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Herman Melville in Context


A consideration of Herman Melville through the lens of modernism -- the much discussed and debated period of cultural and artistic ferment that upended much of the settled artistic landscape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries -- can take one of two directions. It can lay out the ways in which Melville's account of the rapidly changing world he occupied and chronicled, alongside his challenges to Victorian mores and aesthetic modes, anticipated the radical transformations in art and literature most characteristically deemed modernist. Alternately, the posthumous reception of Melville, and the influence his work exerted, can be taken as the beginning of a modernist genealogy that extends well beyond the nineteenth century, shaping many of the most pronounced voices that broke formal and aesthetic ground in the modernist upheavals after Melville's death in 1891.

Modernist scholarship has moved in ways that allow for an account of Melville in both modes simultaneously. It has reached backward into the nineteenth century to study the beginnings of a "long modernism" that is seen not so much as a decisive point of rupture (Virginia Woolf's claim that "in or about December, 1910, human character changed" being one of the most cited of these) as a series of disruptions that led to more widespread aesthetic transformations. Transnational influences have also become more pronounced in modernist scholarship; whole Melville's ascension to the canon can best be understood as contemporaneous with the codification of American literature as a field of study, his impact was registered on both sides of the Atlantic, including among British modernist authors themselves -- most importantly, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster.


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