Stephanie Saint (University of Aberdeen)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Progress in the Pacific? The “Science of Man” in Stevenson’s and Melville’s South Sea Writings’

In a letter sent from Vailima in 1894 Stevenson states: ‘The prim obliterated polite face of life, and the broad, bawdy, and orgiastic – or maenadic – foundations, form a spectacle to which no habit reconciles me.’  Four decades earlier, Herman Melville had raised a similar issue: ‘What separates the enlightened man from the savage?  Is civilization a thing distinct, or is it an advanced stage of barbarism?’  This shared preoccupation with questions of race and identity reflects the fascination of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the study of human nature, a fascination that found a voice during the Scottish Enlightenment through the formation of the ‘science of man’.

The collected works of Stevenson and Melville can be said to comprise a ‘science of man’ in themselves; persistent throughout these texts is an investigation into human nature and human institutions; themes of society, morality, jurisprudence, and religion appear time and time again.  Each author works to break down institutionalised distinctions and meanings, repeatedly calling into question the dominance of mainstream society by locating their stories on the peripheries, both geographic and social.

This paper will explore the extent to which the Scottish Enlightenment’s theories of progressive civilisation influenced Stevenson’s and Melville’s active participation in the on-going racial discourse of their day.  Writing during a period in which ethnological definitions of identity were increasingly prevalent, how do these transatlantic authors handle the subject of difference?

As a focus point I have chosen Melville’s and Stevenson’s South Sea writings, not only because these men’s Pacific explorations signify a point of spatial and intellectual contact between them, but because these writings display their most explicit attempts to deal with questions of personal, national, racial, and, most significantly, ontological identity.

Categorized as Abstracts

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