increased from 3 percent to 14 percent (Barney 10). See also Sellers, The Market
271n Drink and Disorder, Dannenbaum notes that "most males drank well in excess
of four times as much hard liquor in the early nineteenth century as they do today" (3).
Yet, he goes on to claim, one cannot explain the antebellum worries over inebriation
through their high level of consumption alone. It had been nearly as high in the eighteenth
century, but few Americans expressed concern. Before, Euro-Americans had consumed
alcohol in communal settings. Four-fifths of all alcohol was consumed at home throughout
the day, and drunkenness was limited to seasonal festivals and holidays. The commercial
boom after the War of 1812 resulted in solitary toppers consuming more and harder liquor
in different settings, usually in the form of weekly payday binges in public saloons that
were largely unregulated. Because of the boom-and-bust cycles of the early-nineteenth
century, those who spent their paychecks on liquor or who lost their jobs because the new
work environment prohibited drinking on the job, were financially ruined, which frustrated
the creation of an acquisitive industrial-commercial society.
Like anti-alcohol tracts in general. Franklin Evans telescopes these social problems
onto inebriation. The novel opens with an anecdote of a farming family ruined not by these
socioeconomic changes, but by alcohol:
Ten years before, he had been a hale and hearty farmer: and with his children
growing up around him, all promised a life of enjoyment, and a competency for the
period of his own existence, and for starting his sons respectably in life. Unfortu-
nately, he fell into habits of intemperance. Season after season passed away; and
each one, as it came, found him a poorer man than that just before it. ... The truth
is, that habits of drunkenness in the head of a family, are like an evil influence- a
great dark cloud, overhanging all, and spreading its gloom around every department
of the business of that family, and poisoning their peace, at the same time that it
debars them from any chance of rising in the world. (41)
Evans the narrator goes on to say that because "all the old domestic enjoyment and content,
seemed fled for ever," the tavern keeper's sons had left him "to seek their living in a more
congenial sphere" (41-2). Whereas the market and transportation revolutions caused many
farms to fail and whereas the diminishing supply of Northeastern land sent many sons (and
daughters) to the cities to seek their livelihood, this anecdote blames the farmer's drinking
for ruining the farm and the domestic atmosphere that supposedly would have kept his
family successful, happy, and together.
Later, however, Franklin Evans draws attention to the socioeconomic contexts
missing from the anecdote of the tavern keeper. Evans portrays his own move to New
York City as the result of the changing fate of New England farming communities. Upon
losing his father, Evans is apprenticed to his uncle, a poor but charitable farmer. The
uncle, knowing he could not give Evans part of his farm since his own family is quite
large, waives the last two years of the apprenticeship to allow Evans either to attend school
or go to New York City. With "the anxious and ambitious heart of youth" (61), the
nineteen-year-old Evans decides to seek his fortune in the city. Evans's story is emblemat-
ic of many young men:
Thousands had gone before me [Evans saysI, and thousands were coming still.
Some had attained the envied honors- had reaped distinction- and won princely
estate; but how few were they, compared with the numbers of failures! How many
had entered on the race, as now I was entering, and in the course of years, faint.
tired, and sick at heart, had drawn themselves out aside from the track, seeking no
further bliss than to die. (61)
As the novel makes clear at this point, not drink, but the stresses faced by farming
communities and the pressures of competition in the big city played a significant role in the
"dissipation" of these young men.
Despite drawing attention to the effects of young men's drive for unlikely success,
the narrator goes on to offer hope:
To be sure, [Evans continues,J thousands have gone before me, in the struggle for
the envied things of existence, and failed. A stout heart, and an active arm, were
the great levers that might raise up fortune, even for the poor and unfriended
Franklin Evans. In our glorious republic, the road was open to all; and my chance,
at least, was as good as that of some of those who had began with no better
Like his namesake, who overcomes the odds in colonial Philadelphia, Evans believes a
young man's health- his "stout heart, and an active arm" can overcome the competi-
tion.28 This hope forgets the previous claim that competition itself can ruin the young
man's body, that it makes him "faint, tired,.. sick at heart" and suicidal.29 If Evans's
previous claim about competition ruining even young men had caused some readers to note
the injustice of "progress," here he tries to dissipate that anger by rehearsing the narrative
of Benjamin Franklin.
28See Franklin, The Autobiography.
29As Sellers notes in The Market Revolution, mostot of the prominent [antebellum]
families studied by historians, from business Tappans to clerical Beechers to presidential
Adamses, seem to have had one or more victims [of alcoholism]" (260). Henry Clay, Jr.,
for example, resorted to alcohol in order to keep his fears of being unsuccessful from
making him anti-social, a clear detriment to forging the connections that would allow one to
rise and to displaying the traits that would demonstrate a middle-class character (see Sellers
261). Told they are or should be simultaneously excessive ("so great," "so eager"), risk-
taking (or enterprising), and temperate (not excessive), individuals on the rise felt, and
continue to feel, the strain of balancing these contradictory demands in themselves, their
businesses, and their country, especially during hard times. "The great American whiskey
binge," Sellers concludes, "was fed primarily by the anxiety of self-making men" (260).
Franklin Evans shows how this pattern of arousing indignation only to use it to
motivate people to take up their positions in the emerging market was typical of reformers.
In narrating his experiences with alcohol, the narrator as temperance advocate parallels
Stephen Lee, the narrator of the Indian tale. Lee is a seemingly contradictory character who
both makes an appeal for the Indians and secures Evans's first two jobs, which were at the
center of the socioeconomic changes responsible for the Indians' decimation. Lee opens
his Indian tale by speaking "so fervently in behalf of the Indians," passionately criticizing
how Anglo-Americans have dispossessed "the hapless red men" of their native lands and
homes, particularly by introducing rum among them. The audience feels the justice of
his remarks" (45) and criticizes the ways Indians have been treated. But then Lee tells an
anecdote (the one about Chief Unrelenting) that portrays Indians as vanishing not through
the intemperance introduced to them by Anglo-Americans, but through their own perpetua-
tion of intemperate violence among themselves. After listening to the tale, Evans notes,
"there was silence among us; for the luckless death of the poor Indian boy seemed to cast a
gloom over our spirits, and indispose us for conversation" (56). By relating this anecdote,
Lee has shifted his own and his audience's attention away from the social and political
contexts of the decimation of New England Indian tribes and has quieted down the
conversation of an audience aroused by his previous outrage. Lee can therefore go on to
offer Evans jobs in legal clerking (for a lawyer who is also a bank officer) and in clerking
for a speculator (Lee himself).
The effects of the reforms the narrator and Lee preach, therefore, differ from the
goals they claim for themselves. Supposedly attempting to free inebriates, Indians, and
African-Americans from the enslavements that make them intemperate obstructions to the
nation's "progress" in "civilization," these reformers quiet down people's angered sense of
justice while motivating them for their assigned tasks in the emerging market order. By
seeing the Indian tale (along with Lee's preface to it) and Evans and Margaret's marriage as
peripheral to the novel's temperance narrative, literary critics risk forgetting the connections
between the inebriate, the Indian, and the (ex-)slave and, in effect, end up supporting a
New Temperance that also depends on a rhetoric of freeing those enslaved to illicit
behaviors and decontextualizing their narratives from those of others.30
Good as Gold
After the Panics of 1819 and 1837, many Americans who had championed the spirit
of improvement and enterprise began to take notice of the perils of unchecked development
and to assess blame. Recoiling when the spirit of enterprise produced rampant specula-
tion, excessive debt, and abuse of privilege, "speakers on all sides sought somehow to
capture the benefits of enterprise while avoiding its excesses. They wanted growth without
extravagance, energy without recklessness."31 For many Americans, the inebriate, the
Indian, and the (ex-)slave represented that intemperance, particularly the rash acts of
violence that occasionally erupted in response to boom and bust. In the Franklin Evans,
Indians, "mulattos," and women serve as figures for the violence caused by ambition.
Both Unrelenting and his unknown visitor seek revenge for wrongs done to their tribes.
Evans says Margaret had married him because of "[hjer ambition of rising above the low
level of her companions" (149). When Evans's affair with the widow threatens this
achievement, Margaret plots her rival's murder. The widow, too, is violently ambitious, as
she has "but one aim, the conquest of hearts" (147). But it was the bank and the paper
currency it circulated that people most targeted as the sources of commercial excess and
privilege. And while responses to hard times included both proposals to curtail banking
3oAs Warner reminds us, addictionin had been a legal term describing the
performative act of bondage before it became a metaphor to describe a person's self-
relation. Someone who is addicted to, say, Sabbath-breaking could be understood as
having developed a habit, bound himself to a custom" (Warner, "Whitman Drunk," 32).
3 Feller, The Jacksonian Promise, 44.
and plans to expand it, fear of the banks lingered as a potentially explosive sentiment.
Franklin Evans shows how Americans linked together inebriates, Indians, "mulattas," and
speculators as signs of the dangers of a nation-on-the-make.
The narrative portrays Evans's loss of employment, which begins his downward
career, as due to the drinking parties that had kept him from adopting the ambitious busy-
ness supposedly needed to respond to unexpected changes in the market. In this portrayal.
Franklin Evans follows other temperance tracts, which depicted a person's or a family's
hard times as due to alcohol consumption. But because the novel follows the Washingtoni-
an sympathy for seemingly irredeemable drunks, it connects worried responses to
inebriation to worries caused by the elite abusers of banking and credit. Like Indians and
alcohol, embezzlers such as Evans's first boss are equated with snakes. But while
embezzlers use the "wisdom of the serpent" to ruin others, the inebriate is the victim of the
serpent in the cup (81). Chapter Six, therefore, juxtaposes the rise of the embezzler, who
cannot be touched by the law, to the fall of Dennis, the man fired by Evans's first boss for
drinking and imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. Such a juxtaposition suggests that the
intemperance of the inebriate served as a scapegoat for the intemperances of those who
used and abused the banking system and the laws supporting it.
Franklin Evans goes even further in its criticism of enterprise and banking.
Typically, temperance tracts show how individuals who had achieved a comfortable or
even successful existence had lost it because of their drinking. Whitman's novel, however,
shows how Evans- now sober, employed, and newly married (to his first wife)- returns
to drinking because his ambition to own property results in failure. Evans's new boss
offers him the opportunity to purchase a vacant lot. "Straightway," Evans says, "visions
of independence and a home of my own, and the station of a man of property, floated
before my eyes" (97). Like his namesake, Benjamin Franklin, Evans takes advantage of
this opportunity to rise, but when his "means f[a]ll out," his easily worried creditors seize
his little property. The experience leaves him, like the drunkard after a binge, "half crazed"
(98). As a result, he returns to drinking, paying no attention to the needs of his wife, who
dies of starvation. Like bourgeois reformers in general, Evans blames drinking for his fall
from comfort. After his first wife's death, he comes upon Colby, who had introduced him
to drinking parties, and is ready to murder his former friend for causing his ruin. Yet the
ambitious use of credit, rather than alcohol, had been the serpent here. "[Albout a year
after our marriage," Evans had said,
the serpent came into our little Eden! Ambition- the poison that rankles in the
hearts of men, and scorches all peace, and blights the bloom of content- ambition
entered there. What is called low life, affords, perhaps, as much scope for this
intoxicating passion, as that sphere which called forth the ardor of Napoleon, or
which brings into play the mighty minds of statesmen. And petty as the objects
among the poor may seem, they are striven for as eagerly, and the chase after them
is attended with as many doubts, and as many fluctuations and fevers, as mark the
gaining of generalships or cabinet offices. (97)
Transforming the narrative of the alcoholic who loses his property, health, family, and wife
into a narrative of the downward career of the enterprising user of credit, Whitman's novel
portrays Franklinian enterprise as the "Great Master" (98) that enslaves and ruins the body,
both individual and national.
The story of Evans's unsuccessful enterprise showcases another problem with
ambition that temperance attempted to respond to: the ability of easy credit and paper
money to allow people to appear other than they "truly" are. The temptation of credit lures
Evans and his first wife away from their habit of staying true to their means, of "never
purchasing] until we saw the means of payment, and never promising] unless we had
made such arrangements that we felt pretty sure we could perform" (97). Such easy access
to credit led many commentators to complain that nobody knew whose character was
"truly" valuable. Again, Evans's narrative telescopes worries over fake successes and the
loss of trust in "true" selves onto the Indian, the (ex-)slave, and the inebriate. In Lee's
Indian tale, Unrelenting is fooled by a visitor pretending to be a friendly guest. In the
chapters narrating Evans's marriage, Margaret's plan involves her brother pretending to be
a friendly companion to the widow, Mrs. Conway. Mrs. Conway, whose name suggests
she too is a con-artist, keeps hidden her kinship to the overseer angered by Evans and
Margaret. One of Evans's drinking buddies pretends to be a business partner while
charging Evans for the cost of his drinks.
