Was Billy Black? Herman Melville and the Captive King

in On Lingering and Being Last

Published by Fordham University Press

Published in print October 2008 | ISBN: 9780823229406
Published online September 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780823240982 | DOI:
Was Billy Black? Herman Melville and the Captive King

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Melville summarizes a figurative tradition begun with Behn and continued in the work of Equiano. He circulates the figure of the black sovereign — in Daggoo, in Atufal, in a certain “black pagod” encountered on the Liverpool docks — as part of a lifelong attempt to think through the antinomies of the modern self and its ensnarement in the mysteries of domination and subjection. Like Aphra Behn, Melville takes the problem of sovereignty as one of his basic themes. But what must be discerned around the edges of Behn's new world texts, namely, the knowledge, unhappily discovered, that in the post-absolutist modernity in which she found herself, sovereignty had become subordinated to an ideology of individualism, is for Melville the starting point: sovereignty, for this intense individualist, is first and foremost a trait, or difficult achievement, of the self. Political realities, or what he calls the “old State-secret,” cannot be separated from issues of individuals in their relation to other individuals.

Keywords: Herman Melville; Equiano; domination; subjection; sovereignty; individualism

Chapter.  17195 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (1500 to 1800)

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