YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

February 7, 2014

Herman Melville on the [materialist, solitary] “backwoodsman”

possumMelville’s chapters on “the metaphysics of Indian-hating” in The Confidence-Man (1857) are often cited to defend multiculturalism and to instill liberal guilt for the fate of “les pauvres Peaux-Rouges.” This is a typical error of ideologues who rip pages out of context to appropriate an eminent writer to their cause du jour.

Not long ago, I wrote about Sydney Ahlstrom’s influential history of religion in America, pointing out that the frontiersman was his bête noir, “the anti-intellectual” bad boy of US history. (See http://clarespark.com/2014/01/08/the-frontiersmansettler-as-all-purpose-scapegoat/.) But see how Melville (speaking through the skeptical Man from Missouri/”Coonskins”) describes this same archetype: the frontiersman’s sin is primarily a deficiency of deference to his betters, a mood Melville might embrace or reject:

“The backwoodsman is a lonely man. He is a thoughtful man. He is a man strong and unsophisticated. Impulsive, he is what some might call unprincipled. At any rate, he is self-willed; being one who less hearkens to what others may say about things, than looks for himself, to see what are things themselves. If in straits, there are few to help; he must depend on himself; he must continually look to himself. Hence self-reliance, to the degree of standing by his own judgment, though it stands alone. Not that he deems himself infallible; too many mistakes in following trails prove the contrary; but he thinks that nature destines such sagacity as she has given him, as she destines it to the ‘possum. To these fellow-beings of the wilds their untutored sagacity is their best dependence. If with either it prove faulty, if the ‘possums betray it to the trap, or the backwoodsman’s mislead him into ambuscade, there are consequences to be undergone, but no self-blame. As with the ‘possum, instincts prevail with the backwoodsman over precepts. Like the ‘possum, the backwoodsman presents the spectacle of a creature dwelling exclusively among the works of God, yet these, truth must confess, breed little in him of a godly mind. Small bowing and scraping is his, further than when with bent knee he points his rifle, or picks its flint. With few companions, solitude by necessity his lengthened lot, he stands the trial—no slight one, since, next to dying, solitude, rightly borne, is perhaps of fortitude the most rigorous test.

…Whatever the nation’s growing opulence or power, does it not lackey his heels? Pathfinder, provider of security to those who come after him, for himself he asks nothing but hardship. Worthy to be compared with Moses in the Exodus….he rides upon advance, as the Polynesian upon the comb of the surf.” (Chapter XXVI)

Herman Melville went back and forth on the American mission, sometimes lauding his countrymen as the Chosen People, sometimes criticizing them as reckless killers–hence the wild divergences of interpretation as to his politics. But in the case of the backwoodsman, quoted above, I have no doubt that deference to illegitimate authority was ever Melville’s overwhelming concern. He may have had discovery anxiety, but in the end, he pushed through it, “Ishmael” may have survived, but “Ahab” kept returning to unmask the confidence-men. No wonder Henry A. Murray and Charles Olson, in their private notes, accused him of being a Jew or Hebraic.


November 30, 2013

Railroading Captain Ahab

Everett Henry's Map of the Pequod's Voyage

Everett Henry’s Map of the Pequod’s Voyage

[What follows is an excerpt from my book Hunting Captain Ahab; it sums up my argument that progressives are incapable of describing this "great book" with accuracy, for they would have to admit their overweening statism as embodied in the White Whale (Leviathan).

Rockwell Kent's Starbuck shielding his eyes

Rockwell Kent’s Starbuck shielding his eyes

[Clare:] One feature of the (reinstated) organic society favored by many progressives is central to the Melville problem. Before the age of science, discovery, and increasing lower-class demands for a fully-realized popular sovereignty, Church and State conducted their affairs in secrecy. Their subordinates, ordinary people, were free to confess their sins to their betters, but without reciprocity; when Ahab fleeced double-talking “liberals,” from one point of view the gesture was tantamount to deicide and fratricide. For many of the corporatist thinkers who shaped the Melville Revival, Captain Ahab was the classic American type: a frontiersman, a “nosey Hebrew” (as D.H. Lawrence would say) whose curiosity must be moderated; similarly Melville’s dubious “character” as husband and father would preoccupy numerous Melville critics in the twentieth century. Much of the history I shall present is derived from published or archival materials long available but hitherto undescribed to students of American literature; literary scholars and curators have examined the astonishing archives of Henry A. Murray, Charles Olson, and Jay Leyda and biographies of Murray and Olson have been published by the most reputable presses. Many questions still remain tantalizingly unanswered and invite further research, but it is clear to me, if not to previous investigators, that in the unmonitored autodidact Herman Melville, Murray, Olson, and Leyda had an able instructor, a mirror, and an irresistible adversary who, insofar as he was Captain Ahab, must have been nervously deranged, twisted by hate. The isolato Ahab was the paradigm of social irresponsibility and his own worst enemy, while sociable Ishmael was the scholars’ antecedent doctor to society. Here is Ishmael’s ominous blood and soil account of Ahab’s origins in his native habitat: Nantucket was originally settled by peaceful Quakers, but they have been invaded by outside influences, they were “variously and anomalously modified by things altogether alien and heterogeneous.” (As Melville’s antebellum readers would have known, “…Nantucket Quakers [were] members of a sect notorious for its literally visionary beginnings and its subsequent antislavery zeal.” [i])

