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Monument et Modernité

Catherine Lanone
Cécile Roudeau
Charlotte Gould
et al.

Première partie. « Non à ce marbre, mort et froid » : L'Amérique en mal de monuments

Chapitre III. Union and Dismemberment: Melville and Whitman and the Crafting of American Character

Ian Maloney

Texte intégral

1In 1947, Van Wyck Brooks, comparing Whitman’s Leaves of Grass with Melville’s Moby-Dick, argued that “[o]ne gave the dark side of the planet, the other the bright” (Brooks: 175). Brooks’s insight captures the dramatic polarity of America’s literary giants. Melville and Whitman were contemporaries, both born in 1819, both men died within a year of each other (1891-1892). Both men are monumental figures in world literature, and yet they display vastly different understandings of American character. Sculptural references in these writers display contemporary questions concerning monumental identity. Melville led his readers to see the dark fissures and ironies of identity with his sculptural references. Melville saw death and dismemberment—walls, silent sentinels, and slaves in the art awaiting America. Melville saw hearts opened up on blank tablets, signaling the void, waiting to be filled by those seeking to galvanize wills to their pursuit of power. Whitman, on the other hand, provided hope for the union, an undying sense of belief and faith in the democratic process of the American mosaic. Whitman championed the transcendence of individual artistic minds merging with the vast bounty of nature’s beauty and providing fleeting yet powerful glimpses of the divine “original concrete”.

2To frame my article, I turn back once again to the Washington monument, which I used in my book Melville’s Monumental Imagination. Kirk Savage’s article “The Self-Made Monument” provides a powerful history of the contested ground. The giant stone obelisk is an ambiguous symbol. It was not a colossus. It was not religious hagiography. The Washington monument displayed the intense symbolic problem of public representation in a democratic society. Solidifying enormous heroes in stone seemed undemocratic. And yet, the Civil War would change this practice dramatically. It was that period where larger-than-life heroic representations sprouted across city squares and public spaces. Patriotism and rapid technical development combined to lead a push to memorialize native heroes and deeds with public monuments. Whitman and Melville anticipated the problems facing artists when confronted with sculpting an American sense of identity in a short span of time. Both writers saw unique problems in casting national heroes in marble or bronze.

3In 1836, George Watterston of the Washington Monument Society sought designs for what he what he believed would be “the most stupendous and magnificent monument ever erected to man” (Savage, 1998: 16). Throughout its various stages of completion, the Monument became a phallic joke on lost American potency according to Robert Hughes. It was a towering embarrassment, a stone testimony to bureaucratic incompetence. Mark Twain thought that it looked like a damaged factory chimney. The site lay neglected for years. Ten years after the acceptance of Robert Mills’s design, the shaft had risen only 150 feet. During the Civil War, cattle grazed around the incomplete base. It was only in 1876 that Congress decided to end the embarrassing lack of progress and fund its completion, at 555 feet.

4The structure’s controversial design and long bureaucratic delays mark the ambiguity at the center of America’s public image. The obelisk appears as a nod to empire building, or perhaps a lasting testament to the power of secret societies in American affairs. Clearly, it provides a reaching for the skies. It is a pointed, stone symbol of power and prestige, dedicated to one powerful individual. The Washington Monument challenged the artistic imagination of both Melville and Whitman, in different ways. Two proposed and neglected ideas for the site are important for my analyses of Melville and Whitman here. Congressman John Nicholas of Virginia proposed “a plain tablet, on which every man could write what his heart dictated. This, and this only, was the basis of [Washington’s] fame” (Savage 2009: 42). George Washington Parke Custis, Washington’s adopted son, wanted an earth mound, or national anthill to be raised by citizens from all over America. This act would honor the land, the agrarian roots of the revolution. These different ideas seem to strikingly capture the polarized attitudes of monumental space in Melville and Whitman. For Melville, the monuments in his art testify to the conflicted tablets of his dismembered, ironic heart. His empty spaces echo across the void, leaving emaciated frames and skeletal structures. Melville left his own enigmatic tablet at his gravesite, a place which even today seems to ask for a viewer to inscribe its meaning. For Whitman, the monument was always a symbol of natural union, a place where stones and impediments drifted away, where the individual is left in a space of renewal and regeneration in nature. Monumentality for Whitman occurs in the streets, in long vast stretches of nature, and under your boot soles. It does not take shape high up in the skies. Whitman saw a space where differences disappear and democracy spreads from person to person under foot and deep in the soil; Melville, on the other hand, saw individuals scribing differences, disagreements, and dotage on the tablets of the world. Melville feared a transcendent democratic art; Whitman championed it.


