‘Mirror with a memory’: Theories of light and preternatural negatives in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick | Intellect Skip to content
Volume 32, Issue 2
  • ISSN: 1466-0407
  • E-ISSN: 1758-9118



This article explores theories of light in the American Romantic period as a way of addressing image–text relations in the dynamic early decades of photography. It addresses the gothic nature of the daguerreotype’s ambiguous negative/positive picture and its temporal and spatial implications in relation to Melville’s aesthetic of light in his Romantic epic Moby-Dick. Upon the daguerreotype’s arrival in 1839, it was greeted by Americans with both fascination and suspicion: not only were the chemical exchanges viewed as wizardry and the picture deemed to take possession of the sitter’s spirit, but when tilted under light, the daguerreotype’s ghostly negative image is revealed. For Romantic artists, Daguerre’s process, ‘the art of writing with light’, held equally complex implications for the conception of Nature. Newton’s theory of light had already exposed its intricate character, but Goethe’s nineteenth-century Colour Theory, with its descriptions of the individual nature of seeing, showed that the Romantic notion of Nature as ‘light Divine’ was deeply problematic. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael conflates meanings of whiteness, colour and light for more congruous poetic interpretations that mirror the daguerreotype’s uncanny paradigm of light.


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  • Article Type: Article
Keyword(s): daguerreotype; gothic; light; Melville; nineteenth century; romanticism
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