But Franklin Evans goes further than reproducing the Age of Brass's worries over
being able to identify fakes by suggesting that such acting can itself make true selves false
and false selves true. Confessing that he feigned passion for Mrs. Conway in order to
mortify his wife, the narrator says he came to find "the feeling I began by dissembling, I
after awhile really felt in truth. Like the actor who plays a part, I became warmed in the
delineation, and the very passion I feigned, came to imbue my soul with its genuine
characteristics" (148). The narrator links these kinds of transformations to both the gold
standard and inebriation: "My unsophisticated habits had worn away, but at the expense of
how much of the pure gold, which was bartered for dross" (114). Evans sees his initiation
into drinking as an exchange of his truly valuable or "pure gold" self for a self that is
"dross," trivial matter or an impurity. Having made a bad trade, Evans is now as worthless
as paper money. He sees himself as "a miserable object" (115), circulating "like a
rudderless boat" through the marketplace and standing "vacantly" before its activities (116).
Just as paper money was out of control, a vacant object signifying neither real wealth nor
real labor as it circulated through the marketplace, the inebriate moves about intemperately
and without value for a capitalism in which he can seemingly be neither producer nor
The portrayal of the inebriate as paper money neither signifying for nor contributing
anything to a market-oriented society implies that temperate citizens are as good as gold, a
standard unto themselves, possessing characters really worth something for both produc-
tion and consumption. If, however, the drunk is worthless in his circulation in a market-
oriented society, then he is spectacularly so, unable to fool people into thinking he is (or is
worth) something he is not. In popular representations, he is spectacularly friendly,
criminal, out of control, and lascivious, easily identified by employers or passers by. At
the same time, the inebriate is "truly" none of these things, as he is under the influence. As
Walter Benn Michaels has argued about gold and paper money,32 the inebriate undermines
while producing the real and the fake. For the inebriate, both the real and the fake only
exist somewhere else: the drunk's real (or fake) self is the sober man and the sober man's
real (or fake) self is the drunk. The narrative of his self, whether drunk or sober, is also its
other. Temperance may have tried to fix value in a temperate character,just as critics of
banknotes attempted to fix it in the gold standard, but the movement was ultimately left
with vacant terms requiring a steady supply of narratives attempting to freeze the dialectic
by delineating what one was, what happened, and what one is now. This is why the
inebriate needs to sign the temperance pledge and why the contemporary alcoholic needs to
be a life-long member of A.A.
The narrator of Franklin Evans offers such a narrative, but not a very clear one.
The inebriate seems to be worthlessly circulating through society, exchangeable with other
worthless or obsolete types, such as the Indian and the slave, and clearly separated from
the temperate, who is a standard unto himself. But Whitman's novel continuously makes
connections between the intemperate and the temperate. The sober Evans is intemperate in
his ambitious use of credit, the temperate Lee intemperately fires Evans, and the drunk is
more temperate in his assessment of his non-drunk relatives than they are of him. While
the narrator portrays his relation to his past, drunk self as one of progress and improve-
ment, the wording suggests that one intemperate behavior, drinking alcohol, is quickly
32See Michaels, The Gold Standard and the Logic ofNaturalism, 139-180.
Michaels's book is largely a discussion of the turn of the century, but his remarks about
gold on these pages also apply to earlier debates over the gold standard.
replaced by another intemperate behavior, daydreaming, which is spoken of as if it were
still another intemperate behavior, masturbation:
1 think there is even a kind of satisfaction in deliberately and calmly reviewing
actions that we feel were foolish or evil. It pleases us to know that we have the
learning of experience. The very contrast, perhaps, between what we are, and what
we were, is gratifying ....
... The formal narration of [such foolish acts], to be sure, is far from
agreeable to me- but in my own self-communion upon the subject, I find a species
ofentertainment. I was always fond of day-dreams- an innocent pleasure,
perhaps, if not allowed too much latitude. (165, emphasis mine)
Finally, if the intemperate is worthless "dross," then so too is the temperate. Once Evans
signs the teetotal pledge, he has nothing left to narrate because he has done nothing else.
He even describes himself as if he were dead, calling his life after signing the temperance
pledge "my after life" (180). Even when he sees his old friend Colby, "cutting up his
antics in the street," Evans hurries away. No longer does he desire to kill Colby for
introducing him to alcohol, but neither does he try to lead him to the nearest Washingtonian
meeting. Free of both intoxicating beverages and ambition, Evans has ceased to work in
the social sphere, has ceased therefore to live.
Like most Washingtonian narrators, then, Evans has little to say about what he is
like now. As David Reynolds and John Crowley report, antebellum critics often charged
the Washingtonians with being interested only in the salacious parts of their stories, as
evidenced by the little space they give to narrating sobriety.33 Similar criticisms have been
advanced by critics of A.A. narratives.34 But the antebellum connection between
intemperance and money offers another explanation. If. like gold, the temperate is the
standard of value, independent of other terms, then there is no gap, no room for mobility or
change, and thus no desire. The antebellum connection between intemperance and
33See Reynolds, "Black Cats and Delirium Tremens," and Crowley, Introduction.
34See O'Reilly, "'Bill's Story.'"
ambition, a connection also made by A. A., makes clear that the temperate man is one who
does not desire. Even the quest to reform other inebriates runs the risk of making the
temperate intemperate, and antebellum critics of reform often complained that reformers
were very intemperate about temperance.
Evans's vision of a completely temperate nation attempts to address this problem by
suggesting how the temperate could become mobilized for "'progress" while remaining
quiet. In Evans's dream, everyone has not only signed the temperance pledge, but also has
mobilized into an "Army of the Regenerated," many of whom now march in a procession:
First came a host of men in the prime of life, with healthy faces and stalwart forms,
and every appearance of vigor. They had many banners, which bore mottoes,
signifying that they had once been under the dominion of the Tempter, but were
now redeemed. Then I saw a myriad of youths, with blooming cheeks and bright
eyes, who followed in the track of those before, as in time they no doubt would
occupy their stations in the world. There were rich equipages, also, containing the
officers of the state, and persons of high rank. (168)
The procession represents Evans's optimistic narrative of free labor, with youths willingly
marching behind their elders because they know one day they will occupy stations in the
world. It also represents the end of class tensions, as the rich equipages containing
officers and persons of high rank pass peacefully along, unhindered by those who must
walk or watch. All are mobilized for "progress," but without intemperate ambitions, as
they accept their current positions, believing that in due time they will advance. Evans's
vision suggests that by making the nation completely teetotal, which in turn will create
citizens content with their positions in the march of progress, the U.S. can achieve its
status as "a mighty and populous empire" (166). No longer would bourgeois New
Yorkers, such as George Templeton Strong, fear that "we shall have a revolution here."35
Yet there is something outside of this compact body, and that is Franklin Evans
himself. In his dream, Evans comes upon this scene unaware of what it all means. While
35Quoted in Sellers, The Market Revolution, 355.
everyone else is where he or she is supposed to be, Evans wanders around. Since he has
this dream before signing the teetotal pledge, he is actually the unknown last unregenerate.
Like the inebriate, the Indian, and the "mulatta"/slave, the Evans in the dream is seemingly
peripheral to this nation-on-the-make. Yet as the conclusion's call-to-arms makes clear, a
nation defined as on-the-make because of liberty needs some form of slavery to exist in
order to have something to mobilize against, even if that mobilization will be directed to
other purposes. As the unknown last unregenerate, Evans serves that function, and the
temperance speech and parade are, in effect, addressed to him.
Evans's status as wanderer in his dream shows how the fantasy of a nation-on-the-
make composed of mobilized yet quieted citizens, each in his or her proper position, never
achieves its accomplished form. At the utopian moment when the country claims to have
converted "The last vassal of the Tempter" (167) and to have formed everyone into an
"Army of the Regenerated" poised for "progress," Franklin Evans points to the existence of
one last "unregenerate," the sign of something that necessarily remains outside of but
necessary to an ideological field, such as the nation-on-the-make. The last unregenerate is
heterogeneous to this field and at the same time necessary for that field to achieve its
closure through mobilization against intemperance. In his discussion of the social
symptom, Zizek argues that the only way to break the power of ideology is to confront the
impossible which announces itself in our ideological system. To do this, Zizek argues, we
must look for those ideological figures we use to stitch up the inconsistency of our own
ideological system and adopt a subjective position which finally accepts contradiction as an
internal condition of every identity. Evans confronts the impossible while under the
guidance of his drinking buddies, Colby and Mitchell.
At first glance, Colby and Mitchell seem to represent the urban corruptors who.
according to Karen Halttunen, were stock villains in the antebellum advice manuals:
The seducer- whether rake or pimp, gambler or thief- begins his assault on the
innocent youth by winning his confidence through an offer of friendship and
entertainment. In the classic antebellum tale of seduction, he then leads the youth
into a gorgeous theater- the seducer's natural habitat, for he himself is a skilled
actor. He takes him to a fashionable club where he coaxes his prey into accepting
his fatal first drink and gradually draws him into a card game. Finally, he lures his
victim to a brothel where, if the theater and the alcohol and the gambling have failed
to win him to a life of vice, illicit sexuality succeeds. The youth's character has
been destroyed. step by fatal step, because he has been tricked into offering his
confidence to a man without principle, a man whose art it is to deceive others
through false appearances.36
Colby introduces Evans to drinking clubs and gorgeous theaters. Unlike antebellum advice
manuals, however, Franklin Evans does not portray Colby as a destroyer of the rural
youth's character. Not only does the novel frustrate such a conclusion by showing how
Evans blames Colby when he should blame the ambitious use of easy credit for making
him return to the bottle, it also shows how Evans's drinking buddies teach him how to
maneuver through the new urban environment where people may not be what they appear.
After imbibing at a drinking parlor, Evans, Colby, and Mitchell attend the theater. Here,
Evans announces his attraction to a beautiful actress and to a young gentleman of perfect
dress and manners. Mitchell first takes Colby and Evans to a restaurant, where they are
served by a waiter who turns out to be the young gentleman. Mitchell then brings Evans
backstage and introduces him to the beautiful actress, who sits at a table "eating some
cheese and thick bread, and drinking at intervals from a dingy pewter mug, filled with beer.
She was coarse- her eyes had that sickly bleared appearance ...; her complexion was an
oily brown, now quite mottled with paint, and her feet and ankles were encased in thick ill-
blacked shoes" (74).IAfter these revelations, Mitchell and Colby do not tease the country
youth about being taken in by surface appearances. Rather, they let Evans draw what
36Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women, 2.
lessons he will, and he concludes that "[t]he occurrences of the night. .. taught me to
question the reality of many things I afterward saw" (75).
According to Halttunen, the 1840s witnessed a decline in the sentimental ideal of
sincerity, and people were beginning to accept more avowedly theatrical cultural forms of
middle-class expression. Earlier, the sentimental ideal had resulted in a contradiction: one
proved one's sincerity by enacting certain cultural forms. The contradiction had resulted in
anxiety over hypocrisy, which people addressed by increasing the number of formalized
sincere social forms and rituals. Starting in the 1840s, people in the middle class were
breaking this cycle by placing more faith in the cultural forms of genteel society than in
sincerity. Those who belonged to the middle-class were those who followed its detailed
rules with meticulous care while in public. The middle-class granted privacy backstage so
people could prepare for their roles in polite society. Mitchell and Colby, however, bring
Evans backstage, and by doing so, they keep him from investing in either the sentimental
ideal of sincerity or the worldly acceptance of theatricality. Instead, he learns irreverence
for that which claims the status of "reality."
Antebellum temperance movements also addressed the contradiction in the
sentimental ideal of sincerity. The sincere character did not take a drop of alcohol. But the
increasing influence of the teetotal pledge suggested that even those with characters that are
foundationally "false" or flawed could become acceptable if they enacted the proper cultural
forms in public. The Washingtonians most famously adopted this strategy: one could be
as good as gold if one adopted the behavior of a Washington or a Franklin. Such
enactments, however, did not go unchallenged. Even though some commentators, such as
Abraham Lincoln, championed the Washingtonians for their sincere feelings, others
charged Washingtonian orators, such as John Gough, with drinking on the sly.
Furthermore, critics accused the Washingtonians, with their insistence on being teetotal, of
being intemperate in their temperance. And the elite American Temperance Society (ATS)
condemned the Washingtonians' forms of entertainment. As historian lan Tyrrell informs
us, "What these reformers found especially objectionable in Washingtonian amusements
was a too-close association between temperance and the low life of the grog shop."38
The Washingtonians, then, came to symbolize the inability to rid the nation of
intemperance. Franklin Evans itself has become identified with this failure, charged with
being an excessive text, one that includes an Indian tale and chapters narrating a marriage to
a "mulatta" in order to increase its sensationalist appeal. Yet these parts of the novel are
closely linked by a rhetoric of intemperance to the parts narrating the inebriate's downward
career. Such connections point to how the Indian, the "mulatta," the speculator, and the
inebriate represented for many Americans that which (or those who) must be removed from
a nation-on-the-make poised for "progress." By showing how, even in dreams of a
completely regenerated and mobilized nation, one unregenerate must remain to mobilize
against, the novel points to how these figures serve as that which is heterogeneous to an
ideological field but necessary to it for its accomplished form. Mitchell and Colby point to
these failures of closure, not by identifying figures who are at fault, but by going
backstage, that private realm the middle-class allowed itself to prepare for their roles in
polite society. Mitchell and Colby, then, teach Evans to be skeptical of "reality," of an
ideological field that captivates us with a utopian vision of a complete and ordered society.
