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Updated Up To 23/01/2018
Volume 8, Number 1 (January 2010) : 39--65
The Not-So-Modern Proto-Modern:
The Intertextual Geography of Herman Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War
Robert Arbour
Rubric A: Topoi

Abstract

 

Like most of his work, Herman Melville’s notoriously unpopular 1866 volume of Civil War poetry Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War has traditionally been read strictly under the rubric of Modernism. Within this framework, scholars generally conclude that this disjunctive volume of poetry is wholly inferior to Melville’s prose.  In this essay, I depart from the conventional reading of Melville, redefining him as a poet necessarily embedded in the nineteenth-century tradition of sentimentalism. I suggest that the unpopularity of Battle-Pieces, both in 1866 and today, stems from the invitation Melville extends to readers to enter a sentimental text even as he revises the very notion of sentimentality. By considering Battle-Pieces, a highly visual text, in the context of the artistic expectations accompanying a sentimental tradition with roots in Fireside poetry, I suggest that in his poetry Melville does not abandon the familial mode on which sentimentality is based. Rather, in mapping out an intertextual landscape in Battle-Pieces, Melville calls attention to the postbellum failure of the sentimental universality that was once a foundational principle of a coherent and communal national identity. As a poet responding to the sentimental expectations of his readers, Melville interrogates both a crisis in national unity and a crisis in the notion of national universality that underpins sentimental art.


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