5Both “Bartleby” and “Benito Cereno” display Melville’s dark distrust and disillusionment with America’s representation of self. In these stories, Melville’s references to statuary point to future days of inscribed differences. “Bartleby” is a precursor of the postmodern, while “Benito Cereno” foreshadows the intense conflicts of representing race after the Civil War. It is my belief that Melville’s references to statuary in these tales allude to ideas raised by Nietzsche in The Will to Power. Melville understood the dangers of machine-like processes. Melville foresaw the race of “overmen” in Nietzsche who aimed to bring about a stronger species which distinguishes and preserves itself from the common man. Melville understood the dangers inherent in this. I read this casting of Ahab as an example of this overman figure. Melville’s crafting of the Lawyer in “Bartleby” signals this powerful, manipulative type of character, just as his casting of Delano high-lights the naïveté lurking at the core of America’s isolated sense of self.

6I’d like to begin my analysis of “Bartleby” with the statuary of Thomas Ball. First, Ball’s statuette of Daniel Webster became one of the first mass-produced and patented statuettes in America. Ball noted that Webster had a godlike head and that the sculptor felt trapped by the small scale of his bust: “His face was constantly before me in colossal form. I felt cramped and trammeled in so small a compass” (Gordon, 14). Ball capitalized on his design and duplicated models were offered for sale in two finishes, with or without drapery. The early busts went through many changes. As Jennifer Gordon notes, “Much of the detail from the original model was lost in the casting process” (15). Originality was lost in the translation. These small reproduced copies eventually led to the large Webster commission in Central Park in the 1870s. The Crystal Palace exhibition took place in New York in 1853. Ball’s statuette of “Webster” was one of the few American entries. The exhibit was meant to educate the public about good taste in art. This, of course, was the very year that Melville wrote “Bartleby, the Scrivener”.

7“Bartleby” has been read in a myriad of ways. Critics have found ample connections between the sentinel scrivener and the jilted, author creator in Melville. The dogged copyist refuses to produce for the market hemming him in and patronizing his efforts. My suggestion, however, is that “Bartleby” is a response to reproduction, particularly statuettes. If Melville understood the developing art scene, as I believe he did, he would have recognized the coming effects of mass production, particularly of noted American figures like Daniel Webster. Melville feared mass-produced images, and particularly substituting nationalistic agendas in the place of artistic integrity and craft. Melville, after all, petitioned for William Macready to perform at the Bowery Theatre, in spite of violence from anti-British supporters. This disagreement between art and nativist agendas led to the infamous Astor Place Riots.

8Daniel Webster, at his Bunker Hill speeches in 1825 and 1843, celebrated the United States in a line of succession from the Greek empire. Webster’s sentimental patriotism sought unity—a bond formed by the past, which smoothed over the rough edges of America into a coherent narrative of progress. Bunker Hill, like the Washington monument, was an obelisk. Once again, we see smooth and rising national monuments, soaring into the sky, dwarfing and reducing human beings in scale. Mass-produced talking heads were filling the air, and artistic freedom and individual performance would suffer for it.

