Daniel Clinton, “Line and Lineage: Visual Form in Herman Melville’s Pierre and Timoleon” (pp. 1–29)

This essay examines Herman Melville’s reflections on form, line, and perspective in his novel Pierre (1852) and his poems on art and architecture in Timoleon (1891), a late book of verse partly inspired by his tour of the Mediterranean during 1856–57. I argue that Melville arrives at his understanding of literary form through the language of optical perspective, particularly the terms of “foreshortening” and “outline.” I compare Melville’s figurative conception of outline with the artistic theories and practices of William Blake, George Cumberland, John Ruskin, and the artist John Flaxman, whose illustrations of Homer and Dante feature prominently in Pierre. Widely circulated as engravings by Tommaso Piroli and others, Flaxman’s clean-lined drawings fascinate Melville because they emphasize implied narrative rather than optical verisimilitude. Melville responds to a romantic discourse that positions “outline” on the conceptual boundary between sense-perception and free-floating thought, as a mediating term between competing notions of art’s truth. In both his fiction and poetry, Melville’s reflection on the materiality of pictures doubles as a reflection on the materiality of thought. The formal features of visual art suggest the workings of the mind as it flattens unconscious possibilities and disparate truths into a manageable picture of the world.

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