37See Lincoln, "Address to the Washingtonian Temperance Society of Springfield,
Illinois ." On charges against Gough and other Washingtonians, see Reynolds,
Beneath the American Renaissance, 54-91.
38Tyrrell, Sobering Up, 195-6.
Evans's visit to the gorgeous theater with Colby and Mitchell, then, suggests an
alternative to temperance organizations, such as the Washingtonians and, later, A.A.
Instead of bringing people together in order to convert through experience narratives their
"false" selves into the pure gold molded on the founding fathers' characters, why not bring
them together to experiment with other ways of living with the radical inability of the
ideological field ever to achieve its accomplished form? Franklin Evans suggests the need
for such work precisely at those moments it is most criticized for being excessive and
sensation-mongering. The temperance narrative attempts to trap us into believing in the
alchemical conversion of "false" selves into "true" selves that will allow the U.S. to
recognize its identity as a nation-on-the-make poised for "progress." By connecting the
narrative of the inebriate's downward career to such sensationalistic stories as the vengeful
Indian and the tragic "mulatta," Franklin Evans draws attention to the fictionality of all
these narratives and their interchangeability as social symptoms.39 There is no "true" value
upon which to fix the dialectic play between "true" and "false" selves, in-control or out-of-
control subjects, except the necessary impossible element in the social order. George
Washington and Benjamin Franklin, just like the vengeful Indian and the tragic "mulatta"
(from James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans), are fictional narratives
producing images of characters to be either copied or repudiated. The question, then,
should not be "Who can tell how many Franklins may be among you?" but rather "How
many stories and styles of producing stories can we generate as strategic responses to the
failure of the social order ever to achieve closure?"
39See Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans. For another response to Cooper, which
also appeared in 1842, see Child's "The Quadroons."
ALL ABOARD: CORPORATE LIBERALISM
VERSUS COFFIN-ING IN MOBY-DICK
[F]ar as any geologist has yet gone down into the world, it is found to consist of
nothing but surface stratified on surface. To its axis, the world being nothing but
superinduced superficies. By vast pains we mine into the pyramid; by horrible
gropings we come to the central room; with joy we espy the sarcophagus: but we
lift the lid- and no body is there!- appallingly vacant as vast is the soul of a man!
-Herman Melville, Pierre1
Reform and the Liberal Tradition
Historian Steven Mintz has characterized the U.S. reliance on reform, especially its
antebellum variety, as part of America's laudable liberal tradition. "In the American
context," he writes, "liberal reformers have been those people who believed in universal
moral standards, who sought to remove arbitrary barriers that stifled individual responsibil-
ity and fulfillment, and who refused to acquiesce to social injustices in the name of laissez-
faire economics and the free market."2 Most reformers were liberals. They sought "to
broaden individual rights, foster the fulfillment or salvation of the individual, and eradicate
those institutions and customs that obstructed individual self-determination and improve-
ment."3 While admitting that these liberal reformers were overly optimistic about their
ability to solve social ills and were often blind to their own paternalism and biases, Mintz
I Melville, Pierre, 284-85.
2Mintz, Moralists andModernizers, 154-155.
3Mintz, Moralists andModernizers, 155.
nevertheless concludes that the liberal tradition should guide our approach to solving
present-day social problems.
Christopher Newfield draws a different conclusion about America's liberal
tradition. For him, antebellum optimism, paternalism, and biases are basic to liberalism
and its undermining of liberation and equality. He argues that in attempting to address the
apparently competing claims of the individual and society, American liberalism has
privileged the center and moderation and ignored trans-liberal Left thought to the detriment
of the country's social and cultural development. In Newfield's account, middle-class
reformers have created a sense of balance that "rendered both freedom and democracy
secondary to large doses of submission to preestablished and unequal conditions.'
Newfield would agree with Mintz that these reformers championed individualism,
but would argue that this individualism is corporate rather than democratic. Both corporate
and democratic individualism reject freedom defined as self-containment. But democratic
individualism stresses public sovereignty, while corporate individualism champions "the
enhancement of freedom through the loss of both private and public control."5 Democratic
individualism requires equality- an equality of power between those who make the laws
and those whom the laws govern and an equality that defines freedom as participation in a
variety of collective and explicitly political activities. Corporate individualism, on the other
hand, rejects equality by defining freedom as submission to unmodifiable law, a submis-
sion that eliminates the need for explicitly political collective activities.
Newfield describes the corporate individualism upon which the liberal tradition
depends as the Emerson Effect. His account stars Ralph Waldo Emerson as the principal
architect of this tradition. Readers have long celebrated Emerson and transcendentalism for
4Newfield, The Emerson Effect, 2.
5Newfield, The Emerson Effect, 5.
reconciling personal freedom and otherness, a radical individualism and a social self
prepared to recognize others as part of itself. Newfield, however, finds neither radical
individualism nor collective democracy in Emerson's writings. Instead, he finds a three-
step process in which Emerson (1) summons the reader to rely on what he or she knows
from within, (2) defines this self-trust as accepting one's place in his or her age, and (3)
locates the source of insight beyond one's contemporaries in "transcendent destiny."'
Through this process, defiance and obedience- obedience to a higher authority that cannot
be remade- become the same thing. Rather than a democratic individualist, Emerson is a
liberal authoritarian. Emerson, Newfield concludes, has profoundly influenced "liberal-
ism's balance of individualism and democracy [to such an extent that it] may frequently
depend on an unstated submission to flexible but unchangeable higher law. This is the
authoritarian moment in the liberal imagination- submission to the right law makes
For a long time, Emerson's readers have avoided this authoritarianism by claiming
his individualism is democratic because one freely consents to submit. Yet antebellum
middle-class Americans were not so sure. As Newfield notes, their obsession with the
varieties of group life suggests a need to find new syntheses of free self and unifying law
and new forms of individuality "in a social modernity driven by the forces of the party, the
mass, the racialized community, the statistical aggregate, and the managed organization."8
The antebellum era was both the age of the individual and the age of associations, and
while the business corporation, which became distinct after 1850, has become the dominant
6The phrase is from Emerson's "Self-Reliance," quoted in Newfield, The Emerson
7Newfield, The Emerson Effect, 34.
8Newfield, The Emerson Effect, 67.
form of association in the U.S., one can look back to this era for other. recuperable
Herman Melville's Mobv-Dick offers a particularly sustained engagement with the
very problems antebellum associations attempted to mediate. Questions of to whom one
submits when one consents to be a member of an association and of the conditions under
which such a submission occurs loom large in this novel about a sailor who signs on to a
dangerous and poorly paying whaling voyage, where men are massed together under the
authoritarian rule of a captain rumoured to be mad. Emerson mediates the conflict between
America's competing demands for self-sovereignty and group unity by imagining selves
whose surface differences can be dismissed because of an underlying, unchangeable unity
to which they submit. Emerson, then, imagines a cure to the social symptom by putting
everyone in his or her proper place. In contrast, Moby-Dick mediates this same conflict by
doubting Emerson's underlying universal and portraying the appeal to the "little lower
layer" as a trap set by authoritarianism.9 Mobvy-Dick contradicts Emerson's optimism
about arriving at a founding Truth by portraying such completion as that which is forever
barred to human beings. Yet the novel also recognizes our desire for this completion, and
how to deal with this desire is central to Ishmael's quest. The ethics of Moby-Dick can
offer a useful response to an America where corporate individualism attempts to make us
feel that the loss of both private autonomy and public sovereignty feels OK and where
liberals and reformers celebrate the loss of control to the forces shaping modem economies.
This ethics, which I call "coffin-ing," urges us to abandon our reliance on inner-selves and
unmodifiable law (Nature, Truth, forces, etc.)- so often portrayed in antebellum America
as archeological digs through the Egyptian pyramids- in order to engage constantly in
9Melville, Moby-Dick, 143. In the future, references to this text will be cited
internally by page number alone.
remaking the present in such a way that reminds others about that from which we are
The first chapter of Moby-Dick, "Loomings," challenges the transcendentalist belief
that selves are grounded in a deep, universal foundation that is the hidden or lost meaning
of life or Nature. Particularly, this chapter takes issue with the transcendentalist and
Renaissance belief that surfaces foreshadow the deep universal, that "buried similitudes
must be indicated on the surface of things."10 In his essay on Goethe, Emerson claims.
"The air is full of sounds; the sky, of tokens; the ground is all memorands and signatures,
and every object covered over with hints which speak to the intelligent."' 1 The great poet
possesses such intelligence, and it is his job to articulate a poetic self that is radically
individualistic (or intelligent) because it has submitted to being sublimely led by the deep
universal. While attempting to articulate a poetic self or narrator for this text, "Loomings"
portrays Emerson's way of reading as a trap that makes us submissive and offers
opportunities for readers to see Emersonian expectations of deep meaning as outlandish.
Despite giving us the particulars of his situation- having little or no money and
nothing to interest him ashore, needing to purge and regulate his body, and wanting to
knock off other men's hats- Ishmael insists his draw toward the sea is "almost" universal.
"If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly
the same feelings toward the ocean with me." (12). Like any good transcendentalist,
Ishmael suggests that beneath the surface differences among people, there exists a hidden,
I OFoucault, The Order of Things, 26.
I 'Emerson, The Complete Works, 4:261.
spiritual sameness.12 Indeed, the first lines of the novel dismiss the importance of surface
differences. The narrator refuses to make himself equal to the name Ishmael and to give his
movement toward the sea a precise date. Even the particulars he lists afterwards are so
numerous, sketchy, and uninteresting- frankly, he just seems broke and bored- as to
suggest these too do not matter to one who knows how to penetrate surfaces and arrive at
the truth. Like Emerson, Ishmael presents himself as such a person, in contrast to those
("If they but knew it") who move about not knowing what they really want.
But if Ishmael is a transcendentalist, then he is a rather uncertain one. His
declaration of the truth is full of doubt: not "all men," but "almost all"; not "all the time,"
but "some time or other"; not "the exact same feeling," but "very nearly the same" and "in
their own degree." With all of these qualifications, are we tapping the truth or only
noticing another layer of surface differences? We leave the first paragraph uncertain both
of who Ishmael is and whether we are like him in wanting to go to sea.
Emerson demanded both freedom of self-constitution and obedience to an
unchangeable law. Facing these contradictory demands, the narrator presents in the first
paragraph a self that falls apart not because it is only a surface under which lies the true and
universal trans-self, but because doubts haunt the hunt for a deep universal. The attempt to
meet Emerson's dual demands is repeated over the next five paragraphs, suggesting a
dogged determination to make transcendentalism work. Again surface differences are
ignored in favor of a deep universal. People may be clerks or robust healthy boys;
landsmen from the north, east, south, or west; poor poets or romantic landscape painters-
they all are drawn to the sea. Yet doubt again creeps in:
Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries- stand that
man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if
water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American
I2See Irwin, American Hieroglyphics, 3-20.
desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysi-
cal professor. (13, emphasis mine)
Ishmael qualifies his claim that all are drawn to water by requiring a specific type of
person, a "metaphysical professor," in order to make the experiment work. His "if"
undermines the claim to universality, again suggesting the narrator's utterances are haunted
by doubts about a universal depth.
The jaunty claim for using a professor as a water-detector may be read as an attempt
to cover over that doubt. But the claim's outlandishness may also suggest the outlandish-
ness of all articulations of a deep universal. Indeed, if we see the "metaphysical professor"
as Emerson himself and recognize the narrator's transcendental drag, then we can note both
the outlandishness of the promise to satisfy our thirst for a self founded deeply and the trick
of leading us on with such a promise as a wild-goose chase. If we have missed that
opportunity, we run the risk of reading the next paragraph, in which example after example
cascades down, as an argument building to Ishmael's insistence that "Surely all this is not
without meaning" (14). Yet the narrator presents us with another opportunity to see what
he is doing. Questions, not statements, predominate in this paragraph, suggesting at least
some doubt, and the berating tone points to how insistence on hidden meaning attempt to
marshall us along.
But what if this is all without meaning? What if Ishmael has only constructed
another false surface? The conclusion to the fifth paragraph suggests exactly this
And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not
grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was
drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the
image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all. (14)
Ishmael calls upon us to penetrate beneath the not-quite-universal trait of seagazing to what
Ahab will call in "The Quarter-Deck" the "little lower layer" (143) Alright, Ishmael seems
to say, we may not share the universal trait of seagazing, but we all do stare at ourselves in
reflective surfaces. Less obviously than Ahab, Ishmael announces he is leading us through
layers to depth and draws our attention to the consequences of being so led: like Narcis-
sus, we become fixated and drown.
The reference to the Narcissus myth suggests what one sees in water is a surface
image of the self. When we attempt to grasp this image, we assume that there is substance
to it, that there is some sort of inner matter that fills it out, makes it graspable. By
portraying the image of the self as "ungraspable," Ishmael implies that we are being lured
in and captured by our expectation for deep, founded, meaningful selves. He begins to
problematize our expectation by refusing to call the image we see in reflective surfaces our
selves. Instead, he calls it the "phantom of life," emphasizing its lack of substance.
