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A companion to Herman Melville by Wyn Kelley

By Wyn Kelley

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Alfred Prufrock. The ‘‘Winterbourne type’’ in James’s works knows too much; his traveler’s life may have begun in a mode of easy flaˆnerie involving purely externalized and aesthetic spectatorship of lives always neatly distanced from his own roots and responsibilities, but it can develop into a deeply pained empathy of witness that leaves him torn between the emotional involvements and competing demands of different worlds, and so condemned to cosmopolitanism as a homeless bachelor wanderer. The story of this early twentieth-century cosmopolitan figure then raises large questions about (to borrow a phrase from Homi Bhabha) ‘‘the location of culture’’: the location of home and of home culture for American writers who characteristically see themselves, after this move into the realm of the international, as unable to go home again.

By the spring of 1818, thanks to loans from his father that enabled him to purchase luxury French dry goods, Allan sailed for France, stopping first in Edinburgh, where he hoped to establish the family’s descent from Scottish nobility. In Paris, he purchased fine linen handkerchiefs, kid gloves, lace mantillas, Leghorn hats, merino shawls, ostrich feathers, Moroccan reticules, satin, taffeta and velvet ribbons and perfumes from Cologne and had them shipped home to America. He also dined with the Marquis de Lafayette and the French family of his brother Thomas’s first wife.

He could not have chosen a more rigidly hierarchical, oppressive, undemocratic world to enter than that of a man-of-war. ’’ Almost every day, the ship’s company was piped on deck to watch some poor fellow tied to the gratings and flogged with the cat-o’nine-tails, that tore strips of bloody flesh from a sailor’s back. In the six months Melville was stationed on the gun-deck of this floating hell, he was forced to watch 163 of his shipmates flogged, often by mercilessly sadistic officers. On the positive side, the United States had a well-stocked library, and two or three members of the crew told stories and wrote poetry, skills that made them pleasant companions for Melville when they had time to relax and spin yarns or sing chanteys during their watches.

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