Dedicated to the victims of auto-da-fe
O'Neill, Keith Michael
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This study looks at Melville’s career-long pattern of references to the Spanish Inquisition as an emblem for the secular process of literary canonization. It includes both an analysis of nineteenth-century conceptions of the Inquisition and a discussion of twentieth-century canon formation in the academy. Combining historical and theoretical perspectives, this argument traces the persecutorial “fires” that Melville experienced, and anticipated, from his readers and editors. Auto-da-fé, which literally means “act of faith,” was the public ceremony during which those found guilty of heresy by the Spanish Inquisition were handed over to the secular authorities for sentencing, which often culminated with the accused heretics burning at the stake. This process is the obverse of a religious canonization: whereas the making of a “saint” involves the preservation and inclusion of books and authors in the Church, an auto-da-fé is an act of exclusion. Canonical texts were authorized or sanctioned by the church and made “official,” whereas those texts and authors subjected to an auto-da-fé were deemed “unofficial” and destroyed. The ramifications of this process, however, extend beyond issues of text selection, for canon-formation has epistemological consequences: Melville suggests that “truth” itself is constructed as a “canon” that inherently favors the interests of those vested with institutional power. Anticipating Foucault’s thesis that the oppressive policing practices of the Middle Ages have merely become internalized, Melville uses the Inquisition as a trope to expose secular pressures to censor and censure “non-canonical” thinking. “Impiety” has become “impropriety,” but both labels suggest “heresy.” Typee and Moby- Dick document Melville’s growing awareness of the dangers in literary production, as well as his attempt to cloak heretical ideas within canonical literary forms. Pierre and The Confidence-Man show a deepening concern with the limits of interpretation, and both novels contain repeated suggestions that “authoritative,” or canonical, versions of a text always involve biases on the part of the interpreting authority. A look at some of the questionable ways Melville has been edited in the twentieth century-most notably the “Kraken” edition of Pierre-suggests that modern critics should heed Melville’s warnings more carefully.