"[LJife" can be read here as the account of how one has lived. Writing such an
account, as Ishmael is setting out to do in this text, demands that one suture together
disparate acts by giving the reasons for those acts: Why did I consent to go to sea, to
submit to that ship's style of association? The phrase "phantom of life" culminates the
looming doubts about the ability to answer this question by suggesting that an explanation
cannot be sutured together and that the failure results in a haunting impossible to compre-
hend fully. Outlandish suturings may be funny, but they can also turn scary, as what could
not be sutured haunts Emersonian corporate individuals, making us as paranoid as Ahab.
When we read these hauntings as deep, universal meaning, instead of reading them as the
results of our own Renaissance and transcendental expectations, we are tricked into
sublimely drowning in submission.
Finding that his dismissals of surface differences in favor of a deep universal have
repeatedly failed to found anything but a very doubtful poetic self, Ishmael now gives us
more particulars about himself and uses his own reasons for these particulars to tap into the
deep universal. In explaining why, even though he is "something of a salt," he does not go
to sea as anything but a "simple sailor," Ishmael says:
For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of
every kind whatsoever. It is quite as much as I can do to take care of myself.
without taking care of ships, barques, brigs, schooners, and what not. And as for
going as cook, ... I never fancied broiling fowls;- though once broiled,
judiciously buttered, and judgmatically salted and peppered, there is no one who
will speak more respectfully, not to say reverentially, of a broiled fowl than I will.
It is out of the idolatrous doting of the old Egyptians upon broiled ibis and roasted
river horse, that you see the mummies of those creatures in their huge bake-houses
the pyramids. (14)
At first, Ishmael claims his particular choice is based on his own fancy. But this fancy
finds a precedent among the ancient Egyptians, a group antebellum Americans saw as
having been in closer contact with the meaning of life and Nature.13 Thus this particular
turns out to be a signature for the deep universal. As with the example of the water-
detector professor, however, Ishmael's explanation should make us pause. The reader
looking for a poetic self grounded in deep universals will hardly be satisfied by this
portrayal of the great pyramids and curious mummies as representing Egyptians' respect
for salted and broiled meat. Instead, that reader finds his expectation mocked and
portrayed as outlandish. Furthermore, this articulation of the deep universal seems to
reflect individual fancy rather than the other way around. Again, we peer into reflective
surfaces only to find phantoms of our frustrated expectations.
Stranger still, Ishmael defines himself as a "salt" only to go on to talk about the
salted fowls served on the ship, which he relates to the presumably salted mummies in their
pyramids. Ishmael voices some real concerns here: that "simple sailors" become "salts" as
they are consumed by others, such as the ship's officers and owners, but more particularly,
by a public that looked upon sailors as bearers of the wonders of the world, much like the
mummies that were being rapidly consumed by both American and European publics. The
link between the sailor and the mummy reveals a danger in Ishmael constructing a poetic
self for such a public. Narrators like as Ishmael were expected to offer themselves as both
13See Irwin, American Hieroglyphics. 3-10.
exotic curiosities and bearers of secrets about death, the afterlife, and the mystical unity of
Nature.14 In the passage from Pierre cited as an epigraph to this essay, Melville most
clearly doubts our ability to find these secrets. There, he expresses the fear that beneath all
the surface wrappings lies nothing, not even a body that could be related to a former self.
The mummy reference in "Loomings" also doubts our ability to find meaning in exotic
curiosities. But more than that, the outlandish claim offered here mocks our archeological
searches and Orientalist assumptions: pyramids symbolize bake houses and mummies.
Ishmael continues to move from his particulars to his reasons for those particulars
to a concluding deep universal. His utterances of a universal continue to be outlandish, as
they appeal to a universal thump, "orchard thieves" (15), second-hand air, and flatulence.
This jaunty tone ends when he tries to explain why he choose a whaling voyage rather than
a merchant one. At first, he defers the explanation to the Fates and Providence. But then,
again as a good-but-doubting transcendentalist, he claims to be able to see "a little lower
[Tihough I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circum-
stances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly
presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the
part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from
my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment. (16)
The mummy passages in Pierre and "Loomings" had suggested that all those entombments
and wrappings trick us into excavating pyramids. Here, the tricking reappears. Not only
do the Fates "cunningly present[ ]" "springs and motives" under "various disguises" in
14Sanbom describes the audience demands Melville faced after the success of
Typee (The Sign of the Cannibal, 119-122). Dimock also discusses Melville's hostile
relationship to an audience that preferred Typee to Mardi. Dimock argues that Melville
imagined "a transcendent realm," "an island of immunity" where he could be "self-
contained and self-sufficient" (Empire for Liberr'y, 110). I would argue that in
"Loomings," Melville links this audience's expectations to transcendentalism and then
mocks both in order to imagine a very different relationship to the self, others, and meaning
order to get Ishmael to do what they want him to do, but they even "cajollel" him into
believing he himself decided to do these things "from [his] own unbiased freewill and
discriminating judgment." As the "phantom of life" passage suggested, Emerson has
turned paranoid here, a conversion anticipating Ahab. The deep universal not only leaves
its signature all over nature, allowing intelligent transcendentalists to discover and submit to
the truth from which we all have been removed, but it also plays confidence games.
Ishmael continues on, undermining the one assumption we might still feel safe
making: he went to see the whale and therefore titles this book Mobv-Dick. No, Ishmael
says, the whale was only part of the con-game, one of the various disguises used to spring
him into a whaling voyage.
Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself.
Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity. Then the wild
and distant seas where he rolled his island bulk; the undeliverable, nameless perils
of the whale; these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights
and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish ....
By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great
flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed
me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless
processions of the whale, and, midmost of them all, one grand hooded phantom,
like a snow hill in the air. (16. emphasis mine)
The paranoid transcendentalist claims to have been tricked by the very expectations readers
of sea tales were placing upon their authors, the expectation that one will come in contact
with the wonders of the world, including the possibility of violent death. He was lured
onto a whaling voyage by the image of "the great flood-gates of the wonder-world"
swinging open and whales floating into his "inmost soul," the wording of which suggests
he had believed the whale would put his deepest self in contact with (again, so the
Orientalist logic goes) the primal, ancient meaning of the world. As he shows in "Ex-
tracts," whales have long functioned in such images.
After mocking transcendental expectations of deep meaning and an Orientalist
public's consumption of sailors as revealers of the world's wonders, Ishmael (like Ahab)
becomes a paranoid transcendentalist. This transformation suggests Emerson's deep
universal tricks us into doing certain actions by presenting "conceits" or fanciful images.
Yet a question remains: How can Ishmael be sure that at this moment he is seeing "a little
into the springs and motives" presented to him "under various disguises"? Given that such
disguises induce one to perform parts and cajole one into believing one is acting on one's
"own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment," how can he know he is not being
deceived again, being tricked into thinking that he is seeing "a little lower layer"?
But by calling the conceit of the whale a "phantom," the closing words of
"Loomings" returns us to Narcissus and the "image of the ungraspable phantom of life" he
saw in the water. Narcissus' phantom resulted from the inability to suture the account of
life that people expect from deep selves. Likewise, Ishmael's phantom results from the
expectation that sailors come into contact with the wonders of the world, the images of the
meaning of life and Nature that was known to the ancient Egyptians but is now buried deep
in our selves and the natural world. Ishmael may blame the manipulative Fates, but he has
also shifted his emphasis to surface images and how they capture us when we see them as
foreshadowing the knowledge we are alienated from and as promising to completely satisfy
us. By this point, Ishmael has emptied Emerson's deep universal of any meaning besides
its role in getting us to chase it, an alluring phantom without substance produced by the
failure to suture together a life for a deep self.
We can now understand Ishmael's jauntiness, which will continue throughout the
narration. Ishmael has been reflecting back to us our (and his earlier) expectations in a
mocking way. We should not be surprised by this, given the belligerence of the first two
sentences, where he refuses to make himself equal to his name and dismisses our need to
know precise dates. He has mocked our expectations to death, leaving phantoms that will
haunt our and the younger Ishmael's hunts for deep meaning. But neither we nor the
younger Ishmael will be haunted to death. Both Ahab and Ishmael are haunted by a "grand
hooded phantom" that results from Renaissance, transcendental, and Orientalist expecta-
tions. But Ishmael does not seek to annihilate this phantom; instead, he seeks a relation-
ship with it. "Not ignoring what is good, [the younger Ishmael was] quick to perceive a
horror, and could still be social with it" (16). The remainder of his narration will show
both just how difficult it is to be social with this phantom and what style of association
holds out the most promise for avoiding Emerson's (and Ahab's) sublime drowning in
submission to a higher power. "Loomings" anticipates the answer. The older Ishmael of
"Loomings" has made his narrative of his self and life into the reflective surface that
trapped Narcissus, but he has also reflected back our expectations with such jauntiness and
outlandishness that we have had opportunities to see as outlandish the expectations which
trap and drown us. This, I will argue, is the strategy of coffin-ing, used by Peter Coffin
and Queequeg, which saved the younger Ishmael from going down with Ahab's paranoid-
Traps and Quilts
"Loomings" has offered readers opportunities to see their transcendentalist
expectations as outlandish. Selves are not grounded in a universal law to which they
should submit and be (sublimely) led. Instead, people are moved by various conceits or
fanciful ideas, which are nothing more than outlandish expectations. Indeed, the image of
the deep self is such a conceit, leading us into archeological digs to uncover the buried or
lost meaning of life and Nature only to discover the surfaces dismissed as irrelevant or
secondary are all there is. Such an argument suggests that when we read surfaces as
foreshadowings, we become trapped into submitting to unmodifiable law, a submission we
may see as sublime (Emerson) or paranoid (Ahab). The remainder of Mobv-Dick explores
how Ishmael comes to avoid these traps and to work differently with surfaces.
"The Carpet-Bag" portrays Ishmael as a paranoid transcendentalist reading signs as
foreshadowings. He avoids the first two inns- "The Crossed Harpoons" and "The
Sword-Fish"- because of their surfaces. This way of reading leads him to search the
town archaeologically through "blocks of blackness ... and here and there a candle, like a
candle moving about in a tomb" (18). Upon knocking over an ash-box at the third
building, Ishmael concludes he is entering the destroyed city of Gomorrah. In a paranoid-
transcendentalist fashion, he concludes something is leading him into a trap: "But 'The
Crossed Harpoons.' and 'The Sword-Fish?'- this, then, must needs be the sign of 'The
Trap.' However, I picked myself up and hearing a loud voice within, pushed on and
opened a second, interior door" (18). Even though he imagines a sequence of images
leading him into a trap, Ishmael nevertheless goes inside and thus submits to being led.
Ishmael finds there a "negro" congregation wailing in response to a fire-and-
brimstone sermon, which would urge submission to an unmodifiable law. Because this
form of submission is not presented in liberal form, he leaves. In "The Pulpit," however,
he stays for Father Mapple's fire-and-brimstone sermon about Jonah and the whale. At the
same stage of life as Ahab, Father Mapple represents the alternative the "mad" captain did
not take: a retirement from whaling and a liberal submission to unmodifiable law. With all
his maritime props and "truly sailor-like but still reverential" staging (42), Father Mapple in
effect attempts to train outgoing sailors in liberal submission, which would help ensure the
success of the corporate whaling venture. Ishmael finds the liberal submission presented
here appealing because, unlike the negro church where submission is spectacularly
portrayed as torture, Father Mapple portrays submission as replenishing, as "the meat and
the wine of the word" (43). Father Mapple, Ishmael concludes, withdraws from worldly
ties so he can better submit to unmodifiable law. Ishmael's transcendental expectations
make him a captive audience for the sermon preaching submission to being led. Looking at
the pulpit, which is shaped like the front of a ship, Ishmael asks himself, "What could be
more full of meaning?- for the pulpit is ever this earth's foremost part: all the rest comes
in its rear; the pulpit leads the world" (43-4). Father Mapple's message is double: submit
to your punishment (like Jonah) and preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood (like Mapple
himself). This is also the dual message of Emerson: submission and radical individualism.
Upon entering The Spouter Inn, Ishmael repeats Jonah's entry into the whale,
which was his spouting inn. According to Father Mapple, Jonah learned while in the
whale to obey God and disobey himself. Jonah learned liberal submission. Unlike the
congregation at the negro church, Jonah "Idid] not weep and wail for direct deliverance";
instead, he "[left] all his deliverance to God, ... not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for
punishment" (49). Ishmael enters his "whale" with paranoid-transcendentalist expectation,
but comes to different conclusions about signs than Jonah did. As with "Loomings," an
older Ishmael steps forth to present before the action the relationship to signs that he has
developed. Inside The Spouter Inn is a strange painting, which over the years, Ishmael has
worked at understanding. Unlike the younger Ishmael who imagines a hidden universal
beneath a surface that contains foreshadowing signatures, the older Ishmael sees the central
element of this painting as part of the surface. After putting forth several interpretations,
Ishmael states. "at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the
picture's midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain" (20). With the help of
others, he creates a meaning for this something. Unlike Jonah (and Emerson), he does not
submit himself to being led by this something, but rather makes his role in creating its
meaning foremost. He arrives at a theory of his own, "partly based upon the aggregated
opinions of many aged persons with whom [he has] conversed upon the subject" (20).