[Ishmael as narrator:]“…For some of these Quakers are the most sanguinary of all sailors and whale hunters. They are fighting Quakers; they are Quakers with a vengeance.

” So there are instances among them Nantucket Quakers of men, who, named with Scriptural names—a singularly common fashion on the island—and in childhood naturally imbibing the stately thee and thou of the Quaker idiom; still, from the audacious, daring, and boundless adventure of their subsequent lives, strangely blend with their unoutworn peculiarities, a thousand bold dashes of character, not unworthy a Scandinavian sea-king or a poetical Pagan Roman. And when these things unite in a man of greatly superior natural force, with a globular brain and a ponderous heart; who has also by the stillness and seclusion of many long night-watches in the remotest waters and beneath constellations never seen here in the north, been led to think untraditionally and independently; receiving all nature’s sweet or savage impressions fresh from her own virgin voluntary and confiding breast, and thereby chiefly, but with some help from accidental advantages, to learn a bold and nervous lofty language—that man makes one in a whole nation’s census—a mighty pageant creature, formed for noble tragedies. Nor will it at all detract from him, dramatically regarded, if either by birth or other circumstances, he have what seems a half wilful overruling morbidness at the bottom of his nature. For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.” (73-74).

[Clare:] In Moby-Dick’s pivotal chapter “The Quarter-Deck,” Starbuck, echoing Ishmael’s earlier diagnosis, reproaches Captain Ahab for abandoning his proper search for profits; the quest for vengeance against a “dumb brute” is blasphemous and mad. Ahab reproaches the imperceptive first mate, suggesting twice that he adopt the ways of geology and dig: “Hark ye…the little lower layer.” Then, lest Starbuck or other dense readers remain in the dark, Melville spills it: “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”[ii] Starbuck is briefly won over, but protests in a chapter that directly follows Ahab’s railroading speech:

[Chapter 37, “Sunset,” Ahab:] “Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!”

[Chapter 38, “Dusk,” Starbuck:] “My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman! …he drilled deep down, and blasted all my reason out of me. I think I see his impious end; but feel I must help him to it. Will I, nill I, the ineffable thing has tied me to him; tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut. Horrible old man! Who’s over him, he cries;-aye, he would be a democrat to all above; look, how he lords it over all below!…Oh, life! ‘tis in an hour like this, with soul beat down and held to knowledge,–as wild, untutored things are forced to feed–Oh, life! ‘tis now that I do feel the latent horror in thee! but ‘tis not me! that horror’s out of me! and with the soft feeling of the human in me, yet will I try to fight ye, ye grim phantom futures! Stand by me, hold me, bind me, O ye blessed influences!”

[Clare:] Standing by Starbuck, one Melville scholar has construed these pages as evidence of Ahab’s protofascism:

[Christopher Durer:] “Like Adolph Hitler, Captain Ahab reaches for the “folksoul” of the crew, and manipulates their minds with the sinister skill of Joseph Goebbels. As in Nazi Germany, so on board the Pequod, the excesses of the will play a major role, as is illustrated in the various speeches of Ahab, and her fated course is, in effect, another triumph of the will. Again, paralleling the transformation of the German nation under the Nazis, the crew of the Pequod becomes “a folk organism and not an economic organization,” since Ahab deliberately rejects the commercial advantages of whaling for a collective psychological fulfillment, resulting from the revengeful pursuit of one whale, seen as the enemy of the state…Ahab is in reality a prototype of a twentieth-century fascist dictator.”[iii]

