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Ishmael or Ishfemale: Gender and HumorJane Mushabac

Let's start by asking a very retro question. If Melville's work is mostly about men, why is his work of interest to women? The question is silly, of course. Do only Russians like the Russian novel, only blacks like Toni Morrison, only the French love Moliere? Human beings are first of all human, and love to see, read, think about, ponder, and admire human works. Women, like men, stop short to hear tales told with suspense and subtlety, or poetry that is sublime, or theatre that wakes us from the deep sleep of everyday life.

The question dates from the androcentric Melville revival in the 1920s, which was so aptly described by Paul Lauter over a decade ago in his "Melville Climbs the Canon." The revival of course launched Melville's widespread fame as an American writer. Melville, as we know, was tapped in the 1920s to establish American male hegemony in the cultural world, to promote America to itself, as manly, vigorous, and deeply rooted in Anglo-Saxon or Nordic-looking ancestry; Melville with his English, Scotch-Irish, and Dutch ancestors fit the bill perfectly. This revival had multiple and almost dazzling ironies. One was that in the 1920s, when this cultural discovery was part of a nationalistic anti-immigrant program to shut down the country to the vast numbers of non-"Nordic" immigrants flooding in, Melville was, in fact, a citizen of the world in the broadest and best sense, who celebrated human diversity in the most profound way. Another irony was that if Captain Ahab, for instance, embodies the fierce manifest determination of the imperial male American, Melville's famous work about this sea-captain sinks the man, and his entire enterprise, in a whirlpool of self-destruction. It is the lowest paid man, Ishmael, the quintessential sub-sub, who is the lone survivor of the disaster, and he is hardly a role model for machismo, American or otherwise; the comic hero is the one who finds survival by grabbing hold of the primitive Queegueg's coffin bobbing up to save him, and gets picked up at sea by the good ship Rachel.

It seemed in the 1920s that Melville's work, with its marked preponderance of male characters, could be championed as the literature par excellence for "men and boys." If this approach to Melville signaled a kind of literary gender apartheid, if men could get a literary mansion of their own in this way and throw out the women of the house, it seemed so much the better. Surely a literature so uninvested in female characters, arenas, and perspectives, could in fact simply be pronounced masculine; but women readers knew otherwise, and caught on early that its genius, as in all great art, is androgynous.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to face the question head on, and notice why in fact women (and girls too I want to vouchsafe) respond with such interest to Melville's fiction. It is fascinating to observe the dynamic of that interest, which through recent scholarship we are learning has been there all along, and certainly in our own time shows no sign of abating; if anything it is increasing, in so many ways that they need no recounting here.

Raising the question provides a chance to suggest how Melville's humor has played a key role in his work, and in its monumental, actually non-gender-specific meaning. Constance Rourke's 1931 classic analysis of Moby-Dick, in American Humor: A Study of the National Character, written after the Melville revival of the 1920s, and presenting a crucial corrective to it, has its flaws but as Rourke heralded American humor, which she characterized as a "lawless element, full of surprises," she presents its immense value as the thrust of American culture. Rourke's work does not emphasize women, but in an extraordinary breakthrough she emphasized male humor instead of male self-seriousness and self-righteousness, and she valued culture not just of the elite, but from and of the folk. In fact she connected folk and literary culture in a broad clear bond. We'll return to Rourke shortly.

I would like to suggest Melville's appeal to women springs from his humor, his gift in portraying marginalized people, the sub-sub librarians of any gender in the modern world, and how they have lived at the bottom, dreamed of the top, survived by their wits, bucked their "betters," fought subservience, and lyricized a closeness to the feel of life free of the pretensions and distortions in the upper regions of power. It turns out one may find more of the traditional underdog female experience in Ishmael, more of survival humor, than in many a female character, for instance, in Hawthorne's more traditional fiction. Melville mostly did not take up the woman question, and was often a failure when he did, but like other frontier humorists—and comedy writers ancient to modern—he confronted powerlessness in the guise closest to hand, and that has long been of considerable interest to women as well as to men readers.

