Date of Award

Winter 1984

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


In this study I examine the ways in which the idea of a national literature affected the development of both Herman Melville's career and of his reputation through 1930. Melville, as a member of the New York literary group Young America, participated in an effort to define and create a national literature. His apprenticeship was served under the influence of Young America, and the group's ideas about the act of writing, the defining qualities of a national work, and the relationship of writer and reader influenced the shape of his career. Although Melville's exploration into the implications of Young America's theories pushed him into profound religious and social questions that were, according to the group, better left unprobed, he could not escape the contradictions inherent in Young America's theories--contradictions that made professional authorship and the development of a national literature mutually exclusive enterprises.

The first chapter of the dissertation examines Melville's relationship with Young America and the arguments of both Melville's group and the more conservative Whig reviewers over the necessity of a national literature, the defining characteristics of that literature, and the role of professional authorship in America. The next six chapters trace the development of Melville's career in light of his relationship with Young America.

In the appendix, I examine the dramatic revaluation of Melville's place in American literature during the 1920s. Just as Melville's career becomes representative of the difficulties that many American writers encountered in trying to resolve the paradoxes inherent in the profession of authorship during the 1840s and 1850s, his Revival is representative of the broader revaluation of the American literary canon that occurred during the 1920s. Melville's career and the history of his reputation help illuminate the central issues in America's peculiarly self-conscious attempt to create and define a truly "national literature.".