Ahab and Starbuck as imagined by John Huston and Ray Bradbury

Ahab and Starbuck as imagined by John Huston and Ray Bradbury

[Clare:]For many Melvilleans, ineffably tied to their tormentor, the most unassimilable element of Melville’s psyche has been Ahab’s materialism yoked to universal standards of ethical conduct. To the extent that Melville is Ahab, he is mad, self- and socially destructive, tyrannical, and an arch-villain. Such views conform to the terror-gothic scenario, amplified by conservatives since the Radical Reformation, the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, the American and French Revolutions, then the intertwined reform movements of the 1830s-1850s, especially abolitionism. In the “tale of terror” brains and mobs are indissolubly merged; the pregnant bourgeoisie, swollen with a new class and its chimerical socialist utopias, has delivered catastrophes from the French Revolution to Bolshevism and Nazism. In two-dimensional artworks, this aristocratic narrative of the drowning Narcissus/crashing Icarus is frozen as the apocalyptic sublime, the style attributed to mass politics and America. Harold Lasswell, political science consultant to the influential postwar Committee For Economic Development, transmitted such neo-classical diagnoses of “romantic Fascism” and urged the adoption of Murray’s projective testing to implement a program of personnel screening and preventive politics, sighting latent radicalism in prospective leaders in government, industry, labor, and education before they succumbed to the blandishments of Ahab, thereby obviating sleazy witch hunts. Threatened or dispossessed elites continue to flood popular culture with identical antidemocratic propaganda, shaping academic disciplines and mental health treatments to blunt the tools of fiery artisans and their radical descendants.

Defining Melville’s mental states, then, was not simply grist for variously voyeuristic or discreet literary historians, but part of ongoing “Cold Wars” to diagnose and delimit normality and deviance. For some Melvilleans, the divisive apostate Melville, like his characters Ahab, Pierre, Isabel, the “Hegelised” German-Jewish geologist Margoth, and other Bad Jews, has been cast out; ‘Melville’ and other Good Jews have been taken in and ‘tolerated’ by ‘the nation.’[iv] The national bedrock is the sanctity of (upper-class) property (i.e., overweening state power: Leviathan), not the republican principle of equality before the law. Melville has been selectively embraced by a reconstructed lovely family–an erasure of conflict evident in the letters of Melville’s mother and wife. In my study of the Melville Revival, I challenge Starbuck’s view of Ahab as totalitarian dictator along with the concomitant argument followed by some Old and New Leftists that the voyage of the Pequod is an unambiguous allegory of capitalist technology and exploitation, Manifest Destiny, and mind-management in its harshest aspects.[v]

Labor Vincit Omnia

[i] 22. Carolyn Karcher, Shadow Over The Promised Land: Slavery, Race, and Violence in Melville’s America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1980), 172.

[ii] 23. Neither statement was included in the dialogue of the movie Moby-Dick (1956); thus there is no way to link Ahab’s quest to Mapple’s Sermon (which in the film does include the imperative to seek and preach the truth in the face of worldly opposition); moreover the interchange takes place in Ahab’s cabin and Starbuck challenges his authority immediately. The director was John Huston; the script writer Ray Bradbury.

[iii] 24. Christopher S. Durer, “Moby-Dick and Nazi Germany,”Melville Society Extracts 66 (May 1986): 8. Constructions of Ahab as Hitler invariably depend upon irrationalist explanations for the appeal of fascism and Nazism; rational political and economic interests have been erased.

[iv] 25. See William Braswell, Melville’s Religious Thought: An Essay in Interpretation (Durham, North Carolina: Duke Univ. Press, 1943). “Melville was aware of the deification of science in some quarters. Henry Kalloch Rowe, in his History of Religion in the United States, writes: ‘Many scientists were so enamored of their facts and hypotheses that they claimed too much. They seemed to take pleasure in the destruction of that which was old. They inclined toward a materialistic explanation of all phenomena to the exclusion of spiritual reality altogether.’ It is scientists of this type that Melville derides in Clarel in the character of Margoth, a Jewish geologist who says that ‘all’s geology,’ and who would do away with the ‘old theologic myth.’ Because of Margoth’s insensibility to spiritual things, the pilgrims condemn him severely, and Melville adds an extra touch by causing an ass to bray after certain of Margoth’s speeches” (111, my emph.). Even more crudely put, see Vincent Kenny on Margoth: “…a geologist, a ‘Hegelised–/Convert to science.’ He calls the Bible a tissue of lies and insists that the so-called Holy Land must be made over in the name of progress. Unlike the Syrian monk with his gentle appeal, Margoth repels everyone within sound of his loud voice.” In Companion to Melville Studies, ed. John Bryant (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 382-383. Insofar as Melville is seen to espouse these classically Christian antisemitic views, he would be a positive figure to organic conservatives discussed in this book.

