On a strikingly different way of reading one author—and all of them.
At this May’s American Literature Association conference, I had the opportunity to hear a number of interesting and inspiring talks. But one in particular stood out, partly because it was delivered in a humorous and engaging style (something that I, as someone who has shifted to the “talk” rather than “read” method of conference presentation, deeply appreciate), but mostly because it offered what seemed to me to be a radically new perspective on its subject. In this talk, on a panel focused on “Late Melville,” Oxford’s Peter Riley pushed back on the narrative that Herman Melville hated his late-career profession as a customs inspector; Riley argued instead both that the job was a meaningful one to Melville and that its details informed the poem “Billy in the Darbies” (which would evolve into Melville’s final novella, Billy Budd).
I’ll freely admit that I had always bought into the conventional wisdom about Melville’s job (inspired perhaps by Hawthorne’s description of the world and work in “The Custom House”), and I’d have to investigate far more before I could weigh in with my own take (although Riley at the very least marshalled enough evidence to suggest that the narrative needs to be complicated). But Riley’s broader point, and the focus of his ongoing book project, seems to me both strikingly innovative and very convincing: that too often we treat author’s non-writing work as at best a distraction from, and at worst an impediment to, their literary efforts. There are obvious exceptions—William Carlos Williams and medicine, Wallace Stevens and insurance—but I tend to agree with Riley that much of the time we literary scholars prefer to think of the creative process as happening in isolated and separate settings, rather than as caught up with, and thus informed by, the other aspects of an author’s life, which often (especially in the 19th century and earlier) included additional professional careers.
I’d have to think more fully and specifically about particular authors and texts to know where this distinct perspective might lead, and I look forward to Riley’s book as part of those continued thoughts. But no matter what, the idea just feels deeply right—perhaps especially because my own writing, here and in my books and elsewhere, is so inseparable from my teaching and other work at Fitchburg State, as it is from every part of my life. Final subject I’m still studying tomorrow,
PS. So what are you still studying?
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