The rest of "The Spouter Inn" will show how the innkeeper, Peter Coffin, mocked
the "green" Ishmael's paranoid-transcendentalist expectations. In response to Ishmael's
paranoid questions about when his unknown bedmate will return, Coffin says he must be
out peddling his head. Thinking that Coffin is telling him a "'bamboozing story,'" Ishmael
concentrates on whether this piece of information is true or false and thus misses how the
landlord plays upon words in order to mock the young man's greenness:
"That's precisely it," said the landlord. "and I told him he couldn't sell it
here, the market's overstocked."
"With what?" shouted 1.
"With heads to be sure; ain't there too many heads in the world?"
"I tell you what it is, landlord," said I, quite calmly, "you'd better stop
spinning that yarn to me- I'm not green."
"May be not," taking out a stick and whittling a toothpick, "but I rather
[sic] guess you'll be done brown if that ere harpooneer [sic] hears you a slanderin'
"I'll break it for him," said 1, now flying into a passion again at this
unaccountable farrago of the landlord's.
"It's broke already," said he.
"Broke," said I- "broke, do you mean?"
"Sartain, and that's the very reason he can't sell it, I guess." (25-6)
After Ishmael gives a long sermon about the intimate connection shared with a bedmate,
Coffin ends the joke, telling the young whaleman the harpooner is selling embalmed heads
from New Zealand, which are great "'curios'" in England and America. Still a paranoid
transcendentalist, worried only about being led along, Ishmael concludes Coffin had no
intention of fooling him. Because Ishmael misses the lesson here, that one needs to "'be
easy'" (26), as Coffin tells him, and engage in play instead of trying to determine whether
one is being conned, the green whaleman falls for Coffin's next gag.
As Geoffrey Sanborn has argued, in the 1820s and '30s, "white" men were
engaged in the business of selling embalmed heads as curios to other "whites." 5 Even the
green Ishmael knows this and therefore concludes the harpooner must be a "white" man.
After meeting Queequeg, Ishmael demands to know why Coffin did not tell him his
bedmate would be a "cannibal." Since Queequeg is engaged in the cannibalizing trade of
selling body parts, Coffin can rightly say, "'I thought ye know'd it;- didn't I tell ye, he
was a peddlin' heads around town?'" (31). This punchline is funny because of the
different ways Ishmael and Coffin use the word cannibal. Coffin uses it to refer to
15Sanborn, The Sign of the Cannibal, 130-133.
Queequeg's business practices while Ishmael uses it to refer to his skin color. I
"Loomings" has offered readers opportunities to see their transcendentalist expectations as
outlandish by mocking the belief that selves are grounded in a universal law to which
people should submit and be (sublimely) led. Instead. "Loomings" shows how people are
moved by various conceits or fanciful ideas, which are nothing more than outlandish
expectations. Similarly. Coffin's gag depends on and mocks Ishmael's racist expectations,
as the young whaleman is less bothered by cannibalizing business practices than by
racialized skin. Ishmael can dismiss Queequeg's tattooing by arguing, "It's only his
outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin," but after observing more and more signs
corresponding to a racialized skin, Ishmael becomes increasingly afraid of the "abominable
savage" (29). When that skin is racialized as "non-white," then for Ishmael it begins to
signify the quality of the person "inside," just as signatures in nature reveal the deep
universal meaning of Nature. Struck dumb by his fear, Ishmael lies silently in bed, which
brings about Queequeg's threat and Ishmael singing out for Coffin. Coffin's gag has
mocked Ishmael's expectations and his reliance on expectations about the inside versus the
outside of a human being, enough so that the young whaleman decides Queequeg is neither
16See also Sanborn, The Sign of the Cannibal, 133-34. Sanborn's emphasis on
Coffin's gag is slightly different than mine. He argues, "By dramatizing the personal and
social fixation on the sign of the cannibal, Melville allows us to see that the word cannibal
names a fantasy object against which self and society are defined. In Ishmael's panicked
reaction, we witness the 'greenness' of those whose curious gaze stops too short," one that
stops before realizing that the "whites" engaged in selling body parts as curios are cannibals
and that, if one is comfortable with this, one should not be alarmed when one meets a
"non-white" person engaged in the same kind of practice (133). Samuel Otter claims that
Ishmael alters his evaluations of the "abominable savage" once Queequeg extinguishes the
light and begins to feel him. See Otter, Melville's Anatomies, 160-61. Otter's claim,
however, fails to recognize that Ishmael calls for Coffin and asks him why he had not told
him "'that that infernal harpooner was a cannibal'" after Queequeg had felt him in the dark
(Melville, Moby-Dick, 31). It is not touch detached from light and sight that alters
Ishmael's opinion, but the exchange with Coffin. For a critique of critics' privileging of
feeling in Moby-Dick, see Sanborn, The Sign of the Cannibal, 135-39. For Sanborn,
"touch operates in Moby-Dick more as the rhetorical negation of the ethics of the spectacle
[of the cannibal] than as a separate ethic in itself" (138).
abominable nor savage and that it is bettertr to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken
Christian" (31). This use of the word "cannibal" shows Ishmael now uses it to refer to
practices (here, religious practices) rather than racialized skin.
Coffin's gag offers an example of the practice I am calling coffin-ing. That Ishmael
has at least temporarily learned from Coffin's gag is evident the next morning. Ishmael
wakes to find his bedmate's arm lovingly thrown over him. He equates the tattooing on
Queequeg's arm with the patchwork of the quilt. Taking words and signs to have only one
translatable meaning, the green whaleman had read, in paranoid-transcendentalist style, the
surface differences of Queequeg's arm as foreshadowing an inner meaning. In "The
Counterpane," however, he not only recognizes the multiple meanings of words and signs,
but also plays and creates new meanings with them, now that he is not looking for a deep,
Queequeg's arm looks like the counterpane, and it allows Ishmael to counter pain,
the pain he still feels over the memory of his stepmother isolating him from the family as
punishment for imitating a chimneysweep. This punishment, along with the stepmother's
tendency to whip him and send him to bed supperless, seems traumatic because it is the
type of corporeal punishment often criticized in the antebellum era. 17 But more significant
is the action for which Ishmael is punished. Unlike Narcissus (and, later, Ahab), who falls
into the water in an attempt to unite with the phantom self produced by his own expecta-
tions, young Ishmael climbs up a chimney in imitation of a chimneysweep he had seen
earlier. Young Ishmael is attempting to move from a narcissistic relationship of one to an
identificatory relationship of two, a goal suggested by the comment that this event
happened a little before two o'clock in the afternoon. That he is punished on "the 21st
June" suggests the problem with the form of punishment: it sends him back from a 2-
17See Brodhead, "Sparing the Rod."
person to a 1-person relationship (32, emphasis mine). Upon waking in the middle of the
night, young Ishmael confronts the result of his frustrated expectations of gaining a self
through imitating another: a phantom whose hand he finds in his own. Just as Narcissus
was captivated by the "image of the ungraspable phantom of life." young Ishmael is
"frozen" by the phantom next to his bed (33). Attempting to grasp the ungraspable, the
deep meaning held by the phantom. Narcissus loses himself and dies. Similarly, Ishmael
had "lost himselff in confounding attempts to explain the mystery" of that night, a mystery
he has ever since tried to solve.
In New Bedford, Ishmael finds himself in a new bed, one in which he can bring
himself to connect to what is beside him. Ishmael now re-creates the traumatic scene.
Instead of a hand connected to a silent form, there is Queequeg's arm, which "affection-
atelly]" embraces Ishmael (32), creating an atmosphere in which Ishmael can free
associate, recreate meanings, and attempt to make a connection. Afraid to communicate
with the phantom because earlier attempts at connections were rebuffed, the child Ishmael
had become "frozen." Queequeg's arm, the design of which parallels the connections of
patchwork, offers the connection and the counter to pain that the child Ishmael was looking
for that night. Now, Ishmael "lay only alive to the comical predicament" of Queequeg's
"bridegroom clasp" and successfully connects with the form attached to that arm when he
attempts to rouse his bedmate (33). In "The Counterpane," then, Ishmael benefits from
Coffin's gag and makes his first move towards leaving behind Narcissus's relation to
phantoms and Emerson's transcendental hunts for deep meaning in favor of (re)creating
meaning in the present by playing with words and signs.
The change in Ishmael is registered a few chapters later in the reversal of looking:
"phantoms gathering round the casements, and peering in upon us silent, solitary twain"
(53). This oxymoronic description ("solitary twain") shows how Ishmael and Queequeg
have become like the counterpane, individual squares connected together in a "solitary
twain" patchwork. This relationship is not humanistic, for Queequeg is an image. He is a
quilting together of signs of "racial others": the tomahawk-pipe of Native American tribes,
the tattooing of Typeean Polynesians, the Ramadan of Moslems, and the embalmed heads
of New Zealand Maoris. He represents both republican character, "George Washington
cannibalistically developed," and philosophical isolation, the "calm collectedness of
simplicity [which] seems a Socratic wisdom" (53). A quilt is potentially limitless, and
Ishmael takes that potential seriously, seeing Queequeg as "sublime": "All this struck me
as mighty singular; yet, upon second thoughts, there was something almost sublime in it"
(52). For Ishmael, Queequeg is not an exotic curio, something "singular" that can be easily
consumed, but "sublime" in his limitless solitary twainness. This representation attempts
to work against colonialist discourse. Ishmael contrasts his opinion of Queequeg's
sublimity with his earlier opinion of him as being like most savages. "But savages are
strange beings," he had said; "at times you do not know exactly how to take them. At first
they are overawing" (52). The "at times" and "[alt first" in this earlier remark portrayed the
savage as mysterious, but ultimately graspable. Now, Ishmael accepts his inability to
grasp Queequeg and instead portrays him as a potentially limitless work of Ishmael's (and
America's) expectations patched together.
Ishmael moves away from Narcissus, Emerson, and Ahab by changing his strategy
from one of penetrating mysterious images in order to grasp the phantom of life to one of
potentially never-concluded playing and creating with images to which one is "solitary
twain." The self, then, is not a layered entity in which surfaces are important only in terms
of signatures that indicate a deep universal truth; instead, the self is quilted to the images it
helps create- indeed, it itself is such an image. Nor is the self moved by fanciful images
or conceits this deep universal truth presents; instead, the self moves by creating and
recreating the images to which it is already "solitary twain." Neither submissive nor
radically individualistic, the self is always part of a potentially democratic group.
But something remains unsutured in the image from "A Bosom Friend" the
phantoms sitting outside watching. Joining with an other seems to have broken the fixation
of Narcissus; the couple can sit silently and contentedly. But Ishmael is still being haunted
by phantoms. Those phantoms have been pushed outside the household and marriage.
This bifurcation will reappear in the character of Starbuck. Like Ishmael, Starbuck suffers
from loss: he has lost both a father and a brother to whales. His idealized images of wife,
child, and home have "embalmed [him] with inner health and strength, like a revivified
Egyptian"- an image suggesting the monstrousness of this attempt to create some living
thing where nothing should be and suggesting Starbuck's binarisms are the product of
Emersonian archeological hunts (105). Yet Starbuck's bifurcation has also left him
incredibly superstitious: "lolutward portents and inward presentiments were his" (105).
Split in this way, Starbuck is incapable of dealing with Ahab, and thus submits to being led
by Ahab because outward forces seem to prescribe for the crew an unchangeable fate.
Because phantoms still haunt the scene of "solitary twaininess]," Ishmael is left
with much work to do. He will re-encounter images of what he still needs to deal with, but
this time, qualities of himself appear externally. as if the quilt of the self has been rent into
individual squares of fanciful images such as Starbuck (the bifurcation of "A Bosom
Friend"), Ahab (the paranoid transcendentalist), and Bulkington (the "deep, earnest
think[erj ), all of which are elements of the Emersonian transcendentalism that
supported corporate individualism.
The Personality and the "Personified Impersonal"
Ahab makes visible what is going on in the new association of the corporation. For
the first few days of the Pequod's voyage, the power structure is similar to the corporation:
the board of trustees is absent, the captain is hidden away, and the mates seem to be
carrying out the orders of "their supreme lord and dictator" (109). The authoritarianism of
the ship's power structure is hidden by this hierarchy. Having heard predictions about
Ahab, Ishmael is anxious about seeing him:
But whatever it was of apprehensiveness or uneasiness- to call it so- which I
felt, yet whenever I came to look about me in the ship, it seemed against all
warranty to cherish such emotions.... (t was especially the aspect of the three
chief officers of the ship, the mates, which was most forcibly calculated to allay
these colorless misgivings, and induce confidence and cheerfulness in every
presentment of the voyage. (109)
Like Father Mapple's submission to God's punishments and the Truth, the mates' liberal
submission, their cheerfulness and heroicness while "being under a troubled master-eye"
(109), makes authority feel OK. Under universal submission, equality ceases to matter.
Ahab too is under the rule of his "one unsleeping, ever-pacing thought" (140),
which "completely possesses] him" (141). So commanded by this thought is he that he is
frequently described as if he were the atmosphere, moved by the forces of Nature: "He
looked not unlike the weather horizon when a storm is coming up" (141). Ahab's
submission to this one thought and how that submission helps him control the corporation
becomes clear in his appeal to Starbuck in "The Quarter-Deck." With little difficulty, Ahab
has pepped up his team to hunt the white whale. Starbuck attempts to undermine this pep
talk, first by claiming it was not the infamous Moby Dick that took off Ahab's leg and
second by pointing out that the hunt is contrary to the capitalistic goals of the corporation.
