The Consequences of Canonicity for Cultural Representativeness; or, The Whale
Sheehan, Katelyn Elizabeth
This paper takes up the problem of representation in literary studies from the standpoint of the study of culture. The presumption that works of literature are culturally representative of the nations in, by, and for which they were produced cannot be held uncritically in view of the dynamism that characterizes the relationship between literature and culture, and this paper aims to elucidate the literature-culture relationship as it emerges in the intersection between canonicity and the nation. In a continual feedback loop, the evaluation of a work as canonical forms readers into communities primed to receive the work as culturally valuable and to perpetuate that assessment of its value in turn. I explore this community-forming effect of canonicity, and its implications for the cultural representativeness of a literary work, as it is put into the service of a kind of literary nation-making. Using Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick as a kind of case study, I investigate the consequences for cultural representativeness when canonical literature is positioned in response to the nation’s sense of incompletion, proposing that literature takes on a dually representative and generative role with regard to culture and that this role is enabled by the illusory cultural value signaled in the novel’s canonicity, the expression of which I locate within the figure of the Whale—imbued with elastic powers of representation, the Whale transubstantiates the literature-culture relationship, enabling Moby-Dick to disseminate as cultural rather than literary artifact, incorporated into and as culture itself.