[v] 26. D. H. Lawrence (1923) is cited by Ronald Mason, The Spirit Above The Dust (London: John Lehmann, 1951), as characterizing the Pequod as a sign for American industry. (Indeed,  Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature demonized America as a mongrel country that would, aided by the machine, destroy Europe and the white psyche. Ahab was destroying phallic power as epitomized in the White Whale, hence for Lawrence, Moby-Dick was a warning to true aristocrats.) With the exception of the try-pot, however, the technology of whaling ships had not changed for three hundred years when Melville wrote Moby-Dick. The mechanics of whaling partook of craft in hunter-gatherer societies, not the increasingly divided labor and mastery of nature characteristic of industrial processes. The few exceptions to the bad Ahab reading include Raymond M. Weaver, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic (New York: Doran, 1921); Granville Hicks, The Great Tradition (New York: Macmillan, 1935), 7; Henry Alonzo Myers, Are Men Equal? An Inquiry into the Meaning of American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell Univ.Press, 1955, c.1945), 51-55; Cecil M. Brown, “Through a Looking Glass: The White Whale,”Partisan Review (1969): 453-459; and Toni Morrison,“Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,”Michigan Quarterly (Winter 1989): 16-17. Hicks and Myers see Ahab as reformer; Myers, a pluralist, recognizes Ahab’s driving (but misplaced) intensity; he is the romantic “earnest reformer” (like those 19th C. crusaders assaulting “ignorance, clericalism, slavery, alcohol, capitalism, war”); whereas Cecil Brown sees a heroic revolutionary (contrasted with the “jew-bastard” surviving liberal, Ishmael); for Toni Morrison (a cultural nationalist), Ahab is a great foe to racism: “the only white male American heroic enough to try to slay the monster that was devouring the world as he knew it.” Most recently, Richard C. Doenges presented a paper “Ahab Redux: or Playing the Devil’s Advocate,”at the “Melville and the Sea” Conference, June 19, 1999, Mystic Connecticut. Doenges sees Ahab as both mad and a tragic hero with the whale a representation of Nature in its hostile mode; I view this as a moderated reading, not one entirely favorable to Ahab, who, unlike Ishmael, as the author argues, was blinded by the fire.

Readings by liberals and leftists hostile to Ahab include Charles H. Foster, “Something in Emblems: A Reinterpretation of Moby-Dick,” New England Quarterly (Mar. 1961): 3-35, who views Father Mapple as an ultra-abolitionist the likes of Garrison, Richard Hildreth, and Gilbert Haven, but Ahab as Daniel Webster, an apologist for slavery and a demagogue. Some see Melville, or Ahab (or both) as ineffectual bohemian, consummate narcissist or world-destroying arch-capitalist; or anticipator of Hitler and Stalin: see V.F. Calverton, The Liberation of American Literature (New York: Scribner’s, 1932), 272-273; Henry Bamford Parkes, “Poe, Hawthorne, Melville: An Essay in Sociological Criticism,” Partisan Review 16 (Feb.1949): 157-166; Richard Chase, Herman Melville: A Critical Study (N.Y., Macmillan, 1949), 101; John Howard Lawson, The Hidden Heritage (New York: Citadel Press, 1950): 428; James B. Hall, “Moby Dick: Parable of a Dying System,” Western Review (Spring 1950): 223-226; C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (self-publ.1953), its last chapter (suppressed in a later edition) linked Ahab to a duplicitous Jewish communist named “M.” See also Leo Marx,”The Machine in the Garden,” New England Quarterly 29 (Mar. 1956): 27-42; and H. Bruce Franklin, The Victim As Criminal And Artist: Literature from the prison (New York:  Oxford Univ. Press, 1978): Chapter Two.

December 15, 2011

Billy Budd’s ragged edges

Benjamin Britten and friends

The Wikipedia entry on Melville’s Billy Budd has an extensive survey of the critical literature and the history of the text. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Budd.

This blog is intended to show what is at stake in the contending interpretations of the novella, and how my own research into the reception of BB may be relevant to our ongoing discussion of legitimate and illegitimate authority, and how literature may be appropriated to contending ideologies in the 20th century, especially during the post-1960s scholarship. For instance, a recent series of essays weighs Melville in relation to Frederick Douglass, as if racism, or its absence, is the primary object of scholarly scrutiny in Melville’s texts.