9“Bartleby” presents a direct, glaring challenge to empire building and smooth stories of imperial succession. Like Thomas Cole’s famous series of paintings The Course of Empire (1833-36), Melville creates an ironic space to critique American hubris and mass copying. In my interpretation, Bartleby is an eerie precursor to the performance artist. The Lawyer is a personification of the market, of the overman creating a space of safe superiority. “Bartleby” is a tale of the walled existence of the market contrasting with the necessary freedom and risk of the artist. The Lawyer, of course, tells the story. He frames the art, snugly in his world of bonds and mortgages. The tale provides a harrowing sense of disease with the unchanging, immovable will of mass production, to copy and produce at the will of the master. Unlike the fluid forms of Moby Dick, “Bartleby” revels in stasis. The story itself seems a miniaturized diatribe on sculpted forms and walled-in art markets.

10In the tale, Nippers and Turkey play off each other. They act as guards at the tomb of the Lawyer. They are predictable. One man grows old, playing off the similarities of himself and the master. The younger man grows ireful with a passion to transcend his station. If they were artists, Turkey would be a “has been”, blotting his marks and working past his prime, appealing to a “fellow-feeling” to continue in his work. Nippers would be the overly ambitious idealist, hoping for his big break to transcend out of his confined market. And yet, Nippers knows not what he wants. In many ways, Nippers and Turkey resemble the dramatic polarity eating away at Melville’s artistic heart. One is the blotting old fool, believing he is still charging the foe past his his prime; the other is the personification of an ambitious artist who wishes to move beyond his current station into something more grand and elevated. “Bartleby” is Melville’s sense of the true artistic work. He becomes isolated behind the green folding screen. He stares out on blank walls. Bartleby personifies the void of the true artistic heart, scribing preferences on blank tablets for all eternity.

11Bartleby becomes the statue of man, an ironic testimony to the need for acceptance, categorization and understanding. Unlike the monuments erected in public squares, Bartleby cannot be bracketed off, ignored or passed by. Melville places the breathing statue within the confines of the office. The viewers have to grapple with his form and wish him to leave from them, or to produce more copy. The Lawyer is haunted by a living, breathing statue, who simply prefers not to be a cloned statuette for easy consumption. One is reminded of the magic of A Winter’s Tale, where the queen is magically transformed into a living breathing being before the weeping eyes of Leontes. Melville draws an ironic comparison. There is no magic solution for Melville’s woes. Bartleby changes from a copyist into an ironclad monumental figure, demanding the right to choose an artistic vision, unhinged from the walls of the market. The Lawyer wishes to shed tears and sentiment for Bartleby. He wishes to reconcile himself and act in good taste, but he doesn’t know how to respond to a living piece of art which challenges his assumptions about the world. The Lawyer wants art which is reasoned and safe and predictable. He imagines himself rolling the name of John Jacob Aster off his tongue, as if it had an orbicular sound to it. The Lawyer prepares the way for the cult of stardom. He thinks of his life enhanced by the weight of Astor’s name. The Lawyer also displays a bust of Cicero in his office to remind all visitors of what he values in life and art: immobility and reason, artifice and oratory. The sculpted, detached head signifies mass-produced stately virtue. It is a dramatic link to the detached aspirations of empire, plaguing American art.

12Cicero’s bust in the office is the Lawyer’s version of art and life itself. It is cut off from the neck, a head without a body. It is reason, cut off from the heart, detached from the body politic itself. The Lawyer’s very nature is anti-democratic and dictatorial. It is an echo back to Webster and empire building. In Melville, the tale shows the irony of the reproduction. American artists should stare at the busts of antiquity and demand freedom and independence. Bartleby’s transformation into a living statue sends a challenge to the so-called orators of democracy. Melville did not want art turned over into political puppetry. He did not want safe monuments erected for easy public consumption and mass-produced copy. Melville wanted art to “prefer not to”.

  • 1 Quoted in O’Hagan’s article, in The Guardian.
  • 2 For Serra and an illustration of Serra’s Torqued sculptures, see Chapter 15.

