College of Arts and Sciences

Department of English

ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance

Matthew Cordova Frankel

“Tattoo Art: The Composition of Text, Voice, and Race in Melville's Moby-Dick

“Tattoo Art” reads three related critical discussions surrounding Moby-Dick since its publication in 1851 by explicating and mobilizing the aesthetic vitalism that F. O. Matthiessen took as central to Melville's canonization in American Renaissance (1941)—and that Gilles Deleuze, the essay suggests, extends in his many comments on the novel and aims toward throughout his larger philosophical project. Or, as Deleuze put it, somewhat differently: “Everything I've written is vitalistic, at least I hope it is.” The particular hope of this essay's three main sections, respectively and cumulatively, is to examine certain issues endemic to ongoing debates about the peculiar material history, unusual narrative structure, and complex ideological configuration of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick within an overarching discussion of its status as an aesthetic composition—that is, as a work of art.

At the level of argument, “Tattoo Art” shows how Ishmael's vexed status as a first-person narrator invites a fuller investigation of the novel's part in forming racial subjectivities in the antebellum United States—and at the same time signals a group of decisions about the material text made by editors of Moby-Dick scholarly editions. Supplementing this argument, the essay remains answerable to the novel's self-proclaimed principal mode of composition; to this end, it explores how the three driving critical concerns (text, voice, race) fall within the thematic purview of Ishmael's planned poetic embodiment, together forming an immanent concept of the aesthetic inscribed both materially and metonymically in the image of the tattoo.

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