Melvillesco

Roman Wall

Wall

Today—February 25—is the 157th anniversary of Herman Melville’s arrival in Rome, on this day in 1857.  One of my goals, while in Rome as a Fulbright Fellow teaching the American Renaissance (1820-1860) at the University of Rome, Sapienza, is to take Melville’s journal of 1857 in hand and follow his daily itinerary.  I thought it would be FUN to follow in this man’s footsteps, to do my touring of Rome through his nineteenth-century eyes, while also sustaining the perspective of a twenty-first-century resident (rather than tourist), if only for a semester.

When walking about Rome, and looking hopelessly like the Americans we are, Ginny and I are frequently accosted by waiters and the occasional man dressed as a Roman gladiator (cigarette cupped in hand), the former to get us to eat at his place, the other to offer us a photo op with him.  And we say to them, “non siamo touristi.”  We are not tourists: we are locals; we are residents; we are Romans.  And though these waiters and faux gladiators buy our line and leave us alone—and I recommend the phrase if you are in Rome and would like to do your touring without being solicited—I realize that wanting to be Roman is not being a Roman. And so “non siamo touristi” is a fiction, just as it is a fiction that I could ever see Rome through Melville’s eyes. It occurs to me, though, that we are tourists wherever we may be domiciled. When we are most alive, we see our surroundings as if it were all new, as if we are suddenly touring our own backyard.  Maybe, then, we  are lucky to be tourists, if only our touring can be done for the right reasons, whatever we decide those reasons might be.

For all my years, I have spent extended periods of time residing a block from the beaches of San Diego and in a housing development beside the truck farms of nearby Lemon Grove, then in Chicago’s southside, in Genoa for a year, then outside Philadelphia, then in northwestern Pennsylvania, and for the longest period just outside New York City.  So much roving but always with family around me, and so I have never been far from home, though always in some sense an outlier, never a native. Now I am back in Italy a second time around, and for a month of days spread out in our five months here, I will be uno touristo melvillesco. I will be a tourist in Rome in the role of Melville touring Rome. The trick in this experiment will be not to delude myself into thinking I am seeing what Melville saw or seeing how Melville would see what he saw but to sustain a vital, critical distance between my present and Melville’s past.

I am not saying that in this business of being a tourist, I must keep my distance, to remain aloof and disinterested, to erect some wall between me and the subject of my research; in fact, I must plunge into my subject.  All I’m saying is that in plunging, I must know my distance.

So, if I can keep it up, some of my blog postings—which I will identify clearly in some way as being for anyone interested in Melville—will be on and about this experiment. Eventually, what I post will, in some way, make it into the Melville biography I am writing.  At the same time, these postings will naturally drift between Melville and me.  I hope I can keep the distance clear.  Tell me if it all goes fuzzy.

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