13“Bartleby” provides a subtle reminder that art, being one of the most human of activities, does not always please. Bartleby’s wasting away and eventual death is punctuated early in the story by his gaze upon Cicero. He stares at the limits of the artistic self, in a world hemmed in by the market. Bartleby’s gaze is a haunting reminder that the artist may very well starve and the art may be packaged off from where it is installed, but it cannot compromise in the face of this challenge. A fitting reminder of this artistic debate occurred in 1981. I would argue that Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc provides a fascinating wall, if you will, which embodies the spirit of the Bartleby tale. Serra’s piece was installed in the Federal Plaza in Manhattan, not far from where the fictional tale of Bartleby was set. Serra’s installation met with constant debate and heated arguments. Judges were called in to create an injunction against Tilted Arc as an inappropriate piece of public art. A panel was formed and the piece was removed in three sections in the dead of night. It died a powerful death in the public eye. When Serra was asked to comment on the decision to remove his monument, after his appeal, he replied: “I don’t think it is the function of art to be pleasing […] Art is not democratic. It is not for the people”.1 Melville embodied this sentiment in the 1850s. His distrust of enclosed worlds, circling the artist, conspiring against his freedom is evident. Serra’s sculpture Torqued Spirals reminds me of the end of “Bartleby”.2 The circling patterns mirror the walls of the Tombs, the prison, where the artist starves to death in the shadow of the towers of progress and industry. The circles of Bartleby leave the reader mindful of the walls, circling around the artist’s work at all times.

14Serra believed that to remove his Arc from its spot was to destroy it. If the piece was relocated, Serra would take his name off the art work. Like Serra’s Arc, “Bartleby” becomes a site-specific work of art. His function was to challenge perspective, to make viewers understand the space they inhabit, and to understand their relationships with each other. Bartleby’s removal to the Tombs signals the end of his performance. As Serra noted about Tilted Arc, the point was that the viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through space. Unfortunately, Bartleby’s Wall Street installation was a “dead letter” for an America that was not yet ready for the plaza of originality and controversy. In Melville’s nineteenth-century world, copy and reproduction were kings and counselors.

15Two years after the composition of “Bartleby”, Melville broke new and terrifying ground, with relation to monumental space. Slavery haunted Melville’s mind. His allusions to statuary seem to foreshadow the depiction of slaves, which became so common in the monuments after the Civil War. As Kirk Savage’s book Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves made apparent, the vision of the patriarchal father leading the subservient, child-like slave to justice was common. Images of Lincoln abounded after the Civil War, as illustrated by Thomas Ball’s “Lincoln Freeing a Slave/The Emancipation Group”. This patronizing motif of Lincoln’s Christ-like figure leading the orphaned blacks to the Promised Land would have been an oversimplification for Melville. The mass-produced motif masked the darker truths of slavery, and it made a superman colossus out of the fallen Lincoln.

16In “Benito Cereno” Melville uses several fascinating sculptural allusions. Delano, as so many critics have noted, misreads the state of affairs aboard the San Dominick. This begins with the canvas-wrapped figurehead in front of the ship. Unlike the glass figurehead encased in Redburn, this figurehead is no miniature.

17It represents something larger and darker, something that cannot be contained in glass and observed and moved about freely. Delano reasons that the canvas is there “either to protect it while undergoing a refurbishing, or else decently to hide its decay” (165). This is an ironic but apt description, for the figurehead hides the bones of the slain slave trader, the murdered Aranda. The sculpted art leading the ship of state is the rotting corpse of a white man’s bones. The viewer soon realizes that an over-haul is needed rather than a refurbishing; that there is no way to “decently” hide the decay at the forefront of America’s sense of self.

18The phrase Seguid vuestro jefe (follow your leader) accompanies the hidden, canvassed figurehead. It is a perfect allusion for the American ship of state. The ship is incorporated into American vision by the gaze of Delano. The entire journey centers upon the gaze of the captain, his inability to account for the bones underneath the canvas, the artistic mask, as it were, which guides the eye into the future. Beneath the appearances is death. Death is what centers the artistic meaning of the ship at sea, and whether there is hope for refurbishing or all is decaying is left to the eye of the reader.

