The academic presses are often the source of the most exciting books, though these volumes too often escape the notice of the larger public. Robert Wallace’s study of Melville and Turner will no doubt find its place in university libraries, but I think such a work should be included in community and private libraries, since what it says and implies ought to be of concern these days to many who are not graduate students. If war is too important to leave to the generals, culture is too important to delegate to seminars—or ovulars, as the case may be.
Professor Wallace of Northern Kentucky University has produced another scholarly work that is insightful, stirring, interdisciplinary, and extraordinarily suggestive—as we have come to expect from him. His first book, A Century of Music-Making: The Lives of Josef and Rosina Lhevinne (1976), was a double biography and remains an indisputable source for the music-lover and a treat for the piano buff. Wallace’s Jane Austen and Mozart: Classical Equilibrium in Fiction and Music (1983) dared to undertake a comparison that naturally suggests itself, but which no one had ever pursued in such an extended fashion. That book teaches us much about Mozart as well as about Jane Austen; but even better it demonstrates something vital about the culture of the day as suggested in the constructions of two great artists. It remains one of the best books ever written about literature and music.
Emily Brontë and Beethoven: Romantic Equilibrium in Fiction and Music (1986) is a companion volume of equal finish and an essential study of Romanticism. No volume I have ever encountered— until this new one—matches its exploration of the phenomenology of the Romantic imagination. In that sense, it anticipates Wallace’s extended treatment of Herman Melville and J.M.W. Turner, with the obvious difference that, this time around, the analogy with literature is grounded in a different field of art. In his book on Bronte, he showed how Beethoven can be seen not only as a model for Heathcliff but also as a powerful and liberating force—a musical Shakespeare. Similarly, in this study of Melville, Wallace presents Turner as a nonliterary imaginative power, one also in competition with the Elizabethan playwright.
Melville & Turner is an exhaustive exploration of the world of graphic art and art criticism in Anglo-American culture in the first half of the 19th century. Reading Melville’s mind, it shows, through his recreation of Turner’s consciousness in his own work, his relationship to the art world and his response by word-painting. Turner’s oils, water colors, and prints are exhaustively explored as keys, analogues, and inspirations for Melville’s scenes, images, and rhetorical flights. We are also shown the larger context of literary comment on art, and Melville’s awareness of the art world to which he was introduced by Evert Duyckinck. Wallace discusses Melville’s reading and its influences on his prose. Ruskin’s Modern Painters I, Eastlake’s Contributions to the Literature of the Fine Arts, and Hazlitt’s Sketches of the Principal Picture Galleries in England are only three of the strongest presences that Wallace glosses for their hold on Melville’s mind.
The focus on graphic art and aesthetic theory is strong enough to forestall another and more conventional awareness. Perhaps the climax of Wallace’s argument is to identify the character Bulkington, who disappears early in Moby-Dick, as a covert transmogrification of Turner himself. But as with the “boggy, soggy, squitchy picture” Ishmael early encounters, such episodes can be accounted for to some degree in terms of literary models. The famous oil painting surely owes a lot to Turner’s whaling paintings, but it is also a traditional epic figure of ekphrasis—the work of art within the poem. The obvious examples from Homer and Vergil were also on Melville’s mind. Bulkington owes a lot to Vergil’s Palinurus, and therefore to the Homeric precedent in the Odyssey—Melville cues us that he is writing an epic by recapitulating epic forms and actions.
,p>But of course Wallace does not deny any such truth. Rather he shows elaborately and decisively the effects of Melville’s submersion in the world of art and the shadow of Turner:
Melville’s praise of the “infinite obscure” of Hawthorne’s (and Shakespeare’s) “back-ground” brings his “Mosses” essay even closer to Ruskin’s mode of praising Turner (and Shakespeare) in Modern Painters. So does the example he uses to illustrate the Ruskinian truth that “it is the least part of genius that attracts admiration.” Of Shakespeare’s “endless commentators and critics,” there are a “few” who “seem to have remembered or even perceived, that the immediate products of a great mind are not so great, as that undeveloped (and sometimes undevelopable) yet dimly-discernable greatness, to which these immediate products are but the infallible indices.” For Melville, “it is those deep far-away things in him; those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short quick probings at the very axis of reality:—these are the things that make Shakespeare, Shakespeare.” These same qualities, in Modern Painters, make Turner, Turner. These, too, are the qualities that make Melville, Melville, especially in Moby-Dick.
Wallace’s Melville & Turner is not only a grand instruction in the achievement of two great explorers, one in the literary, the other in the graphic, arts, it is a towering demonstration of what is meant by “the Sublime.” Though this study greatly enriches our understanding specifically of Melville and Turner, I can think of no other work that more precisely shows how the Romantic anticipates the Modern. Thar she blows! Robert K. Wallace has written a whale of a book about the consciousness behind the great American novel.
[Melville & Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright, by Robert K. Wallace (Athens: University of Georgia Press) 664 pp., $75.00]