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Through the Custom-House

Through the Custom-House: Nineteenth-Century American Fiction and Modern Theory - John Carlos Rowe This book is a tragedy - the author just didn't realize it.

John Carlos Rowe, in the middle of Through the Custom House, deconstructs Herman Melville’s, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” by using theories of Jacques Derrida. Rowe describes Bartleby’s initial willingness to do the copy work of a scrivener as well as his inexplicable refusal to “pick up or post messages” (126). By effectively blocking the origins and ends of communications, Bartleby becomes analogous, for Rowe, for deconstruction’s indeterminant signifier. Like the messages Bartleby refuses to send or receive, Derrida’s signifier, does not always arrive its destination. Paradoxically, Rowe’s entire book dramatizes this situation of aborted communication. Rowe mobilizes a great number of signifiers—the book’s proposed aims—that successfully efface meaning and certainly never arrive at their destination.

Initially, Rowe posits an interesting thesis: to read “six nineteenth-century prose texts in relation to six critical problems that exemplify the modern debate concerning representation and signification” (xi). Had Rowe followed his thesis through he might have written a provocative and useful book. What he does do, however, is far more complicated and far less worthwhile. Despite the relatively straightforward agenda he proposed, Rowe’s more labyrinthine intentions are laid out in detail in the rest of the Preface and the first chapter. And Rowe needs every one of the thirty pages to justify what he hopes to accomplish.

Consider his stated aims: “In the subsequent chapters, I use Heidegger’s late essays to read Thoreau’s A Week, Sartre’s work on the imagination to analyze Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, Freud’s critique of unified consciousness to interpret Poe’s Narrative of A. Gordom Pym, Derrida’s revision of Freud’s dynamic model of the psyche to interpret Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Nietzsche’s subversion of the subject to read Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, and the structural linguistics of Saussure and Benveniste to explore problems of narrative authority in James’s Sacred Fount” (xii) …Enough work for six volumes? Apparently not. Rowe’s book barely exceeds two hundred pages, and thirty of these pages are devoted to explaining why he uses somewhat marginalized texts that are in turn scrutinized through the optics of somewhat marginalized ideas of the theorists he’s selected.

I’ve read some of Heidegger, for example, but did not know, off hand, the ideological differences between Heidegger’s “late essays” versus his earlier work or what was meant, exactly, by “Derrida’s revision of Freud’s dynamic model of the psyche.” This would prove a serious liability, for the most comprehensive explanation of Heideggerian theory Rowe provides is in a paragraph from chapter one:

Thoreau’s A Week is read in terms of Heidegger’s effort in his late essays to reconceptualize the status of philosophic discourse, notably by relating poetry and thinking according to their mutual concern with the nature of language. This Heidegerrian “conversation” between poetry and language establishes one of the primary motifs in the remainder of this study, which regards the disciplinary boundaries that traditionally distinguish different humanistic discourses as indications of the necessary defenses employed by any determinate code to establish its claims to truth and meaning. (2)


This is not good writing and rarely—particularly when Rowe explains theory—does it get any better. A few lines down, Rowe explains his proposed use of Sartre and Hawthorne:

The Blithedale Romance is used as the focus for a comparative discussion of Hawthorne’s poetic conception of the imagination as an autonomous mental function. Designed to help clarify the intentional process of consciousness, Sartre’s theory raises questions about oneiric states, repression, and preconscious and unconscious forces that undermine the spodictic certainty that is the aim of Husserl’s radical subjectivism. (2)


Even armed with a French dictionary, German dictionary, any number of texts on literary theory, and various other references, provided no salvation.

Not content with the already ambitious task of explicating six primary texts in connection with seven complex theorists, Rowe breathlessly introduces a total of thirty-two more critics and critical schools within the first chapter. A dense argument between Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida is accorded one line. Phenomenology and Russian Formalism rate a paragraph apiece. Rowe quotes Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, Walter Benjamin, Hayden White, Harold Bloom along with other comparably difficult theorists without providing adequate introduction or synthesis. Like Bartleby, Rowe diligently copies words from numerous sources, but prefers not to follow his ideas through to any destination.