19Melville’s allusions to slaves serve as riddles for this practice. Melville depicts Atufal, Babo’s main accomplice, in sculptural terms at one point on deck. “Upon gaining the deck, Captain Delano started at the unexpected figure of Atufal, monumentally fixed at the threshold, like one of those sculptured porters of black marble guarding the porches of Egyptian tombs” (223). Delano’s impression cast Atufal in the role of empire guardian. He is reduced to a statuary figure outside a tomb. Melville’s ironic casting works as a brilliant foil, for it shows the ongoing struggle with representation that America would have regarding African slaves. Like Nippers working the stairs of the Tombs, Delano casts the monumental Atufal like the Lawyer. He is a sentinel, guarding the crypt, not the warrior ascending the pillar by force in the public square.

20The closing dialogue between Cereno and Delano reveals the enormous weight of memory in America’s construction of character. Delano advises to forget, to accept salvation and to move on to blue skies. He pushes vision upward, almost like nationalists who wished to wash away the dark memories of the past for easy, smooth stories of ascending heroes. Cereno sees that the steadfast pull of the Africans lead him to his tomb. Cereno follows his leader to the grave. Melville foreshadows the irony to come as America represented itself in stone after the Civil War. If the Civil war was fought to free slaves, the eyes of Delano reduce blacks to Newfoundland dogs on ships. They are black sentinels at the tomb, waiting for the savior. The final image of Babo provides the terrifying aspect of Melville’s vision. In a surreal way, Melville’s story foreshadows the lynching postcards of the late 19th and early 20th century.

21The “negro”, just as he weighed on the mind of Cereno, haunted the public sphere of American memory. The dismembered body of Babo is burned in flames. The head remains fixed on a pike, a macabre monument in the Plaza of the world, staring out in a fixed dismembered, ambiguous stare. Melville insisted that the American ship of state would run aground, if Americans did not recognize the skeletons of its past, present, and future. The bones, hidden at the helm of the ship, provide a ghastly vision of death and dismemberment at the heart of America’s blank and decaying tablet of self-identity.

22Melville’s sculptural allusions in “Bartleby” and “Benito Cereno” foreshadow the conflicts of the Civil War. Melville needed travel to escape the labyrinth. He needed new lands, new ideas to bring forth his Theseus to tame the dismembered dreams of his America. Melville saw a world of copied busts, assembled for the consumption of the market. He saw the white gaze forming the bodies of African slaves, kneeling down to masters. Melville had little faith in the democracy of art in nature. He believed the nation would be overrun by rats. In “Bartleby”, Melville depicts the artist as living statue, defying the copying of the day. In “Benito Cereno”, he leaves grisly reminders that monuments bear the mistakes we make in misreading the signs of our times. The skeletal figurehead swims into dark seas, the chiseled slave leaves the tomb unguarded, and the head of the black man stares forth at the public square—a grim decaying reminder when we fail to buy into each other’s heads in the market. Queequeg sells his head and carves the coffin. Babo’s dead eyes stare out on to global square—a fitting memento of the blank tablets of Melville’s dismembered, American heart.


23Whitman’s understanding of the monumental is radically different. Instead of the fear-laden in power and structure and will to dominate and die in Melville, Whitman championed the democratic spirit of his country, comparing the achievements of the common man to those of great conquerors. The poem “Wallabout Martyrs” provides a clear glimpse of Whitman’s sense of the monumental:

  • 3 “The Wallabout Martyrs”. New York Herald. 16 March 1888: 4. Reprinted in the “Sands at Seventy” an (...)

