Charting the course of gentlemanliness in the antebellum U.S.: The gentleman narrator in Poe, Dana, and Melville

Paul W. Craven

Abstract

In Edgar A. Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (1841), and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851) and The Confidence-Man (1857), the roles and narrative strategies of the narrators of these ocean and river-going travel narratives illuminate the position of the gentleman class (from which the narrators arose) in the antebellum U.S. These texts' "gentlemen narrators" can be examined on a number of levels to illuminating effect, revealing a great deal about the nature of U.S. gentlemanliness and the society and age from which it arises. The gentlemen narrator's manipulations of the identities of gentlemen and non-gentlemen alike provides a means of accessing the function of gentlemen narrators in these and other works, and also of examining the rise and evolution of the gentleman class in the U.S. This study utilizes theory drawn from post-colonialist, Marxist, New Historicist, and Formalist discourse to closely read these four gentlemen's travel narratives and to gain insight into the social and historical conditions of the gentleman class in the U.S., his interactions with non-gentleman classes, and the implications of gentlemanliness and its texts on the construction and enactment of class, race, and gender identities in the antebellum U.S.