The Errant Art of Moby-Dick

The Canon, the Cold War, and the Struggle for American Studies

The Errant Art of Moby-Dick

New Americanists

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Book Pages: 392 Illustrations: Published: June 1995

American Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Theory

In The Errant Art of Moby-Dick, one of America’s most distinguished critics reexamines Melville’s monumental novel and turns the occasion into a meditation on the history and implications of canon formation. In Moby-Dick—a work virtually ignored and discredited at the time of its publication—William V. Spanos uncovers a text remarkably suited as a foundation for a "New Americanist" critique of the ideology based on Puritan origins that was codified in the canon established by "Old Americanist" critics from F. O. Matthiessen to Lionel Trilling. But Spanos also shows, with the novel still as his focus, the limitations of this "New Americanist" discourse and its failure to escape the totalizing imperial perspective it finds in its predecessor.
Combining Heideggerian ontology with a sociopolitical perspective derived primarily from Foucault, the reading of Moby-Dick that forms the center of this book demonstrates that the traditional identification of Melville’s novel as a "romance" renders it complicitous in the discourse of the Cold War. At the same time, Spanos shows how New Americanist criticism overlooks the degree to which Moby-Dick anticipates not only America’s self-representation as the savior of the world against communism, but also the emergent postmodern and anti-imperial discourse deployed against such an image. Spanos’s critique reveals the extraordinary relevance of Melville’s novel as a post-Cold War text, foreshadowing not only the self-destructive end of the historical formation of the American cultural identity in the genocidal assault on Vietnam, but also the reactionary labeling of the current era as "the end of history."
This provocative and challenging study presents not only a new view of the development of literary history in the United States, but a devastating critique of the genealogy of ideology in the American cultural establishment.


“Spanos’s new book is not only an exercise in Heideggerian criticism but also a brilliant demonstration of the effects of (close) textual readings on the appreciation of the value of literary works, from their representational powers and limits to their possible function as canon-makers.” — Ricardo Miguel-Alfonso, International Fiction Review

"The Errant Art of Moby-Dick retrieves for all of us the errant art of critical reading, which no mere program of cynical professionalism or fashionable ‘new historicism’ could ever successfully practice in any genuine sense. As such, this work is a major intervention in Melville studies, American literature studies, and the culture of criticism generally." — Daniel O’Hara, Temple University

"An exciting and important work, one that is a major contribution to Melville studies and to American cultural history. It is an eloquent and impassioned defense of theory in the face of a militant resistance to it both by traditional humanist critics and by certain New Historicists." — Edgar A. Dryden, University of Arizona


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William V. Spanos is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the State University of New York, Binghamton. He is the founding editor of boundary 2 and the author of many books, including The End of Education and Heidegger and Criticism.

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1599-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1584-1
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