Robert Levine giving a lecture at Catholic U.

by Ray Wolfe (B.A. Politics and English minor '20)

In his lecture on April 23rd, sponsored by the ALSCW, Dr. Robert Levine (University of Maryland) discussed Herman Melville’s work in relation to the thorny question of American identity. He referred particularly to Redburn and Pierre, two often overlooked novels, and ones with which he has had long experience. Dr. Levine recalled his first encounter with these works as a college student, when they magnetized him with their introspective prose and central focus on “a young man trying to grow up” (which probably will appeal to 20-year-old English majors forever). Yet, as Dr. Levine demonstrated, these works implicate not only personal, but collective identity.

Unlike the Melville revivalists and their disciples, who presumed that the great author “would not debase himself with particulars,” Levine interpreted him as profoundly concerned with the moral dilemmas of his time. He quoted Melville on the “shocking fate,” and “noisome confinement” of Irish passengers, interracial couples attacked and “lucky to escape with whole limbs,” the sins of “Virginia and Carolina:” “that struggle between sordid interest and humanity.” Thus, throughout the lecture, Levine developed a portrait of Melville not as a fixture in a literary pantheon, but as a writer determined to question binary views of race, draw attention to cruelty, and unashamedly examine whiteness in relation to blackness.

Robert Levine

While widespread, the issues animating Melville’s work specifically relate to American society, Dr. Levine explained. He noted a passage from Redburn stating, “In Liverpool, indeed the negro steps with a prouder pace, and lifts his head like a man; for here, no such exaggerated feeling exists in respect to him as in America.” The titular character laments, “we Americans leave to other countries the carrying out of the principle that stands at the head of our Declaration of Independence.”

With this in mind, Levine offered a Melvillian answer to de Crevecoeur’s question of “What, then, is the American, this new man?” After witnessing treatment of Irish immigrants eerily resembling the Middle Passage, Redburn proclaims, “let us waive that agitated national topic, as to whether such multitudes of foreign poor should be landed on our American shores… if they can get here, they have God’s right to come.” Ultimately, “the whole world is the patrimony of the whole world.” In this way, Melville can still be seen to reach after the eternal truths emphasized by the revivalists. However, he does so with a “full moral attention” on incoherences and injustices around him. Thus, Dr. Levine re-introduced us to Herman Melville (and introduced him to the confounded British literature people in the room), as one of us, “our contemporary.”

About the Speaker:
Robert S. Levine is Professor of English and Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. He received his PhD at Stanford University and has been teaching at the University of Maryland, College Park, since 1983. He is the author of Conspiracy and Romance (1989), Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity (1997), Dislocating Race and Nation (2008), The Lives of Frederick Douglass (2016), and Race, Transnationalism, and Nineteenth-Century American Literary Studies (2018) and the editor or coeditor of over 20 volumes, including Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville: Essays in Relation (2008) and The New Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville (2014). His current book project is “Frederick Douglass and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson,” which is under contract with W.W. Norton. He is the General Editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature. He has received fellowships from the NEH and the Guggenheim Foundation, and in 2014 the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association awarded him the Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in American literary studies.

Top photo credit:
Xiaofang Huang