In Brooklyn, in an old vault, mark’d by no special recognition, lie huddled at this moment the undoubtedly authentic remains of the stanchest and earliest revolutionary patriots from the British prison ships of the times of 1776-1783, in and around New York and from all over Long Island; originally buried, many thousands of them, in trenches in the Wallabout sands.
Greater than memory of Achilles or Ulysses
More, more by far to thee than tomb of Alexander
Those cart loads of old charnel ashes, scales and splints of mouldy bones.
Once living men—once resolute courage, aspiration, strength
The stepping stones to thee today and here, America.3

24Whitman’s poem is a celebration of bones, of the decomposition of heroes. He is hesitant to champion individual heroes or colossal sculptures dedicated to Achilles, Ulysses or Alexander. The poem pushes far away from overmen, raised atop pedestal stands. The impulse for Whitman is to transcend stone. His eyes look to common soldiers’ ashes as stepping stones for future American viewers.

25Whitman campaigned for a public park and memorial for the Wallabout Martyrs. These Revolutionary heroes were prisoners of war in British ships in New York harbor. During the war, 11,000 captives died of starvation and malnourishment on the prison vessels docked in Wallabout Bay off Brooklyn’s current Vinegar Hill section. The bones of the soldiers washed ashore and were collected by Brooklyn residents. Eventually the people of Brooklyn erected a memorial vault for the slain revolutionary heroes. The remains were interred in the vault. The current site of the Prison Ship Martyrs monument was erected in 1908. This particularly poem was written in 1888.

26The poem echoes similar ideas from Whitman’s memoir Specimen Days. Whitman saw depressed mounds, as well as crumbled and broken stones as he sat in his family graveyard on Long Island. There, he found the deepest eloquence of a sermon or a poem. His whole family history was laid out before him, with names rubbed out with the weather and with age. For Whitman, the union of the monumental was a spiritual journey. Real monuments were ones that could never be cast in stone. They were engrained deep in the heart of the poet, reading the leaves of the land and reveling in the regenerative powers of the world.

27Readers can see this idea blossom in his thoughts on Lincoln. As Whitman writes in Memoranda During the War, “[t] he current portraits are all failures (Whitman 1875-6: 63). To the eye of the great artist, Lincoln was a feast and a fascination. Lincoln, after all, became the western star. The pictures that Whitman hangs in his elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” (Whitman 1891: 255) are all ones of natural order and regeneration. Nature and democracy hold the essential features which were so dear to Whitman. Whitman breaks a sprig of lilac. That is enough to monumentalize Lincoln. The reader sees evidence of this idea throughout Whitman’s poetic career. In the section “Calhoun’s Real Monument” of Memoranda During the War, Whitman recalls a conversation between soldiers in a field hospital. One soldier is describing a monument to John Calhoun. An old veteran corrects his counterpart:

I have seen Calhoun’s monument. What you saw is not the real monument. But I have seen it. It is the desolated, ruined south; nearly the whole generation of young men between seventeen and thirty destroyed or maim’d; all the old families used up—the rich impoverished, the plantations cover’d with weeds, the slaves unloosed and become the masters, and the name of Southerner blackened with every shame—all that is Calhoun’s real monument.” (Whitman 1875-6: 54-55; emphasis in the original)

28The land and the people become the monumental in Whitman. The scars of battle are absorbed into the land itself. The ground holds the bones of the past; it rises in his mind as the true monument to America.

29His catalogues of common people stand as his most fitting testament to the monumental features of America’s sense of self. In “Song of the Broad Axe” written in 1856, a year after “Benito Cereno”, Whitman champions a nation of workers carving an identity out of the land itself (Whitman 1856: 140-160). The phrase “the shape arises” reoccurs anaphorically throughout the poem. Welcome are the varied shapes of America’s people in Whitman’s vision. Whitman sees the dead advancing along with the living; he sees monumentality in common workers, common daily tasks. He doesn’t fear the command of strong-willed individuals carving out niches of power and prestige and forcing mass-produced ideas to the masses, as Melville had feared. Whitman sees cities which endure—the structures all pass away—the composites of iron and granite fill an hour for Whitman. It is the people who carry the monumental within them. As he writes about the city, he hopes that the place where a great city stands is “[w] here no monuments exist to heroes but in the common words and deeds” (Whitman, 1856: 175). Little in Whitman references actual monuments. In many ways. Whitman echoes “The Discourse Upon the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality Among Men”. Rousseau called upon the natural quality of democracy, the need for genuine education in nature. This optimistic belief contrasts with the dark visions of Melville, and especially his fears of the power of men to dominate others into copying and dislodging themselves from the common foundation of humanity.

