Olson's Call Me Ishmael, the Melville Revival, and the American Baroque
Call Me Ishmael, Charles Olson’s 1947 study of Moby-Dick, is an anomaly, at once a foundational text of Melville Studies and bizarre recasting of Melville’s work that served to transform the image of the nineteenth-century writer. Blurring the lines between artist and critic, Olson sought to rethink Melville’s leviathan by imagining Melville’s own imaginative reshaping of the world in 1851. Olson wrenches Melville from the hands of a nascent American Studies which was in this process of enshrining Melville as the central figure in an American renaissance, and he projects a baroque Melville not limited by any national cultural project. Referring to “SPACE” as the "central fact to man born in America" ("I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy"), Olson asserts that Melville “rode” such space: "Melville went to space to probe and find man” (14). In Olson’s reading, Melville’s writings are like those baroque forms as described by the art historian Henri Focillon, which "tend to invade space in every direction, to perforate it, to become one with all its possibilities." Reading Melville, Olson grappled with such space as well, and the baroque text seems particularly apt for the era of globalization, in which the suppression of distance has not dulled the acute awareness of that spatial anxiety sometimes associated with the postmodern condition. In this essay, I explore Olson’s baroque Melville in Call Me Ishmael, which, sixty-odd years later, re-emerges a vital forces for a post-American Studies in the twenty-first century..
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