[This posting may seem frivolous to those new to my website, but since Captain Ahab has come to signify imperialist Amerikkka, what people today say about him has resonance beyond the apparent silliness of this event. To be clear, Adrienne Metcalf is the great-great granddaughter of Herman Melville, and her father Paul Metcalf, was his great grandson, and a poet of some note, also a close friend of Charles Olson, author of Call Me Ishmael, which is still read, and which is still interesting. My mini-biography of Olson in the book, shows his transition from Ahab fan to Ahab opponent, as he climbed the academic ladder. CS, 10-17-11]
What follows is an excerpt from the Appendix to Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival ( Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 2001, 2006). Weiss’s NYT article supported the rumor that Melville had abused his wife and sons. This rumor had been floating around since the 1920s, but was unsupported by documents from family members and descendants. But discrediting Herman Melville (a stand-in for Captain Ahab) was a major project for the conservative liberals who controlled literary scholarship in the early-mid-20th century.
[Philip Weiss, author of “Herman-Neutics,” NYT Magazine, 15 Dec. 1996, interrogates the ghost of Herman Melville as channeled through a descendant at Arrowhead, 1 Aug. 1997:] “…My father is a big scientist. As a boy I was sent to science school, taught to shun my grandmother’s superstitions, and packed off to Harvard. Still, all that rationalism hadn’t helped me to get at my true interests. Or as Melville put it: “Science explains it. Bides no less/ The true innate mysteriousness.”
…[Adrienne Metcalf] had artistic ambition, but struggled with the shadow of an ancestor who had “crashed and burned.” Melville’s lesson was that if you followed your passions, you risked madness. We went to dinner at a tavern, and [Josh Schwartzbach , Adrienne’s companion] said that Melville’s unhappy energy was still in the world, fucking people up. If we channeled Herman we might be able to “heal” him. [The channeling follows: Melville speaks through Adrienne, Ezekiel through Schwartzbach, Weiss pretends he is Hawthorne]:
“Oh lighten up, you old fart,” Ezekiel said.
Suddenly she spoke in a deeper voice.
“Yes well—you are a sonofabitch!”
It was very loud. I was afraid they could hear us back at the house. She pointed at me.
“We don’t want to talk to him!”
“All right well, will you speak with us?” Ezekiel said.
“You are a sonofabitch too!”
“We never had a mother, thank you.”
“Do you think we wanted this?”
“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “Herman , aren’t you ready to give this up?”
“Then die?” she said in a stern crotchety voice.
“Then live. You’re already dead.”
“Well, it has had its perverse pleasures.”
“Yes, certainly so—and admit it, those were the only pleasures that you allowed yourself, the perverse ones.”
“You sting,” she said.
“And we love you.”
“Such is this love—that stings! It is real then is it not.” [sic?]
Metcalf’s face looked different, more masculine, contorted with anger. She spoke in a weird Englishy old American accent. I couldn’t tell if we were playacting or something was really happening, that Melville was flooding through her. In a way I didn’t care. I had a wash of impressions: How immature Melville was! He was a two-year old, with a two-year old pettishness and playfulness and sulks, something I’d never fully understood from reading him but that now made perfect sense. Then, too, I was slightly horrified at the connection I’d made with Adrienne. I’d met this woman once, now we were virtually confessing love. Was I
connected to her for life? Were we supposed to have sex? Would she hang around my neck? I wanted to get out of there before she overwhelmed me…. When Melville’s waves of atheistical horniness crashed over him, Hawthorne surely had similar feelings and split….
“You know, Adrienne, I think that Hawthorne compromised himself because of the cerebral judgmental aspect. His art is never as interesting as Melville’s.”…. …I followed their car into Lenox and we had
turkey sandwiches and talked it over. Schwartzbach said that by channeling the energy and healing it, we had changed Melville forever. No longer was Melville an angry betrayed energy. Yes, the love and betrayal had happened between Melville and Hawthorne, but now it was healed it could stop being an urgent emotional reality for us, and became a fable. We could move on.[i]
[i] 59. The report extracted here is taken from the original version of Weiss’ shorter article in the New York Observer; it was sent to Joshua Schwartzbach by e-mail, 20 Aug. 1997 and sent to me by Paul Metcalf, with a note, 5 Sept. 1997, advising “Make of it what you will.” Hershel Parker suspected that I had invented the whole thing. Not true.