Floating Stages: Racial Performance in Herman Melville’s 1850s Texts

Noel, James. 2017. Floating Stages: Racial Performance in Herman Melville’s 1850s Texts. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

Before the 1960s, there was very little literary criticism on the presence of race and culture in Herman Melville’s texts. However, racial events, such as the Civil Rights Movement, have been influential in causing intellectuals, such as Samuel Otter, Eric J. Sundquist, and Carolyn Karcher, to revisit Melville’s texts through the lens of race. This thesis is aligned with such critics, and it takes their ideas a step further - by contending that the racial performance found in Melville’s work develops increasingly during the 1850s, becoming more complex by Melville’s last published work prior to the Civil War. Moreover, I argue that these textual representations of racial performance are often ambiguous echoing the national and ethical dilemmas of the decade prior to the Civil War.

Chapter One establishes the beginning of my argument by contending that whiteness is implicitly performed in the staged theatrical production that Melville includes in White-Jacket. Chapter Two moves my argument forward as I examine the ways that race is performed in Moby-Dick. I suggest that the book is a development from Melville’s White-Jacket because the racial performance that takes place is more explicitly about race and is also extempore. Whereas Chapter One and Two focus on staged and extempore performances of race, Chapter Three moves my analysis of racial performance to social enactments of race. Specifically, I analyse the ways that the Senegalese slaves and Spanish crew perform race on board the San Dominick. I contend that Benito Cereno develops the racial performance found in Melville’s 1850s texts by offering a critique of slavery while the earlier writing did not. The last Chapter of the thesis concentrates on the racial performance in Melville’s last publication of the 1850s, The Confidence-Man. I propose that this text marks the height of racial performance found in Melville’s work as a result of the Black guinea’s ambiguity. Collectively, the chapters in this dissertation will provide a new reading of Melville through the lens of racial performance, by demonstrating how that racial performance develops in Melville’s work throughout the 1850s.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


Additional Information:

This is an edited version of the thesis with third-party copyright material removed.


Herman Melville, race, 1850s

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


30 April 2017

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

19 May 2017 13:34

Last Modified:

30 Apr 2020 01:26



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