He writes a great deal, for example, about modernity. He explains—badly—Paul de Man’s theory of modernity, an impulse that is paradoxically “antiliterary” and might be likened to the action of a wave. A writer, wanting to accomplish something new, tries to break out from the ocean of literature. The resulting wave derives nonetheless from the ocean of literature itself and, at the same time the wave breaks upward, its curving crest forecasts its reinscription into literary tradition. Rowe connects de Man’s notion of modernity—the generative force of literature itself—with Harold Bloom’s idea of the “anxiety of influence.” While continually alluding to Bloom and the “anxiety of influence,” Rowe never explains the concept. And it isn’t a difficult concept to explain. Quite simply, Bloom feels that poetry—the text—is produced by a misreading and re-creation of the poet’s literary predecessors.

Rowe trots in several more notions of modernity before launching his final project. What Rowe proposes is a veritable hierarchy of anxiety. American literature is produced out of our desire to break away from Europe. The American writers Rowe has selected write—anxiously, of course—to deconstruct Emerson. Further, these writers, anxious about the influence of their own more major works, nervously produce marginal texts fortuitously fraught with contradictions and anomalies for Rowe to deconstruct.

But Rowe never delivers what he promises. In speaking of Thoreau, for example, he explains less what anxiety caused Thoreau to write A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers than why Walden is such a major minor work. Rowe’s tactic, a strategy he repeats in subsequent chapters, is to devalue the major work or works in order to elevate the minor work. Rowe gives a lot of articulate reasons to explain the technical failures of the major texts, but his argument boils down to demonstrating the major texts’ simplicity in contrast to the minor texts’ complexity.

Walden, for example is plagued by structural regularity, which Rowe refers to, disparagingly, as its “perfect form,” “mathematical precision,” or “architectonic order” and by the fact that it is awfully easy to understand since “Every schoolchild knows that Walden is about innocence, the auroral Adam in the primal light of nature” (35). Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables pale before the less simplified model of the imagination provided by The Blithedale Romance. Ishmael’s too easy to identify with and Huckleberry Finn is a cop out. What does subverting the value of the major texts have to do with Rowe’s stated aims? Apparently experiencing some anxiety himself, Rowe feels his work will be more major if he can make the discussed texts less minor.

Not surprisingly, even the discussions of the six texts do not follow Rowe’s original intentions. Thoreau’s A Week largely succeeds because of its “de-centeredness,” The Blithedale Romance because it demonstrates how imaginative consciousness is based on absence, A Narrative of A. Gordon Pym by enacting “the deconstruction of representation as the illusion of truth,” “Bartleby the Scrivener” by subverting both representation and logos, Pudd’nhead Wilson by its indeterminacy—the “refusal to resolves its issues” (167), and The Sacred Fount by de-hierarchizing the subject and its construction of self. If these critiques begin to sound the same it is because of the care with which Rowe has constructed his argument. Neither Rowe’s selection of theorists—Freud, Sartre, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Saussure, Husserl, etc., nor his thinly focused selection of their works, e.g., Heidegger’s “later” essays, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, or Freud’s “Note Upon a Mystic Writing-Pad” are a matter of quiddity. Rowe’s theorists—like his readings of the six minor texts—all look like they came out of the same cookie-cutter because Rowe has consciously selected the acknowledged precursors of Jacques Derrida.

I have no problem with what finally evolves into six Derridean readings, but I do question why Rowe devises such an intricate plan to cloak his actions. Perhaps, in another clutch of anxiety, he felt that in a book where the main thrust was on “intertextuality,” the use of a dominant theorist, who would then function like the logocentric voice Rowe cautions against, would undermine his goals.

I don’t—finally—understand, amid his tangle of motives and intentions, what Rowe’s choice of texts and theorists is supposed to demonstrate. I don’t understand why Rowe continually fails to define his terms. His book hinges on the concept of modernism, and he refers to its “central problems,” its “traditional historical formulation,” its “concerns,” and its “basic poetic, linguistic, and critical values” (169) but never provides a specific description of just what he feels modernism is.

Through the Custom House remains a book both confused and confusing—echoing the words Rowe quotes from Melville’s Pierre: “The profounder emanations of the human mind” are always ruined towers that “never unravel their own intricacies, have no proper endings; but in imperfect, unanticipated, and disappointing sequels (as mutilated stumps), hurry to abrupt intermergings with the eternal tides of time and fate” (138).