Ahab appeals to the "little lower layer" in order to sway Starbuck to his wish. The captain
first claims the death of Moby Dick will be profitable to one's inner self. Starbuck is
unmoved and calls Ahab blasphemous for seeking revenge against a dumb brute, one who
was only being a good corporate individual, following unmodifiable law in striking back at
Ahab again appeals to the "little lower layer" by portraying that unmodifiable law as
his real antagonist:
"All visible objects, man. are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event- in the
living act, the undoubted deed- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing
puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man
will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by
thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to
Seeing himself as captive to this power, Ahab wants not only to penetrate beneath surfaces
in order to make contact with unmodifiable law, but also wants to get revenge upon it. He
rejects Starbuck's portrayal of this act as blasphemous, arguing that turn-about is fair play.
Here, Ahab has clearly not learned Father Mapple's first lesson: submit like Jonah to this
power by accepting its punishment. Yet, he has learned the second lesson: "To preach the
Truth to the face of Falsehood!" Therefore, he again changes the direction of his response
to Starbuck and says, "'But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me?
Truth hath no confines'" (144). In subordinating humanist standards of fair play to Truth,
Ahab equates Truth both with the unmodifiable transcendental law (it has "no confines")
and with Ahab himself ("me"). Ahab has merged with the transcendental law, and in
Emersonian fashion, is both a defiant radical individual rejecting all laws not his own and a
subordinate to unmodifiable law. Ahab, therefore, has no confines, except Truth, to which
he is equal. The captain has fully adopted Emerson's dual lessons: one should be a
radical, defiant individual, who rejects all laws not consonant with one's deepest self, and
one should submit to one's deepest self which is nothing but the voice of unmodifiable
That Ahab's appeal is both liberal and corporatist becomes clear when he makes his
fourth and final appeal to "' Ithe crew, man, the crew!'": "'Stand up amid the general
hurricane, thy one tost sapling cannot, Starbuck'" (144). This works, and Starbuck gives
in. The last appeal reveals how the appeal to the "little lower layer" is related to the
corporation: both require one to submit to unmodifiable law. Unable to convince Starbuck
that Ahab's law is consonant with his first mate's deepest self, Ahab reveals what is
ultimately at stake here: the protection of the corporation's structure, regardless of whether
it is mobilized for capitalistic or the inner soul's profit. Because Starbuck splits the world
into inner peace and outer portents of evil, he is unable to address how the very structure of
the corporation, and not the workings of Fate. needs to be challenged.
Yet. there is a problem with Ahab's appeals. Ahab has portrayed transcendental
Truth both as the force moving the whale, which he defies, and as the supreme law to
which he will so submit that he becomes identical to it. Later, Ahab will say the "right
worship is defiance" (416). That claim is anticipated here and the context of the corpora-
tion in "The Quarter-Deck" help us to understand it. Corporation requires charismatic
personalities who appear to be true leaders worthy of following. Yet it also requires that
everyone, including those leaders, submit to unmodifiable law. Even those in charge of the
corporation (the board of trustees, the president, etc.) must submit to the larger body of
shareholders, who in turn have no agency in the corporation except the purchase of stock.
The leader is subordinate, yet must appear to be charismatic. This contradiction is resolved
by Emerson in the Representative Man, who makes subordination defiant and makes
radical individualism passive. Ahab takes the philosopher at his word and makes his
subordination spectacularly defiant and his defiance spectacularly subordinate. Thus in
"The Candles," Ahab says:
"thou clear spirit of clear fire ... thy right worship is defiance.... I own thy
speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute
its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified
impersonal, a personality stands here.... [W]hile I earthly live, the queenly
personality lives in me, and feels her royal rights." (416-17)
This conceit explains how Ahab can be both consonant with unmodifiable law and in
defiance of it. The "queenly personality" here mediates Ahab's seemingly contradictory
equation of defiance and subordination. The queen is defiant in demanding her "royal
rights," presumably from the king who can "launchest navies" and who is the personifica-
tion of that country's impersonal law. Yet by limiting her demands to "royal rights," she
subordinates herself to the impersonal law, one that makes a queen subordinate to a king.
Here, the right worship of the king is this defiance, a defiance that pays homage to the
impersonal law that demands one's subordination to the king who personifies it.
Yet, by demanding her "royal rights," the queen does remind the king of his place:
even he is subordinate to something else, the law he must personify. Therefore, Ahab
reminds the power to which he speaks,
"Thou knowest not how came ye, hence callest thyself unbegotten; certainly
knowest not thy beginning, hence callest thyself unbegun. I know that of me,
which thou knowest not of thyself, oh, thou omnipotent. There is some
unsuffusing thing beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all thy eternity is but
time, all thy creativeness mechanical. Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched
eyes do dimly see it .... [T]hou too hast thy incommunicable riddle, thy
unparticipated grief." (417)
Ahab mocks the power he addresses as "'thou omnipotent'" by calling it a bastard. But
more than that, he reminds that power it is different yet equal to Ahab. Its power is greater,
but so is its puzzle, a puzzle similar to Ahab's: who is over me or is there naught
Ahab's spectacularly subordinating defiance and his spectacularly defiant subordi-
nation in "The Candles" works in the same way as liberal corporatism: questions of
equality are moot when all are subordinate to an "incommunicable" something. Ahab's
performance of a personality works here as it does for the captain of a corporation. The
crew is ready to raise a "half mutinous cry," yet instead of following Ahab's lesson of
worshipping by defying, they abandon their defiance and settle for trying to avoid being hit
by the pieces:
As in the hurricane that sweeps the plain, men fly the neighborhood of some lone,
gigantic elm, whose very height and strength but render it so much the more
unsafe, because so much the more a mark for thunderbolts; so at those last words
of Ahab's many of the mariners did run from him in a terror of dismay. (418)
1 For a discussion of the gender politics of "The Candles," see Leverenz, Manhood
andthe American Renaissance, 279-306, especially 292-93.
Ahab's performance of a "queenly personality" demanding her"royal rights" has returned
the crew to subordinating itself to the unmodifiable impersonal law personified by the
Zeus-like power Ahab addresses, the law he claims makes "your oaths to hunt the White
Whale ... as binding as mine'" (418). By creating an analogy between his relationship to
the Zeus-power and the crew's relationship to him, Ahab makes his crew afraid of
challenging authority in the way he does: only a great (or crazy) man defies and even that
defiance is worship: the rest just get out of the way and dare not disturb the fiery captain of
the corporation, who is busy with more important matters. Representative Men. men who
are great in their representativeness and representative in their greatness, keep the
corporation together by mediating the contradictory American demands for radical
individualism and group unity.
In "Moby Dick," Ishmael notes that he was among the loudest of Ahab's supporters
during the quarter-deck speech. "A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me;
Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine" (155). Like Father Mapple, Ahab holds a certain
attraction for Ishmael. The captain is one of those conceits or fanciful ideas that move
Ishmael, and therefore, Ishmael must work through that conceit in order to remake his
relationship to structures of power. The chapter "Moby Dick" shows the similarity
between Ishmael and the Ahab of "The Candles," suggesting Ishmael's attempt to
understand is similar to Ahab's attempt to avenge. Just as Ahab presented the power he
addressed as ruled by something the captain can only dimly see, Ishmael presents Ahab as
a "deep m[a]n" whose "Egyptian chest" contains a "hidden self" in which his "full lunacy
S.. deepeningly contracted" despite surface appearances of calm (160-61). Ahab's conceit
leads him on a hunt in which he both defies and subordinates himself to the power he
addresses. The conceit of Ahab having an "Egyptian chest" full of secrets leads Ishmael on
This is much: yet Ahab's larger, darker, deeper part remains unhinted. But vain to
popularize profundities, and all truth is profound. Winding far down from within
the very heart of this spiked Hotel de Cluny where we here stand- however grand
and wonderful, now quit it:- and take your way, ye nobler, sadder souls, to those
vast Roman halls of Thermes; where far beneath the fantastic towers of man's
upper earth, his root of grandeur, his whole awful essence sits in bearded state; an
antique buried beneath antiquities, and throned on torsoes! So with a broken
throne, the great gods mock that captive king; so like a Caryatid, he patient sits,
upholding on his frozen brow the piled entablatures of ages. Wind ye down there,
ye prouder, sadder souls! question that proud, sad king! A family likeness! aye,
he did beget ye, ye young exiled royalties; and from your grim sire only will the old
State-secret come. (161)
Like Ahab's "queenly" conceit, Ishmael's conceit here is straight Emersonianism: truth has
become buried and mocked over the ages, but still remains the unmodifiable law, the only
giver of the State-secret; young would-be poets must seek out and listen to this truth and
not that of the more recent "great gods." This state of affairs is encapsulated in the image
of Ahab as a "deep mla]n," one whose surface traits are attributed by most to his casualty at
sea, an attribution that covers over the "little lower layer" of the hidden truth that moves
him. Ishmael confesses that, while he knew there was a deeper reason, it required one "to
dive deeper than Ishmael can go" (162); therefore, he "gave himselff up to the abandon-
ment of the time and the place" (163). The conceit of the "deep m[a]n" with the hidden
"little lower layer" has gotten Ishmael to submit to the corporation.
"A Dumb Blankness, Full of Meaning"
In "The Try-Works," Ishmael disengages from Ahab's feud, and during the final
days of the chase, he revises Pip's role as castaway. To understand how Ishmael makes
these moves, it is necessary to look at what about Ahab and Ahab's quenchless feud
captured Ishmael. The conceit of the "deep m[a]n" with the hidden "little lower layer" gets
Ishmael to submit to the corporation. But why is a "little lower layer" so appealing? Why
is Ahab's relation to the mysteries of life more captivating than those of the knights and
squires? At the end of "Loomings," Ishmael confessed that the conceit that moved him to
take a whaling voyage was the fanciful image of the whale, particularly the white whale,
swimming into his soul. This passage addresses both of the above questions. Ishmael has
a problem with the color white because it signifies the "ungraspable phantom of life." He
hopes to solve this problem by going on a whaling voyage because he imagines himself
being able to fully grasp the white whale, an understanding symbolized by whales
swimming into his "little lower layer," his "inmost soul." The ship's mates fail to offer
Ishmael a way to deal with his doubts because each seems so naive in his inability to doubt.
Ishmael finds a kindred spirit in Ahab, who also attempts to grasp the white whale in order
to avoid doubts about phantoms.
The models offered by the three mates appear naive to the already-doubting
Ishmael. Stubb's happy-go-lucky approach to his work, "taking perils as they c[ojme with
an indifferent air; ... toiling away, calm and collected," may be appropriate to "a
journeyman joiner engaged for the year" (105), but not to the sailor engaged in the
dangerous business of whaling for a much longer period of time. A journeyman joiner
moves from one place of employment to another with little attachment to it or to the man in
charge. The whaleman is closer to the emerging corporation man, whose loyalty to his
place of employment is captured for years by a personality. Indeed, the very thing that
keeps Stubb so easy-going, smoking his pipe, was fast becoming a leisure activity
relegated to non-work time. Flask is likewise easy going, so that "a three years' voyage
round Cape Horn was only a jolly joke that lasted that length of time" (106). Starbuck, as
the ideal citizen of the republic, avoids doubts about the presence of nothingness through a
brave sobriety, one anchored to land-lubber domesticity. Yet outside of that domestic
space, Starbuck sees doom written everywhere. For him, the world outside the home is
full of easy-to-read portentous signs. In this respect, he differs little from Ahab. But
unlike Ahab, who offers Ishmael a model for quenching doubt by promising to grasp the
ungraspable, Starbuck offers the republican model the narrator already mournfully doubts:
And brave as he might be, it was that sort of bravery ... while generally abiding
firm in the conflict with seas, or winds, or whales, or any of the ordinary irrational
horrors of the world, yet cannot withstand those more terrific, because spiritual
terrors, which sometimes menace you from the concentrating brow of an enraged
and mighty man. (104)
However, the world to which the soberly brave republican is anchored is not purely good.
