Another post related to Andrew Delbanco's Melville: His Life and Work. Scott Eric Kaufman remarks of Delbanco's contention that "Melville should not be censured for his failure to condemn slavery because the experience of living in a tumultuous time includes 'both the yes and no of [a] culture'" that "Normally I find this quasi-æstheticist pose painfully insufficient—a flaccid defense of New Critical orthodoxy. . . ."
But this is not an "aestheticist" pose at all. It has nothing to do with aesthetics. "New Critical orthodoxy" would hold that whether Melville was an abolitionist or not has no bearing one way or the other on how we judge his work. We might indeed condemn Melville himself for failing to become an abolitionist (at least overtly), but I can't see how our condemnation would then extend to his fiction. Some of it does deal with slavery ("Benito Cereno"), although even if we were to conclude that, for example, the slave ship captain in this story is portrayed too sympathetically (I don't agree with that interpretation), our literary judgment would (or should) have nothing to do with our moral judgment of Melville's reluctance to see the United States split itself apart to wage civil war.
"Historicism in the service of moral and political complexity," as Scott characterizes Delbanco's approach, is not the same thing as historicism in the service of aesthetic complexity, or any other kind of aesthetic effect. (It should be pointed out that Scott goes on to discuss the merits of "moral and political complexity" in the context of William Dalrymple's NYRB essay, "Inside the Madrassa.") Unfortunately, New Criticism has apparently come to be seen as an all-purpose kind of apologia for complexity of all kinds, a convenient whipping-boy in circumstances in which "complexity" is seen by some as an excuse for evading obvious moral distinctions. But let's be clear: New Criticism was a method of reading works of literature that emphasized the aesthetic qualities of those works, that attempted to identify the characteristics of literature--and of reading literature--that marked it off from other modes of discourse. In doing so, it minimized the importance of history, politics, and ethics, but only to remind us that those are subjects with their own discursive conventions and to suggest how little they are enhanced by yoking poetry or fiction to their service. It says nothing about the role of these subjects--or their complexity--in human affairs more generally.
The only thing "quasi-æstheticist" about Delbanco's account would be an attempt to transfer to Melville's political attitudes a notion of "complexity" that finally applies only to literature, not to life. Melville doesn't get off the hook for transferring the literary complexity of his novels and stories to his decisions in life. (Although some issues are indeed very complex.) Similarly, Delbanco shouldn't be allowed to make Melville's life into another version of his work. I don't say that he does this, but it's the only way I can make sense of the claim that there's something "quasi-aetheticist" about his argument.