English Honors Papers

Document Type

Honors Paper

Publication Date

May 2008


This honors paper was awarded the prestigious Oakes and Louise Ames Prize for 2008 given to the graduating senior who has completed this year's most outstanding honors study.


This thesis examines the question of what it means to think about a text as Atlantic literature. I consider two novels, Melville’s Moby-Dick and Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, in their relation to the Atlantic cycle of capital accumulation. I borrow this term from Ian Baucom, who, drawing on the work of Giovanni Arrighi, argues that the period extending from the late eighteenth century to the late twentieth century represents a definite epoch of historical capitalism: an Atlantic cycle of capital accumulation. To think about these texts as Atlantic literature, then, is to think about how they reproduce the logic of or understand themselves in relation to this Atlantic cycle, the dynamic engine of a circum-Atlantic world. I turn to two key theorists whose work I feel is best suited to each novel. Moby-Dick is primarily focused on capitalist production as represented by the whaling industry,and thus I employ Georg Lukács—particularly his model of realism and its emphasis on revealing the nature of production of a given social field—for my reading of that novel. Mason & Dixon, however, is less directly concerned with production and instead centers its narrative on the consumption of Atlantic commodities, which invites a reading that draws on Walter Benjamin, whose work focuses (primarily) on this stage of capitalist production. In my reading of Moby-Dick, I argue that the novel approaches the requirements of Lukácsian realism, but fails to meet them because of its compositionally eclectic nature. Because Moby-Dick is inherently contradictory, it does not contain what Lukács calls the moving center (the force that orients and directs the “totality of objects” of a given social field, in this case, capital)—or at least not conventionally. Instead, the moving center is displaced and reproduced figuratively in Ahab’s monomaniacal hunt for the white whale, leaving the empty shell of its rhetoric on Starbuck: Atlantic capitalism as contradiction. This, I argue, is not Lukácsian realism per se, but what I term a “realism of crisis,” as the text encounters its own moving center (capital) in a moment of crisis and subsequently displaces it (to Ahab). Mason & Dixon, however, traces the Atlantic cycle across space and, importantly,through a time that does not simply pass, but accumulates. We see this in the novel’s ghostliness, in how it represents commodities, and in the Benjaminian constellation of the late eighteenth and late twentieth centuries—the “bookends” of the Atlantic cycle. Through adopting a Benjaminian philosophy of history, the text reveals how the Atlantic cycle is composed not of discrete and isolated past moments moving through the empty, homogeneous time of capitalist modernity, but rather of nonsynchronously contemporaneous moments accumulating in the wake of a singular historical catastrophe. That catastrophe, Pynchon’s “the Day,” is analogous to the Atlantic cycle of accumulation. Both novels encounter the logic of capitalist accumulation and respond in turn with an alternative form of accumulation. In Moby-Dick, we see a trend of literary accumulation (the “nonrealist” element) that seeks to counteract the brutalizing reality of the logic of capitalist accumulation (uncovered by he “realist” element). And in Mason & Dixon, we see an accumulative (Benjaminian) philosophy of history that seeks to counteract the empty time of capitalist modernity, and articulates itself as a politics of melancholy.

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The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author.