The women writers most often associated with idealizing the home space were also, as
Nina Baym observes, presenting homelife "overwhelmingly, as unhappy. There are very
few intact families in this literature .. and those that are intact are unstable or locked into
routines of misery."'9 Ishmael has already shown how such settings are haunted by
In "The Whiteness of the Whale," Ishmael describes people's relationship to white
objects in a way that parallels liberalism's relation to the corporation: people both
subordinate themselves to "the object of trembling reverence and awe" (165) and defyingly
hunt this loathsome object that "repels and shocks" (166). This is Ahab's relationship to
the power behind the white whale, the relationship that reimagines Emerson's dual
command to be both a defiant radical individual and a subordinate to transcendental law: if
one imagines transcendental law to be Power, then the right worship is defiance. Here,
Ishmael accepts Ahab's view of the hidden something as "the demonism in the world"
But Ishmael cannot ignore his doubts as easily as the Ahab who dismisses his
thought that "'there's naught beyond'" the "'unreasoning mask'" (144). Ahab dismisses
the whale's surface while Ishmael sees that surface as containing signatures revealing the
hidden truth. For Ishmael, the intelligent person knows how to dismiss the other surface
19Baym, Woman's Fiction, 27. Sailors would have been familiar with such
reading material. Merton M. Sealts Jr. shows that the books on board the whaleship
Charles and Henry, where Melville served in 1842, were predominantly sentimental
(Melville's Reading, 66). He also argues Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple is among
the reading material favored by Redbum's shipmates (Melville's Reading, 49).
colors as "deceits" and see in whiteness the signature indicating the foundation of meaning
(170). The whiteness of the whale is "a dumb blankness, full of meaning" (169). The
meaning he sees here is a significant nothingness, signified by other oxymorons. such as
"the visible absence of color" and "the concrete of all colors," a "shadowlingj forth lof] the
heartless voids and immensities of the universe" (169). Having read "Loomings," the
reader should see Ishmael's finding of an absence that is substantive as only the result of
attempts to read something below the colorful surface of "all deified Nature" (170). The
reader should question such ways of reading, whether that variation is Emerson's, Ahab's,
or "the wretched infidel [who] gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that
wraps all the prospects around him" (170).
At this early point in the voyage, however, Ishmael's conclusion leads to sympathy
with Ahab: "And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at
the fiery hunt?" (170), whether the hunt is an attempt to grasp through revenge or through
understanding. Ahab's way captivates Ishmael because it offers the model of someone
who has recognized and decided to do battle with that whiteness because he believes there
is something there or rather because he can put aside his doubts that there is nothing there
and continue to hunt as if there were. This is the comfortable relation to ideology that
Slavoj Zizek describes as "they know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion,
but they are doing it."20 People do this because the illusion is not in the realm of knowl-
edge but in our effective relationship to reality, in our way of doing things:
Ideology is not a dreamlike illusion that we build to escape insupportable reality; in
its basic dimension it is a fantasy-construction which serves as a support for our
'reality' itself: an 'illusion' which structures our effective, real social relations and
thereby masks some insupportable, real, impossible kernel conceptualizedd by
Emesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe as 'antagonism: a traumatic social division
which cannot be symbolized). The function of ideology is not to offer us a point of
2OZizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 33.
escape from our reality but to offer us the social reality itself as an escape from
some traumatic, real kernel.21
Ahab's model offers Ishmael the hunt, which keeps the sailor effectively related to reality
structured as corporate individualism despite doubts that reality is only a deceit hiding a
Queequeg offers another model, one that is different both from Ahab's and from the
quilting in "The Counterpane." In the early chapters of Moby-Dick. Ishmael's interaction
with Queequeg had resulted in the conclusion that the self moves by creating and recreating
the images to which it is already "solitary twain." Neither submissive nor radically
individualistic, the self is always part of a potentially democratic group. The Queequeg of
the early chapters drops out of the middle of the book because that fanciful image may have
allowed Ishmael to finally respond to the problem of the phantom hand, but not to the
phantom whale. At sea, the problem with the optimism of being solitary twain is
intensified because that something outside of those images which one remakes and by
which one is remade, that something that cannot be quilted, so often announces its presence
in the form of spectacular accidents, misfortunes, and other workings of what one calls
"Fate." In "The Monkey-Rope," one of the few sea-chapters where Queequeg appears,
Ishmael discovers how the model of "solitary twain" fails to work. During "the tumultuous
business of cutting-in" (270), Ishmael finds himself tethered to Queequeg, who is hanging
over the side of the ship, standing on the whale's corpse, and attaching the rope that pulls
off the blubber.22 Ishmael perceives that his "own individuality was now merged in a joint
stock company of two: that [his] free will had received a mortal wound; and that another's
mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent [him] into unmerited disaster and death"
2 lZizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 45.
22The Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick illustrates this process on 517.
(271). No matter how well he handles his part of the rope. the pair can be killed at any
moment, not only by the other's mistake, but also by "misfortune." something outside of
and unrelated to what either handler is doing. Ishmael goes on to see this as the condition
of all mortals.
The misfortune recognized in "The Monkey-Rope" is also present in the discussion
of rumors in whaling life found in an earlier chapter, "Moby Dick." Here, Ishmael relates
the rumors sperm-whale fishermen tell to account for "the surprising terrible events" in this
branch of maritime life (156). Even among the sailors who are willing to hunt the deadly
sperm whale, there are those who point to the immortal powers of Moby Dick to explain
strange occurrences that cannot otherwise be explained. The sperm whale fishery is full of
disastrous encounters between man and whale that seem something more than what a dumb
brute is capable of: "those repeated disastrous repulses, all accumulate] and pile] their
terrors upon Moby Dick" (156). Having made the White Whale the repository of the
inability to explain "surprising terrible events," sailors construct "unearthly conceit[s]"
about Moby Dick (158): that the creature is ubiquitous, immortal, not for mortals to hunt.
The goal of these projections and conceits (or rumors) is wholeness, a completely sutured
quilt of images that allows the sailors to grasp their experiences. Yet, Moby Dick is
ungraspable, surviving attempts to grasp it through either revenge or understanding; after
all, the whale survives.
This is because each conceit leaves something outside that remains. This situation
fascinates Melville. In "Hawthorne and His Mosses" (1850), he writes, in "spite of all the
Indian-summer sunlight on the hither side of Hawthorne's soul, the other side- like the
dark half of the physical sphere- is shrouded in a blackness, ten times black. But this
darkness but gives more effect to the evermoving dawn, that forever advances through it,
and circumnavigates his world."23 Here he suggests that one moves through this world by
creating conceits, but the illumination thrown by these conceits onto our experiences of the
world is always haunted by a remainder or shadow, "the blackness of darkness beyond."24
The great writer (Hawthorne, Shakespeare) is aware of this and of our desire to overcome
this condition. In "The Sperm Whale's Head- A Contrasted View." Ishmael imagines the
ability to overcome this remainder. The whale's eyes are positioned on the sides of its
head. Therefore, it "must see one distinct picture on this side, and another distinct picture
on that side; while all between must be profound darkness and nothingness to him" (279).
Yet, Ishmael fancifully imagines the whale overcoming this blind spot:
i It is quite impossible for la human], attentively, and completely, to examine any
two things ... at one and the same instant of time .. But if you now come to
separate these two objects, and surround each by a circle of profound darkness [as
the whale's eyes do]; then, in order to see one of them, in such a manner as to bring
your mind to bear on it, the other will be utterly excluded from your contemporary
consciousness. How is it, then, with the whale? True, both his eyes, in them-
selves, must simultaneously act; but is his brain so much more comprehensive,
combining, and subtle than man's, that he can at the same moment of time
attentively examine two distinct prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in
an exactly opposite direction? If he can, then is it as marvelous a thing in him, as if
a man were able simultaneously to go through the demonstrations of two distinct
problems in Euclid. (279-80)
Ishmael imagines the whale accomplishing the ungraspable ideal he arrived at in the early
chapters: the ability to quilt together images of the world so that they are "solitary twain."
Human's cannot do this, but perhaps the whale can. This "marvelous" state is what
Ishmael, like all of us, desires. But we find this state as unattainable as doing two
Euclidian proofs at the same time.
If Melville were the Hawthorne of "Hawthorne and His Mosses," he would stop at
showing how a character like Ahab. Dr. Rappaccini, or Aylmer goes to extraordinary
23Melville, "Hawthorne and His Mosses," 540.
24Melville, "Hawthorne and His Mosses," 541.
lengths to avoid recognizing the inability to incorporate that "blackness of darkness." Or he
would make Ishmael a Hawthorne (or a Young Goodman Brown or a Reverend Hooper)
who "does not give us a ray of his light for every shade of his dark."'25 Instead. Melville
shows how Ishmael recognizes both the "blackness of darkness" and the importance of
rays of light. Moby-Dick, therefore, offers an ethics, one that affirms the importance of
producing conceits or fanciful images, but also reminds us that any conceit necessarily
leaves something out, something shrouded in darkness.
Two examples will suffice to show how Ishmael counters the Ahabian quest to
grasp the ungraspable by producing fanciful images. In the midst of describing the rumors
about and the awesome size of the white whale in "Moby Dick," Ishmael offers the
The rest of his body was so streaked, and spotted, and marbled with the same
shrouded hue, that, in the end, he had gained his distinctive appellation of the White
Whale; a name, indeed, literally justified by his vivid aspect, when seen gliding at
high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all
spangled with golden gleamings. (159)
This image reminds us that, like our imaginations, the light of high noon may illuminate
certain aspects of the world with "golden gleamings," but in so doing, it also relegates
other parts to "the blackness of darkness," in this case the "dark blue sea." Our imagina-
tions (or the light of high noon) also produce the vividlyly" white object. The image of a
pure white whale is the conceit of the fullness that always eludes us. Yet this object is a
product of our imaginations, as Moby Dick is not unrelieved whiteness, but "streaked, and
spotted, and marbled." Here, Ishmael constructs a different conceit, one that reminds us
that light always comes with dark- and vice versa. We see the difference between this
2SMelville tentatively voices this criticism of Hawthorne, whose "blackness of
darkness" might be "too largely developed in him" ("Hawthorne and His Mosses," 541).
The Hawthorne characters referred to in the previous two sentences appear in the following
tales: Dr. Rappaccini in "Dr. Rappaccini's Daughter," Aylmer in "The Birthmark," Young
Goodman Brown in "Young Goodman Brown," and Reverend Hooper in "The Minister's
Black Veil." See Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales.
ethics and Ahab's when Ishmael tries to portray the world as his captain saw it that day
Moby Dick took off his leg:
Judge, then, to what pitches of inflamed, distracted fury the minds of his more
desperate hunters were impelled, when amid the chips of chewed boats, and the
sinking limbs of torn comrades, they swam out of the white curds of the whale's
direful wrath into the serene, exasperating sunlight, that smiled on, as if at a birth or
a bridal. (159)
What drives Ahab and the Ishmael of "The Whiteness of the Whale," both of whom are
"desperate" for completion, is the unrelieved brightness of fullness- signified by the
image of a birth or a bridal, conceits of individual pieces coming together in a couple or a
child- a fullness from which they feel so alienated.
There are two dangers in Ishmael's construction of conceits, as in his image of
"golden gleamings" cutting through a "dark blue sea." Ishmael is giving color to nature, a
process he sees in "The Whiteness of the Whale" as the greatest deceit in that such
coverings hide absolutely nothing. In creating an image of the dark that necessarily exists
along with the rays of light we throw upon experience, Ishmael makes that nothing
something, an image (a "dark blue sea") that is palpable, understandable. Ishmael creates
another conceit for absence in "The Sphynx." After the crew has beheaded the whale it has
caught, a castration that spectacularly produces part objects, Ishmael enjoys the silence:
"Silence reigned over the before tumultuous but now deserted deck. An intense copper
calm, like a universal yellow lotus, was more and more unfolding its noiseless measureless
leaves upon the sea" (263). As John Bryant argues, Ishmael's utterance stands in stark
contrast to the Shakespearean soliloquy Ahab gives upon encountering the dead silence of
the whale's head: "'0 head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel
of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!'"' (264). Ahab imagines that he has come face-
to-face with fullness and is exasperated at finding that it escapes him. Ishmael makes
absence full, not with a tree of knowledge, as Bryant argues, but with a tree that bears a
fruit that causes indolence and dreamy contentment, a fantasy escape from desire and
In "Queequeg in His Coffin," Ishmael constructs a different kind of conceit for the
dark that necessarily exists along with the rays of light we throw upon experience. As in
earlier chapters, Ishmael portrays the confrontation with the unknown-ness of the darkness
of blackness as a search through "catacombs" (395). When Queequeg descends into the
hold to find a leaking cask, Ishmael imagines him coming into contact with the relics of
ancient times, when people were in closer contact with the secrets of life now hidden from
us. Ishmael imagines him going even further back, before language, humanity, and the
split with Nature, portraying Queequeg as "crawling about amid that dampness and slime,
like a green spotted lizard at the bottom of a well" (395). Ishmael portrays that contact with
the darkness of blackness, that experience of the pre- or trans-human as a near-death
experience, describing it as a "subterraneous confinement," suggesting a parallel with being
buried alive (395). Coming out of the hold, Queequeg, like the decapitated head of the
whale, seems to be in touch with the great mysteries. He too is silent, but whereas the
silence of the whale's head had brought forth Ahab's eruptive soliloquy and Ishmael's
soporific fantasy escape, Queequeg's eyes leave Ishmael in awe of that which escapes the
[L]ike circles on the water, which, as they grow fainter, expand; so his eyes
seemed rounding and rounding, like the rings of Eternity. An awe that cannot be
named would steal over you as you sat by the side of this waning savage, and saw
as strange things in his face, as any beheld who were bystanders when Zoroaster
died. For whatever is truly wondrous and fearful in man, never yet was put into
words or books. And this drawing near of Death, which alike levels all, alike
impresses all with a last revelation, which only an author from the dead could
adequately tell. (395-96)
26Bryant, "Moby-Dick as Revolution," 85-9.