Great literature has always focused on marginalization, even if for millennia it was through a heroic figure of high status in the high art forms of tragedy and epic. The king because he is king thinks he runs the universe, but discovers in an inevitable confrontation with mortality, that he doesn't. Oedipus Rex takes out his eyes to see this more clearly. Odysseus has a thousand setbacks before he can come home and take the mantle of his kingdom. Modern literature, however, often explores the marginalization of people of low status. That is what the literature in the modern era started to do with the picaresque novel in the 1500s in Spain: testing the waters for people who begin by knowing they have no power, and letting that knowledge be a kind of ironic power, sung forth in humor.

If Abraham is the patriarchal heroic figure in the Bible who bravely breaks away from his society to start a new people and worship a new God, no sooner is he settled than he is asked to give up a man's proudest possessions, his heirs—his sons. The famous story in this regard is the binding of Isaac, yet he is also forced to give up his son Ishmael, and this disinherited exiled son is the epitome of marginalization, whom we meet as a character and celebrate and hang on every word of in Moby-Dick.

The appeal of Melville's humor has to do with underdogs. Ishmael and the sub-sub librarian who introduce Moby-Dick are types of the underdog. Anyone who is not a member of the small power elite is an underdog. Every group's survival eventually is a frontier story. Perhaps in an earlier era some women accepted men as gods, as supreme beings, but women who didn't, or don't in our times, have a great epic comic-tragic retaliation in Moby-Dick. The dumb brute Moby-Dick, like the dumb broad of twentieth-century America, isn't so dumb after all, and strikes back.

In short, there is more of the female experience in Ishmael—call him Ishmael or Ishfemale as you wish—more of that essential survival humor than in many a female character in many a traditional novel. At least we can trust Melville; he didn't pretend to take up the woman question. Instead, he unpretentiously got to the core of the human condition, the pervasive experience of powerlessness, without the confusing trappings of gender. The simple sailor—that's how Ishmael went to sea, we recall—is a type of us all.

Tragedy takes people of high status and brings them low, while comedy does the opposite. So Moby-Dick swims off undaunted, Ishmael clings to a coffin to survive; the democratic emphasis on egalitarianism inevitably weds our culture to comedy. The proto-American novel celebrates those at the margins, the underdog, male, female, human, or animal.

In Melville, frontier humor intersects with domestic fiction, not in the usual sense with overdressed or overstressed women, but in the galley, by the cabin-scuttle, in the deep ocean nursery, at the try-pots, and with the squeezing of the sperm. Let's not be restrictive about domestic fiction. Melville wrote something like it also. Great writers androgynously address the human condition by honoring, instead of trashing, the physicality at the human core.

"Bartleby the Scrivener" is another story where the marginalized protagonist is male, as are all the other humors characters in that story, flat, eccentric, struggling, ineffective, poignantly mechanically yet expansively human. As I have suggested elsewhere, Melville built his "Bartleby" story on two models, Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle," and Hawthorne's "Wakefield," both of which include female characters. Both men in these two stories are married, as if to reflect the realistic gender conflict in life with polite literalism. The wry brilliance of Melville's story of a man who vacates his place in life, however, is that it includes no bow to gender, no wives to rebel against or flee, and places the whole vision and experience in the unmediated world of a single gender, the way many of us perhaps experience our consciousness, male or female, whatever our persuasion, status or ultimately profoundly androgynous vision. The single gender in this sense, the Bartleby in a world of men, more effectively, more economically, launches the reader's androgynous vision, because characters don't get bounced between opposite poles, don't get watered down, or distracted with gender stereotypes or conflicts. The predominantly male story is the ultimate romantic vision, complete with self-deprecation, high jinks, low jinks, and lyricism on all fronts of the frontier of individualism. Humor has been its hallmark since the frontier opened in the 1500s.

Constance Rourke was remarkable. That she as a woman in 1915 had the courage and confidence (one wants to use other more vernacular expressions) to set up shop as a public intellectual, a literary critic and historian, is a story in itself, and Joan Shelley Rubin's book's opening chapters on Rourke's life and writing of American Humor tell this story well. Rourke's subtle, vivid, and thoroughly engaging description and analysis of the Yankee, the backwoodsman, and the minstrel, make splendid reading not just because of Rourke's acumen and wit but because of her passion for the "wildness" of her subject. In fact, Margo Jefferson, responding to a piece in the new journalism magazine The Believer, recently wrote a short New York Times feature on how the writing of cultural critics like Rourke and Zora Neale Hurston was so rich, inspired, and engaged, that it can be viewed as a form of experimental fiction. Of course, as we've said, Rourke went on to link the folk humor of the oral tradition, the periodical, and the stage to the literature which followed and was built solidly upon it. It is in this regard, of course, that Rourke writes about Melville and merits our attention here.

