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By the time Herman Melville began work on his third novel, Mardi (1849), he had already enjoyed popular and critical success with his first two sea narratives, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). The earlier Polynesian writing had reflected to some degree his experiences as a sailor and beachcomber in the South Pacific, where Melville had spent time after deserting a whaleship. In fact, Typee and Omoo were presented to the reading public as narratives of experience, rather than novels; yet they were held to be fantastic by many reviewers, many of whom shared the judgment of one early commentator: “We cannot escape a slight suspicion … that there is an indefinite amount of romance mingled with the reality of his narrative.” The seemingly opposed generic categories of “romance” and “narrative” used to identify his first two works are explicitly taken up by Melville in the brief note that opens Mardi. Here, Melville refers to the reception of the earlier sea narratives in terms of such formal distinctions: “Not long ago, having published two narratives of voyages in the Pacific, which, in many quarters, were received with incredulity,” he begins, “the thought occurred to me, of indeed writing a romance of Polynesian adventure, and publishing it as such.” His goal in doing so, he writes somewhat wryly, is “to see whether, the fiction might not, possibly, be received for a verity; in some degree the reverse of my previous experience.” Aiming for “the reverse” of his previous experience, Melville would achieve it in ironic and unanticipated fashion: whereas Typee and Omoo were well received bestsellers, Mardi mystified reviewers and frustrated readers.
The Sea is Not a Metaphor. Figurative Language has its Place in Analyses of the Maritime World, Certainly, But Oceanic studies could be more invested in the uses, and problems, of what is literal in the face of the sea's abyss of representation. The appeal that figures of oscillation and circulation have had is easy to understand, since the sea, in William Boelhower's formulation, “leaves no traces, and has no place names, towns or dwelling places; it cannot be possessed.” Boelhower's description of the Atlantic world is representative of characterizations of the ocean in recent critical work: it is “fundamentally a space of dispersion, conjunction, distribution, contingency, heterogeneity, and of intersecting and stratified lines and images—in short, a field of strategic possibilities in which the Oceanic order holds all together in a common but highly fluid space” (92-93). The ready availability—and undeniable utility—of fluidity as an oceanic figure means that the actual sea has often been rendered immaterial in transnational work, however usefully such work formulates the ethos of transnationalism and oceanic studies alike. In this essay I advocate a practice of oceanic studies that is attentive to the material conditions and praxis of the maritime world, one that draws from the epistemological structures provided by the lives and writings of those for whom the sea was simultaneously workplace, home, passage, penitentiary, and promise. This would allow for a galvanization of the erasure, elision, and fluidity at work in the metaphorics of the sea that would better enable us to see and to study the work of oceanic literature.
As Members of the Penn State English Department, We Share Our Institution's Commitment to Bridging the Gap Between town and gown. As writers and teachers, we believe that reading is a powerful vehicle for community building, for democratic deliberation, and for imaginative reinvention of seeming inevitabilities. As friends who enjoy discussing ideas with one another, we believe that collaboration can allow for both individual voice and shared vision, can offer mutual instruction and delight. In our various ways, we have committed ourselves to reading and writing beyond the boundaries of the university. In this brief essay, we hope to share our experiences of community building, creativity, and democratic negotiation with readers of PMLA.
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