Ishmael hints at what was revealed to Queequeg: in death, everything is leveled so there is
no desire, nothing is ungraspable because everything is collapsed into one. Yet Ishmael
also recognizes the inability to express this in words and therefore appreciates the silence.
Queequeg does not die. In fact, Ishmael portrays him as living because he
recognizes his desire, the precondition of living as a human being. "[T]he cause of his
sudden convalescence was this," Ishmael explains; "at a critical moment, he had just
recalled a little duty ashore, which he was leaving undone; and therefore had changed his
mind about dying: he could not die yet, he averred" (398). In this image, Queequeg offers
a counter-conceit to Emersonian submissive corporatism. "[It was Quequeg's conceit, that
if a man made up his mind to live, mere sickness could not kill him: nothing but a whale,
or a gale, or some violent, ungovernable, unintelligent destroyer of that sort" (398). This
passage revises the paranoid-Emersonian, or Ahabian, image in "Loomings" that one is
controlled by the Fates, who trick one into doing things and into believing in free will by
presenting one with conceits. Here, Queequeg affirms a free will limited by uncontrollable
disasters. But unlike Ahab, Queequeg does not imagine some reasoning thing controlling
those uncontrollable disasters.
Most importantly, Ishmael recognizes here what was only hinted at in "Loomings":
his view of Quequeg's convalescence is not a "seeing a little into," but a conceit that
depends on other conceits. Again Ishmael and Queequeg are "solitary twain," as Ishmael
creates a self by creating conceits that are influenced by, even as they influence, others'
creations of selves by creating conceits. Unlike his earlier image of such quilting, Ishmael
recognizes in this chapter that something cannot be quilted and thus can rip quilts apart at
any time. That something is the fullness symbolized by whiteness, which always eludes
our grasp, leaving behind lack, the darkness of blackness.
It is at this point that Ishmael shifts from archeological images of the search for
hidden meaning to surface creating in response to what eludes us. Queequeg not only
decides to do something in response to desire instead of dying in order to avoid the
ungraspable, but he also decides to create forms that represent this condition to others. On
the surface of his coffin, he carves replicas of his tattoos. This tattooing, Ishmael tells us,
had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those
hieroglyphic marks, had written out on [Queequeg's] body a complete theory of the
heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that
Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in
one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live
heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to
moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be
unsolved to the last. (399)
By replicating his tattoos, Queequeg preserves these hieroglyphics for posterity. Like the
hieroglyphics that fascinated antebellum America and Europe, viewers will attempt to
translate them. Despite Jean-Franqois Champollion's translations of Egyptians hieroglyph-
ics with the aid of Rosetta stone in the 1820s. Ishmael holds out no hope that Queequeg's
riddle will be unfolded." Instead, Queequeg's will remain a reminder that humans are
forever barred from "attaining truth."
Ahab sees this artwork, and as he did with the mute whale's head, exclaims, "'Oh,
devilish tantalization of the gods!'" (399). Ahab's attitude keeps him subordinate to "the
gods," submitting with the right worship of power, which is defiance. Similarly, Pip
recognizes his alienation from completion, from both the indifferent "God-omnipresent"
and "the infinite of his soul" (347). In response, Pip becomes the corporate man writ
large, pledging his submission to his unchangeable captain, which results in Pip going
down with the ship. Pip's response is "heaven's sense," as one supposedly gains
completion in heaven by submitting to an unchangeable god, but it is "man's insanity"
Queequeg offers an alterative, submitting only to accident and natural disaster and
seeing all else as an occasion for creation. Pip too sees this as an alternative. He is ready
27See Irwin, American Hieroglyphics, 3.
to make himself a slave as punishment for dying a coward ('"if ye find Pip, tell all the
Antilles he's a runaway"'), but he champions Queequeg for dying game (398). After those
words from Pip, Queequeg rouses and remembers he still can do something.
Ishmael, however, does not make Ahab's exclamation.28 Nor does he attempt to
escape into "copper calm" dreams of contentment. And he avoids Pip's subordination to
the corporation when he revises the role of the castaway who sees terrible things; unlike
Pip, Ishmael creates something, Mobv-Dick. Overall, Ishmael imitates Queequeg. In "A
Bower in the Arsacides," Ishmael has the measurements of the whale's skeleton tattooed on
his right arm. Because "the skeleton of the whale is by no means the mould of his invested
form" (377), these tattooings mean about as much as Queequeg's: they cannot be
translated into anything that would grasp the elusive (whale), but instead serve as a
reminder of that ungraspability. "How vain and foolish, then, thought I, for timid
untravelled man to try to comprehend aright this wondrous whale, by merely poring over
his dead attenuated skeleton, stretched in this peaceful wood. ... |Oinly on the profound
unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly and livingly found out" (378). As the
titles of the cetology chapters show, even there full comprehension slips away and one is
left with partial conceits about the whale.
28My reading of Ishmael's relationship to Queequeg's coffin-carvings differs from
Otter's. His conclusions about Melville's relationship to ideology depend upon his reading
of "Queequeg in His Coffin." Otter argues that when Ishmael looks at Queequeg's
tattooings, he "contemplates a figure of another race, conceived as essentially different and
wishes to see deeply" (Melville's Anatomies, 167). I would argue that in this chapter,
Melville shows Ishmael revising such fantasies of the savage "seeing deeply" as the chapter
moves from archeological imagery to surface creations. At the end of the chapter, Ishmael
recognizes that the "savage" too is barred from "seeing deeply." It is Ahab, not Ishmael,
who fights this realization. Otter argues otherwise, claiming the words "'Oh, devilish
tantalization of the gods!'" can be read as being said by Ahab, Ishmael, or Melville. I
would argue that the preceding words "it must have been [this tattooing] which suggested
to Ahab that wild exclamation of his" and that the quotes around the exclamation limit the
speaker to Ahab (Melville, Moby-Dick, 399, emphasis mine). One can compare these ties
to a specific speaker to the lack of such in "The Gilder," where the speaker of the "Oh,
grassy glades!" speech is much more ambiguous (see Melville, Mobv-Dick, 406). Bryant
gives a fine reading of this ambiguity. See Bryant, "Moby-Dick as Revolution," 86-7.
In "The Whiteness of the Whale," blankness terrified Ishmael, who saw all of
nature's colorings as deceits that were attempting to hide nothing. After portraying
Queequeg's tattoos as signs of a fullness that is forever barred to us, Ishmael adopts
Queequeg's relationship to the lack that is part of the human condition. Like Queequeg
who adorns his blank and empty coffin, Ishmael sees blankness as an occasion for
creating. The narrator reveals that he, the older Ishmael who stars in "A Bower in the
Arsacides," was becoming heavily tattooed and thus "crowded for space; he [had been]
reserving certain parts of his body as "a blank page for a poem [he] was then composing"
(376). Ishmael's willingness to create, rather than grasp, unhooks him from Ahab's
paranoid-Emersonian chase and from the corporation Ahab holds together with his
"queenly personality." The importance of Queequeg's coffin in Ishmael's transformation is
made clear in the "Epilogue," where he is saved by the "great buoyancy" of the oxymoronic
"coffin life-buoy" (470). Ishmael too has learned to be buoyant (or, in Peter Coffin's
words, "easy"), playfully creative, and even oxymoronic in response to the substantive
nothingness that is necessarily part of the human condition and to the completion that
always eludes our grasp. Rather than drown in submission to unmodifiable law, Ishmael
too will die game.
Conceits and Confidence Games
One can now understand the roles of Queequeg, Ahab, and the whale in this novel.
Each is tattooed and hieroglyphical. Given the Orientalist assumptions shared by American
and British audiences at the time, the tendency is to translate these hieroglyphics into the
deep universal meanings of life and Nature that were known to the Egyptians but lost to
modem times, buried under layers of culture. Ishmael's attempts to grasp the deep
meanings lying under these figures are always frustrated. Optimistic philosophers, such as
Emerson, portrayed attempts to grasp the deep universal as possible for the great poet.
According to Emerson, the great poet needs to rely on what he knows from within, which
in turn must give way to him accepting his place in his age, which in turn needs to give
way to his locating the source of insight beyond his contemporaries in "transcendent
destiny." For Emerson, all three of these steps are consistent because the foundation of
one's self and the true place one should assume in society is determined by the deep
universal, "transcendent destiny." Therefore, the great poet is both a radical individual and
a subordinate to unmodifiable law because in Emerson's scheme defiance and obedience
become the same thing. Ahab spectacularly enacts this process for his crew, presenting a
"queenly personality" that represents worship and defiance of the "personified impersonal"
as being the same thing. Ahab's act puts the crew members in their places in the ship-
corporation. He is the great Representative Man to whom one should submit because his
personality represents the right relationship to power, one that mediates between the
competing demands (for Americans) for both radical individualism and group unity.
Ultimately, Ishmael develops a different relationship to power. He comes to see the
archeological searches for the deep universal as doomed: such a find is forever barred to
human beings and therefore we must create a new relationship to lack. This new relation-
ship is the novel Moby-Dick, where Ishmael creates various conceits or guises, such as
Ahab, the knights and squires, and the Queequeg of the early chapters, in order to create
other conceits, such as the Queequeg of the later chapters, his coffin life-buoy, and Ishmael
himself. These images are quilted to one another, but there is always something outside
that cannot be quilted: the phantom missing piece that, if grasped, would yield completion.
That piece is represented in the image of the white whale, Moby Dick. By representing
what eludes representation, Ishmael portrays that missing piece as graspable. But as he
discovers, the white whale cannot be grasped: it escapes both Ahab's vengeful hunt and
Ishmael's cetological claims. The inability to grasp this piece results in another figure, the
tattooing on Queequeg and his coffin. Ishmael does not try to grasp these hieroglyphics;
instead, he stands in wonder before that to which he is barred access. But Ishmael does
not subordinate himself to this the way Ahab does with his "right worship." Instead, he
too creates, both by tattooing his skin with the measurements of the whale and with a poem
he is composing and by producing a self ("Call me Ishmael") through Mobv-Dick.
In his 1857 novel, The Confidence-Man, Melville proposes how Ishmael's
relationship to the ungraspable can contribute to a politics different than the liberal politics
of reform. As seen in the Emersonian three-step, liberal reform seeks to put people in their
proper places by remaking their characters so that they are consonant with the corporation,
the dominant solution to the conflict between radical individualism and group unity. The
Confidence-Man rejects this politics by rejecting its archeological, Orientalist appeals to
subordinating oneself to unmodifiable law. When in The Confidence-Man the Emerson-
like character, Mark Winsome, makes such an appeal, the cosmopolitan, Frank Goodman,
interrupts, "'Pray now,. why disturb the repose of those ancient Egyptians? What to us
are their words or their thoughts? Are we pauper Arabs, without a house of our own, that,
with the mummies, we must turn squatters among the dust of the Catacombs?'"29
Melville counters Emerson's corporate-liberalist reforms with a politics of
confidence games. To emphasize that these games attempt to work on social problems,
Frank Goodman offers the story of Charlemont, who says about his own life:
"If ever, in days to come, you shall see ruin at hand, and, thinking you understand
mankind, shall tremble for your friendships, and tremble for your pride; and, partly
through love for the one and fear for the other, shall resolve to be beforehand with
the world, and save it from a sin by prospectively taking that sin to yourself, then
will you do as one I now dream of once did, and like him will you suffer."30
29Melville, The Confidence-Man, 229.
30Melville, The Confidence-Man, 221. The story of Charlemont has affinities with
Hawthorne's "Wakefield," which concludes:
He has left us much food for thought, a portion of which shall lend its wisdom to a
moral, and be shaped into a figure. Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious
world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another,
That the story of Charlemont speaks to Goodman's own life becomes clear when
the latter asks his listener, Charlie:
"1 rest it with your own heart now, whether such a forereaching motive as
Charlemont hinted he had acted on in his change- whether such a motive, I say,
were a sort of one at all justified by the nature of human society? Would you, for
one, turn the cold shoulder to a friend- a convivial one, say, whose pennilessness
should be suddenly revealed to you?"31
Charlie had just turned a cold shoulder in response to the cosmopolitan's request for
money. Earlier, in response to Goodman's statement that his request was just a joke,
Charlie replied that he too was playing a part, not wanting to ruin a good joke. The
cosmopolitan notes that Charlie played his part "to the life."32 By then telling the story of
Charlemont and asking Charlie whether the world is such a place that calls for
Charlemont's sin. Goodman reveals why he (if, indeed, he is one of the incarnations of the
confidence man/men) plays confidence games. People like Charlie are more than willing to
play roles, particularly ones in which they claim to have great confidence in mankind, but
they play "to the life," take as their "real" selves, the role of the cynic or doubter. By
engaging in confidence games, the confidence man takes upon himself the sin of cheating
people out of their money (though only enough to make the game work and then he often
donates the winnings to charity) in order to save the world from its cynicism and lack of
Even when he fails to win confidence- as is the case with Charlie, the Thoreau-
like Egbert, and ultimately the barber- the cosmopolitan disturbs their distrust by
and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a
fearful risk of losing his place forever. Like Wakefield, he may become, as it
were, the Outcast of the Universe. (Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales, 81-
3 IMelville, The Confidence-Man, 222.
32Melville, The Confidence-Man, 216.
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