The back-story on how Rourke came to write such a book is well known. Rourke was not just arbitrarily celebrating one aspect of American culture, or the American predilection for rebellion against confines or expectations of one kind or another with a spunky humor growing as if it had a manifest destiny of its own. Rourke was rebutting Van Wyck Brooks who, with other highly respected critics, had complained that the United States had no culture, and no hope for one. In his Wine of the Puritans (1908)—that's W-i-n-e— and America's Coming-of-Age (1915) and in his articles that followed, Van Wyck Brooks explained, as Rubin puts it, "why the American 'soil' would never yield cultural fruit." He called America a materialistic jumble of lowbrow and highbrow that only added up to one thing, a decided inferiority to highly cultured Europe. Brooks said America not only had no character, but no tradition, no "usable past" on which to build a great literature or culture. Not so fast! said Rourke. On every page of her book, she thoroughly trounced and happily thrashed Van Wyck Brooks's thesis, although diplomat that she was, she hardly mentioned his name. The critics responded to her book with cheers, and suddenly, through her book detailing American popular humor, America had a past, a culture, and an identity, a place on the map of the world. Underdog America, that Melville had celebrated in 1851, with frontier humor and frontier eloquence and frontier defeat, was acknowledged as Melville had projected it.

I must say one more thing about Rourke before concluding, however. Her forté was really doing the folkloric roots, not the limbs of Melville's great literary timber. She so effectively locates Melville's comic sources and comic frame, the way he uses legends, tall tales, sea tales, and tale tellers. She loves Flask and Stubb and Mrs. Hussey, Fast-Fish and Loose Fish. Then, however, I think she gets lost. She ends up worried, and disoriented, I think, ultimately presenting Moby-Dick as a "sardonic" Calvinist allegory of evil—she must have gotten lost in Mardi and Pierre. Rourke could not do everything right. It is as if she read the British edition of Moby-Dick, the one with the final page missing, so she never found out that marginalized Ishmael, tale teller, exiled orphan extraordinaire, survives, or that the sharks swim around him with "padlocks on their mouths." Rourke makes as quick an exit from discussing Moby-Dick as she can, following Raymond Weaver in this, saying "With the writing of his one great book Melville's work was finished."

In short in American Humor Rourke has not even heard of Melville's other masterpieces, The Confidence Man, "Bartleby," or Benito Cereno. But meanwhile she has saved ship America, in the best way possible, by celebrating its humor, "its wildness," its life on the margins, which is where it was in the American 1850s, before the horrors of the Civil War and the folly of the Gilded Age. But lest anyone misjudge Rourke—she was no fool for comedy. She knew it could deteriorate from the real thing to a hollow cult of comedy, and she warned against it. I picture her scowling with dismay to see G.W. Bush using a hollow impersonation of the American jokester as a persona to win over the American people, and relieved that he got some comeuppance in the 2006 election.

Women, like men, read Melville today for many things, his extraordinary vision, language, and legerdemain, for his theatre on the page. Women critics have written about a great variety of aspects of Melville's writing. But as my contribution to the conversation, I suggest that Melville's humor is his romantic idiom of celebration and tragic dismay. Melville's characters on the margin dish humor to stay alive and well in a world where the powerful try to knock to the ground the common sailor, female or male, and all of the natural world.

Jane Mushabac is a 2007-2008 Mellon Fellow at the Center for the Humanities, CUNY Graduate Center, working on a novel. The book she co-authored, A Short and Remarkable History of New York City, was selected as one of the "Best of the Best" University Press books in 2000, and is now in its 4th printing. She has written Melville's Humor: A Critical Study (1981) and an essay in the MLA volume, Approaches to Teaching Moby-Dick. This essay was adapted from her presentation at the trans-disciplinary conference "Why Melville Matters Now," November 18, 2006, sponsored by SUNY Albany and the Albany Academy— the school Melville briefly attended until lack of funds forced him to drop out. Prof. Mushabac teaches English at CUNY's New York City College of Technology.

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