Yothers, Brian. Melville’s Mirrors: Literary Criticism and America’s Most Elusive Author. Rochester: Camden House, 2019. ISBN 9781640140530. $24.95. 212pp.

The early 1920s saw a flurry of scholarly interest in the life and works of the American author Herman Melville. Now known as the “Melville Revival,” this period not only helped canonize Melville and solidify his reputation as one of the great American cultural icons, it also ushered in a century’s worth of academic research on the author of Moby-Dick. It is thus no small challenge that Brian Yothers tackles in Melville’s Mirrors: Literary Criticism and America’s Most Elusive Author. First published in 2011 and recently made available as a paperback edition, this slim volume attempts to summarize and synthesize the manifold strands of academic research conducted on Melville and his work to date.

As if this were not daunting enough of a task, Yothers also seeks to challenge the conventional critical taxonomies based on certain “schools” of literary criticism. In order to do so, he introduces the titular concept of the “mirror.” A metaphor that captures both Melville’s “Protean capacity to be more or less what his readers wish him to be” (3) and his critics’ tendency to capitalize on this, the idea of critical mirrors is also the book’s central organizing principle. Rather than drafting the critical history of Melville studies in chronological fashion or categorizing it by methodology or ideology, Yothers groups the different critical voices by the particular perspectives from which they approach Melville and by the mirror images that they see in his life and work.

The first of these mirrors, entitled “Defining Melville,” is concerned with Herman Melville: the person, the author, his life, and his artistic practice. The chapter accordingly deals largely with the vast volume of biographical and textual criticism produced over the past one hundred years. Although Yothers gives a nod to Melville’s earliest critics in this context, his story—and modern Melville criticism—really begins with Raymond Weaver’s seminal 1921 biography, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic. From Weaver onward, Yothers elegantly and effortlessly sketches the transforming stages of biographical criticism from more aesthetically-driven studies to an increasingly fact-oriented stance, culminating in 1951 with the publication of Jay Leyda’s The Melville Log and Leon Howard’s Herman Melville. More recent texts, such as Hershel Parker’s sprawling two-volume biography or the more focused biographical studies by Elizabeth Hardwick and Wyn Kelley published in the 2000s, likewise receive recognition.

Thus, this eminently readable chapter impressively demonstrates how vastly different perspectives on Melville’s life have cross-pollinated and come together over time and how, surprisingly, a hundred years in, the project of writing Melville’s life and times is still vital. The implication made in the chapter’s concluding paragraph that all biographical studies have failed to really comprehend the essence of Melville might seem a little harsh, but Yothers does make a relevant point here (27). According to him, it is Melville’s very elusiveness, singled out in the book’s subtitle, which keeps critics turning to him. Yothers uses the image of “the ungraspable phantom” from Moby-Dick to refer to how critics of Melville are constantly trying to capture something that perhaps can never fully be captured. Melville himself, Yothers might be interpreted as saying here, is a white whale, and all his critics are Ahabs.

The second critical mirror discussed in the book is one centered on questions of aesthetics, both literary and visual. Yothers identifies and pulls together a handful of quite different concerns from the critical literature, such as the formalist criticism of Melville’s penmanship, his contribution to a supposedly distinct American aesthetic, and the visual elements in his writing. There is, of course, a certain amount of overlap between these and other issues that may be classified as dealing with “aesthetics,” and many of the studies discussed by Yothers do not confine themselves to one of these questions alone. But the sheer amount of different research interests grouped together under this one heading makes the chapter feel slightly disorganized at times. This mirror, to employ Yothers’s metaphor, is overcrowded, and everyone is jostling for their place in it. In view of this, it is particularly telling of the quality of Yothers’s writing that even this part shines in lucid prose, and the very different critical approaches mostly do seem to be in some form of conversation with one another.

The chapters that follow provide a noticeably more focused overview of their subject matter. In the case of the chapter that deals with Melville as a religious and philosophical thinker, this is thanks to a quite clearly delineated area of critique. Jumping off from Melville’s religious ambivalence, as famously recorded by Nathaniel Hawthorne, this part largely traces critical commentary on a limited set of ideas that have been considered germane to Melville’s spiritual life and thought, such as his oscillation between faith and doubt. Another reason why this critical mirror seems so well-wrought is, perhaps, because religion and philosophy really are oftentimes blended in Melville’s works, as Yothers himself observes: “[Melville] approaches religious questions with an irreverently analytical eye, and philosophical issues with an emotional and ethical intensity often associated with religious belief” (59). While the following two chapters both take on more variegated and less monolithic subject areas once more (gender, sexuality, and the body; and democracy, nationalism, and war, respectively), Yothers in both cases finds a way of keeping the discussion from pulling in too many directions at once, quite simply by introducing sub-chapters. A straightforward but highly effective device, this chapter-level organization actually contributes to the book’s critical narrative of the scholarly mirrors. Clearly, Melville’s sexuality, his views on female authorship, and his literary depiction of the body are quite distinct issues, but they are connected via a more general preoccupation with the subjects of sex and gender. They are pocket mirrors which, if placed next to one another, combine to form a larger mirror.

The erudition on display throughout Melville’s Mirrors is astounding. Even more so, perhaps, is the stylistic liveliness characterizing a text that could easily have turned into a dull, encyclopedic enumeration of critical stances. To synthesize a century of literary and biographical criticism into an actually readable and, at its best, engaging volume is an impressive feat. However, amidst its harnessing and rearranging of hundreds of source texts, the book’s very own — and very intriguing — critical contribution seems to fall behind a little over time. Beyond its serving as an organizing principle, the promising metaphor of the mirrors remains regrettably underexplored. An explicit discussion of Melville’s “Protean capacity,” as well as of the curiously multifaceted nature of Melville criticism and what it entails, might have proved insightful and would have served to continue the critical conversation on Melville. This conversation, nevertheless, seems all the richer and more inviting with Melville’s Mirrors as a competent and thought-provoking field guide. The manifold mirrors, big and small, contained in Yothers’s account beautifully come together in a panoramic view of the multifacetedness and vitality of Melville studies as a whole—a view that is likely to fascinate both new and seasoned students of Melville.

Sebastian Tants-Boestad


Works Cited

 Hardwick, Elizabeth. Herman Melville. New York: Viking, 2000.

Howard, Leon. Herman Melville: A Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.

Kelley, Wyn: Herman Melville: An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell, 2008.

Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819-1891. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951.

Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: A Biography. Vol. 1. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

—. Herman Melville: A Biography. Vol. 2. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Weaver, Raymond M. Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic. New York: Doran, 1921.


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