Strike Through the Mask: Herman Melville and the Scene of Writing

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Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996 - Literary Criticism - 182 pages
Herman Melville was an intense and tortured writer, plagued by writing anxiety, emotional problems, and painful physical ailments. He produced his extraordinary body of work only with great anguish, and he appears to have inflicted great anguish on those around him. According to Elizabeth Renker, we learn much about Melville's fiction if we see how violent and frustrating the experience of writing was for him.

In Strike through the Mask Renker argues that Melville's frustrated engagement with the page--characterized by illegible handwriting, chronically bad spelling, and violent manipulations of text--is the most important source of his work's drama and power. She examines the impact on his writing of his struggles with writer's block and depression. And she explores Melville's complex relationship with women, particularly his wife and sisters, on whom he depended to copy and correct his manuscripts.

Renker sees Melville's experience of writing reflected in his haunting and enduring theme of disturbing, impenetrable faces. Ahab's famous desire to "strike through the mask" of the dead, blind "pasteboard" wall echoes Melville's own relentless striking through and rewriting in his private battle with the blank page.

"There is... the uncomfortable suggestion that Melville physically and emotionally abused his wife. One letter reveals that Elizabeth Melville's minister proposed a feigned kidnap to spirit her away from husband and home... Those interested must turn to Elizabeth Renker's... Strike Through the Mask." -- Times Literary Supplement

"Herman relied on [his wife] and his sisters to copy out his illegible manuscripts; those very manuscripts, with his violent revisions, displayed his hostility toward them. And this new view of the relationship, [Renker] said, must change the way we view his work." -- Philip Weiss, New York Times Magazine

"A fascinating new perspective on Melville's career. From a meticulous scrutiny of the material and visual features of Melville's manuscripts, Renker develops the connections between Melville's works and his strenuous work of composing them." -- Gillian Brown, University of Utah

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From MobyDick to Pierre
Chapter Three Wife Beating and the Written Page
Chapter Four Those mere phantoms which flit along a page

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