30Onward, the shapes arise in Whitman’s “Song of the Broad Axe”. The axe leaps and the pioneer poet carves the monumental out of the ordinary working of the democratic whole. For Whitman, the bones of the past lay the fertile ground of the future. In section 12 of the poem, Whitman writes:

The main shapes arise!
Shapes of Democracy total, result of centuries
Shapes ever projecting other shapes
Shapes of turbulent manly cities
Shapes of the friends and home-givers of the world earth
Shapes bracing the earth and braced with the whole earth.
(Whitman 1856: 181)

31Whitman, so unlike Melville and Serra, reminds me of contemporary land artists like Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long. Goldsworthy arranges natural things into monuments and photographs them, much the same way Whitman did with words. Both artists revel in the simplicity and temporality of the world they carve into the monumental. This attitude is best summed up by Whitman’s “Poem of the Child That Went Forth, and Always Goes Forth, Forever and Forever”:

There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder, pity, love or dread,
That object he became.

And that object became part of him for the day,
or a certain part of the day, or for many
years, or stretching cycles of years. (Whitman, 1856: 282)

32Whitman’s monumental is the fleeting glimpse of time. For him, monumentality abounds in the shapes we transform with our eyes and hands every day, in the fields and streets around us. The shapes abound for this poet of democracy, reconstituting his nation’s epic sense of self in the common forms of everyday life. Like Long and Goldsworthy, much of what is seen and monumentalized must drift back and be consumed back into nature. The process of monumentality is one which reconnects the viewer to the progress of nature and eternal union.

33Monumentality in Whitman and Melville reveals vastly different understandings of America’s progress. For Melville, uncertainty in the American character persisted. Melville’s short stories bear continual witness to this preoccupation with statuary. Melville seems modern, almost postmodern, in his sculpted references. He saw heated debates occurring over the public, democratic nature of art. Melville saw a blank tablet world, where power was flaunted and mass production lurked around every bend. Like Richard Serra, Melville sought to put a challenge to safe and naïve concepts of taste in art.

  • 4 Walt Whitman. “Specimen Days”. Complete Prose Works. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1892, p. 200.

34Whitman’s references to statues are diametrically opposed to Melville. In many ways, Whitman’s belief is best summed up by his closing of Specimen Days. Like Goldsworthy and Long, Whitman sought a child-like vision of the world, seeing a world in process, in constant motion. Whitman believed that “Democracy most of all affiliates with the open air, is sunny and hardy and sane only with Nature—just as much as Art is.”4 Democracy needed to reconstitute itself with contact in nature. Unlike the dark prescriptions of Melville’s dismemberment, Whitman sought the heroic element of monumental America underlying the people and natural objects of the New World. He wrote in the final paragraph of Specimen Days: “Perhaps indeed the efforts of true poets, founders, religions, literatures, all ages, have been and ever will be, our time and times to come, essentially the same—to bring people back from their persistent strayings and sickly abstractions, to the costless average, divine original concrete.” Perhaps America’s sense of self is best understood if we examine the abstract voids, copies, walls and darkness of a Melville in connection with the divine average, concrete light of nature in Whitman. The contradictions between these contemporaries shaped America’s evolving sense of self in stone and in print.


1 Quoted in O’Hagan’s article, in The Guardian.

2 For Serra and an illustration of Serra’s Torqued sculptures, see Chapter 15.

3 “The Wallabout Martyrs”. New York Herald. 16 March 1888: 4. Reprinted in the “Sands at Seventy” annex to Leaves of Grass (1888).

4 Walt Whitman. “Specimen Days”. Complete Prose Works. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1892, p. 200.


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