5 to 7pm
Towner Fellows Lounge
Herman Melville, Literary Value, and the Commodification of the Book
Philipp Löffler, University of Heidelberg
This paper traces two modes of reading in Herman Melville’s later career: reading as a form of commodity consumption and reading as a particular type of philosophical inquiry. The case of Melville is central for understanding modern literary professionalism; it centers on the reciprocity of earning money as a writer and the possibility of making/subverting truth claims and thus highlights a set of more general questions that concern our contemporary sense of literary value. What is the relation of big sales figures and literary talent? When did people begin to read market success as a threat to literary credibility, and – vice-versa – why do people still believe that making no money as a writer can actually be an indication of true literary success? To answer these and related questions I use a broad historical argument that emphasizes three particular aspects/stages: (1) the relevance of the idea of “disinterested beauty” in early 19th literary cultures, (2) the appropriation of this idea of disinterestedness in mid-nineteenth-century modern literary professionalism, and (3) the rise of academic English studies since the early 20th century that has evaded both the conditions of the market, where books are treated exclusively as commodities, and the fantasy of pure aesthetic value, in which books can never be commodified.
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