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Between North-South Civil War and East-West Manifest Destiny: Herman Melville’s “I and My Chimney” as Geo-Historical Allegory
journal contributionposted on 2017-12-06, 00:00 authored by Patrick WestPatrick West
To the limited extent that it has attracted critical attention, Herman Melville's "I and My Chimney" (1856) has largely been read (in the period from the early 1940s to the early 1980s) as an allegory of tensions between North and South in the lead-up to the American Civil War. This article argues that Melville's text contains a much more complex example of allegory than has previously been recognized, to the extent that it appears to anticipate the post-structural "turn" in allegorical theory represented in Fredric Jameson's intervention into allegory studies in the mid-1980s. In Melville's under-appreciated text, signifiers of directionality and place both support and problematize the primary allegory of North-South Civil War through teasing reference to the contemporaneous historical spatialization of East-West Manifest Destiny. More particularly, material and literal notions of "north-ness" and "south-ness" are, by turns, aligned or not aligned with the principal cultural allegory of North versus South, thus destabilizing the standard allegorical reading from within. A line from "I and My Chimney" cues attention to the auto-reflexivity of Melville's allegory: the "way of speaking… is hardly borne out by the facts." The chimney, as the narrator's "doppelgänger", is a key element in the deconstruction of the allegory, on the basis of what Katja Kanzler calls its "astonishing materiality". Nevertheless, while critics like Kanzler have, more recently, produced new readings of "I and My Chimney", this article is the first to bring a post-structural allegorical approach to the interpretation of Melville's "geomorphic" text.