Uncertain Credit: Melville's Affective Economies
Despite taking place in putatively “lawless” settings, Melville’s maritime fiction maps complex economies of obligation: characters draw up contracts, extend credit, and broker promissory exchanges for goods among themselves, in spite of the absence of any state or legal authority which would enforce their agreements and thereby guarantee the speculative values they call into being. Instead of being underwritten by the law, these contractual relations are characterised by their affective conditions of possibility. In these works, transacting business with strangers in mobile and itinerant spaces requires characters to develop ways of reading the character and creditworthiness of others in order to suppress suspicion and install confidence in its place. Taking “Benito Cereno” (1855) and The Confidence-Man (1857) as its key texts, this thesis tracks these economies of obligation as they emerge in and around Melville’s maritime fictions, which solicit the credit and trust of their readers while continually revising and renegotiating the terms on which that credit is to be extended. By interpolating spurious or broken contracts between characters into the structure of their narratives, these texts foreground the unstable or even illegible terms of the contract which literary texts make with their readers.