The Portent and Shiloh

Attached is my response to a question from the 2 attached PDFs. Below, is a follow up to that response. Please answer the BOLD question. Answer does not need to be more than a paragraph or 2.

“For my comments I want to focus on this statement of yours:

“‘The Portent’ and ‘Shiloh’ help to capture the trials as well as tribulations of slavery and are captured based on cultural memories as poetic metaphors and narratives that articulate and transmit the people’s experiences and worldviews.”

I think you’re saying quite a lot in comparatively few words, so I want to take a little time to unpack some of it. You speak of (1) “cultural memories” that can be used to (2) “articulate and transmit” (3) “people’s experiences and worldviews.” I want to take these one at a time (and maybe in your response you can let me know where I’m understanding you right and where I’m understanding you wrong).

(1) Cultural memories: Here I think you’re referring to things like “Shenandoah” that would have had widely shared meanings for Melville’s American readers. These are *cultural* memories rather than *individual*, that is, they are widely shared throughout the culture. They’re public, not private. And in American culture, the Shenandoah region of Virginia has long been associated with the natural beauty of the Shenandoah Valley, and also with nostalgia — as in the famous folk song ( (I’m not 100 percent sure whether readers in Melville’s time would have been familiar with this song, or whether they would have associated it with Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley; see

The song is about someone far away from home in the West (about to cross the Missouri River) who longs to be back home in the East, in Shenandoah. The singer is about to take a step that, in Melville’s time, was a step from the known into the unknown (“I’m bound away, across the wide Missouri”). This seems appropriate to a poem written on the brink of a major war. And the singer is conflicted in a way that would have felt familiar to a lot of Americans: he’s moving west toward the frontier even as he misses the home he has left behind. When Melville uses “Shenandoah” in his poem, he transports something of that particular conflict into our understanding of the conflict over slavery.

Also, of course, Shenandoah represents the South, which is a beautiful place but now overshadowed by the “gaunt” prospect of war. As it turned out, most of the Civil War was fought in southern territory, so it was indeed the South that was devastated by the war (though I don’t know if we can credit Melville with know this before the fact). Anyway, the point is that the word “Shenandoah” might have vrought up a lot of cultural “memories” for Melville’s American readers, and those memories help deepen the basic meaning of the poem.

— Articulate and transmit: Yes, and yes. The imagery of these poems serve to *articulate* meaning to the reader, that is, they “speak” the meaning in the present, at the moment the poem is being read, but in doing so they also *transmit* those meanings to the future. The poems use memories that already exist in the culture, and in doing so they also keep the memories alive in the culture, helping to pass them on to future generations of readers.

— People’s experiences and worldviews: What I find most interesting in the way you have yoked these two together is that they are (as we academics say) “co-constitutive.” That is, they shape each other. Our experiences shape our worldviews, even as our worldviews shape our experiences. The first of these is perhaps more obvious, but the second is equally true. People with different worldviews can experience the exact same event quite differently. To give just one example, consider how three different people in, let’s say, the 1870s, might experience the unveiling of a statue of Robert E. Lee: a former abolitionist, a white southerner whose plantation was burned down during the war, and a former slave. Each of these would experience the unveiling quite differently, and they would also presumably experience Melville’s poems quite differently.

To give another example, consider how Amasa Delano’s racial assumptions (part of his worldview) influence his experience of events aboard the San Dominick.

Anyway, the idea that there are such things as “cultural memories” seems to me to be closely related to the idea of “cultural literacy.” For your followup, let me ask you to read up a bit on cultural literacy (see and then let me know what you think of the idea, especially as it relates to our ability to appreciate literature in general and “Shiloh” and “The Portent” in particular.

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