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Favoring Nature: Herman Melville's “On the Photograph of a Corps Commander”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 May 2012

Abstract

This paper involves a close reading of Herman Melville's poem “On the Photograph of a Corps Commander,” published in Melville's 1866 collection Battle-Pieces. Realizing that Melville's poem is one of the first descriptions (ekphrases) of a photograph in verse, the paper explores how Melville's poem uses physiognomy to describe the subject of the photograph: an American Civil War general, who is only identified as “the Corps Commander.” In this way, Melville's poem reflects the nineteenth-century philosophical and popular notions of photography. These notions came to regard photography as a Neoplatonic medium capable of recording and revealing the inner character of its subjects. Relying on these conceptions of photography, Melville's poem describes the photograph of the Corps Commander as having the power to reveal the Platonic absolute of American masculinity, and thus it comes to hail the photograph as a semi-sacred image that has the power to draw Anglo-Saxon American men into a common brotherhood.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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References

1 Hawthorne, Nathaniel, House of the Seven Gables (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998Google Scholar; first published 1851), 90–91.

2 Schloss, Carol, In Visible Light: Photography and the American Writer: 1840–1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 42Google Scholar.

3 Trachtenberg, Alan, Reading American Photographs (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), 2728Google Scholar.

4 Reynolds, David S., Beneath the American Renaissance (New York: Knopf, 1988), 243Google Scholar.

5 Melville, Herman, Battle-Pieces, in idem, Complete Works (London: Constable and Co., 1924)Google Scholar.

6 Hollander, John, Gazer's Spirit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 4142Google Scholar.

7 Connell, R. W., Masculinities (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), 27Google Scholar.

8 Ibid., 47.

9 Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” in Alan Trachtenberg, ed., Classic Essays on Photography (New Haven: Leete's Island Books, 1980), 82.

10 Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs, 27–28.

11 Goffman, Erving, Stigma (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963), 128Google Scholar.

12 Connell, 189.

13 Garner, Stanton, The Civil War of Herman Melville (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993), 325Google Scholar.

14 Ibid., 326.

15 Mitchell, W. J. T., Picture Theory (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995), 158Google Scholar.

16 Kimmel, Michael S., The Gendered Society, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 276Google Scholar.

17 For a general discussion of this history see Haag, Michael, Templars: History and Myth: From Solomon's Temple to the Freemasons (London: Profile Books, 2008)Google Scholar.

18 Robert Lowell, “For the Union Dead,” in idem, Life Studies & For The Union Dead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964), 72.

19 Kate Daniels, “The Testimonial of Simone Weil,” in idem, Four Testimonies (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998), 25.

20 Curtius, Ernst Robert, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), 70Google Scholar.

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