Tuesday, December 07, 2004

In case you want to make yourself sick and know what I'm up to in school

Rusty and I call this "jumping through academic hoops": Here are some of the images I'm inserting into my paper for my Herman Melville seminar.

And here is the abstract for my paper, which is 19 pages long right now:

The Horrors of Purity Discourse, the 19th Century Racial Grotesque,
and Herman Melville’s “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids”

Herman Melville’s 1855 short story “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” is intensely interested in grotesque images of whiteness. The story is historically situated at a time when natural science endorsed ideas of biological essentialism: Social Darwinism and theories of “polygenesis,” which categorized the races as distinct species without common ancestors. In response, clergymen began to preach the Social Gospel, arguing that God created these hierarchical categories and that His ultimate plan was the disappearance of non-white races. Both the Social Gospel and Social Dawinism warned against miscegenation as a dangerous mixing of species, the creation of a new, sterile, mule-like race. We can thus understand the ways in which this culture feared the obliteration of distinct racial categories. Simultaneously, popular culture, particularly PT Barnum’s American Museum, began to represent bodies that transgressed racial binaries of black and white: albinos, children with vitiligo (“Leopard Children” and “Piebald Children”), and Circassian beauties. These exhibitions, as discussed in Charles Martin’s The White African American Body, help us to understand the 19th Century American cultural spectacle of race: the fear of and fascination with bodies that defied categorization, as well as an overriding anxiety about racial purity and racial transformation. Despite this historical context, critics of Melville’s “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” have focused mainly on issues of gender and industrialization, neglecting the interesting ways that the story presents questions of race. This essay will offer a reading of “The Tartarus of Maids” section of Melville’s story because this is where Melville seems most intent on presenting racial conundrums. I will argue that the recurring references to whiteness in “Tartarus,” like Barnum’s racial grotesques, demonstrate the ways in which images of extreme whiteness become grotesque images and created extreme anxiety for 19th Century American culture. Ultimately, I argue that the story portrays the horror of a culture obsessed with the reproduction of white purity. This obsession can be seen in the continued references to “blood” in the story, particularly the Blood River with its Red waters . As Melville suggests, this culture transforms white women into miserable reproductive machines charged with the task of continuing the Anglo Saxon “species.” White men, like the narrator, simply act as reproductive “seedsmen,” spreading their genes in this industry of whiteness. Ultimately, the story gives us a sense of what was simultaneously most desired and most feared in 19th Century America: an entirely white world of haunting, inscrutable, and empty figures. Along with the paper they produce, representative of an intensely white, and therefore blank culture, these “maids” create a scene of absolute horror for the story’s narrator and for the culture as a whole