First and foremost, readings of Billy Budd determine which of two competing narratives explains the trajectory of Melville’s political biography. If BB is read as a “testament of acceptance” then the conversion narrative is sustained: That is, Melville starts out as a radical democratic troublemaker in Typee, accelerates his rebelliousness in the “trilogy” of Mardi, Moby-Dick, and Pierre, writes bleak but socially critical fiction in the 1850s, then, purified by the bloodshed of the Civil War, ends up as a moderate man, an organic conservative, both in his “Supplement” to his Civil War poems, Battle-Pieces, then in his lengthy poem Clarel, a Poem and a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, some more harmless poems and sketches, and finally the unpublished ms. for Billy Budd. I have dubbed the conversion narrative as echoing  Bunyan’s popular Pilgrim’s Progress.

In sharp contrast to the conversion narrative, stands the Narcissus/Icarus story of HM’s life, initiated by his first modern biographer, Raymond Weaver (1921) and followed by such bohemian luminaries as Henry A. Murray and Charles Olson after WW2. They similarly argue: too closely identified with Captain Ahab, HM drowned, crashed and burned with the critical reception to his trilogy, and, said Weaver, went into “the long quietus” after the abject failure of Pierre. (The allegorical Promethean, Satanic “trilogy” was published between 1847 and 1852).

Today, “Billy Budd” is often considered to be the second most important creation of HM. That its meaning is contested is demonstrated by the fact that urban Nazi libraries refused “Bartleby” but accepted BB and “Benito Cereno” with “restrictions.” Hershel Parker believes that BB is too incoherent to convey a single meaning.  This may be true, but it is my view that Melville conveyed a very strong meaning in one paragraph about the role of a chaplain on a Man O’ War that I quote here, along with its marginal notation:

[conclusion, Ch XXI, Constable edition, 1924:] “ Marvel not that having been made acquainted with the young sailor’s essential innocence, the worthy man [the chaplain] lifted not a finger to avert the doom of such a martyr to martial discipline. So to do would not only have been as idle as invoking the desert, but would also have been an audacious transgression of the bounds of his function, one as exactly prescribed to him by military law as that of the boatswain or any other naval officer. Bluntly put, a chaplain is the minister of the Prince of Peace serving in the host of the God of War—Mars. As such, he is as incongruous as a musket would be on the altar at Christmas. Why, then, is he there? Because he indirectly subserves the purpose attested by the cannon; because, too, he lends the sanction of the religion of the meek to that which practically is the abrogation of everything but force.”

Melville’s note in the margin: “An irruption of heretic thought hard to suppress.” Why heretical? Compare to Charles Sumner’s first public oration, 1845, in which he denounced all war as uncivilized and un-Christian. Sitting in the front row were the military brass of the time (July 4, 1845, Boston). Sumner’s heretical speech was a scandal, but earned him a devoted following among those often deemed as “insane Quakers.” Recall that Captain Ahab is described as “a fighting Quaker” in Moby-Dick (1851).

Experienced Melville readers may or may not be attuned to when he is being ironic or sarcastic and when he is deadly serious. I read the passage just quoted as the latter. It fits in with his general line in such works as White-Jacket (1850), where his view of the American mission is Hebraic, as Chosen People bringing the blessings of political democracy to other peoples, but “without bloody hands being lifted.” (See http://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/). The passage also reminds me of his marking up of Goethe’s autobiography, where Goethe describes his underground adherence to the Pelagian heresy:

[Goethe:]…What separated me from this brotherhood [the Moravians of Marienborn], as well as from other good Christian souls, was the very point on which the Church has more than once fallen into dissension. On the one hand, it was maintained that by the Fall human nature had been so corrupted to its innermost core, that not the least good could be found in it, and that therefore man must renounce all trust in his own powers, and look to grace and its operations for everything. The other party, while it admitted the hereditary imperfections of man, nevertheless ascribed to nature a certain germ of good within, which, animated by divine grace, was capable of growing up to a joyous tree of spiritual happiness. By this latter conviction I was unconsciously penetrated to my inmost soul, even while with tongue and pen I maintained the opposite side. But I had hitherto gone on with such ill-defined ideas, that I had never once clearly stated the dilemma to myself. From this dream I was unexpectedly roused one day, when, in a religious conversation, having distinctly advanced opinions, to my mind, most innocent, I had in return to undergo a severe lecture. The very thought of such a thing, it was maintained, was genuine Pelagianism, a pernicious doctrine which was again appearing, to the great injury of modern times. I was astonished and even terrified. I went back to Church history, studied the doctrine and fate of Pelagius more closely, and now saw clearly how these two irreconcilable opinions had fluctuated in favour throughout whole centuries, and had been embraced and acknowledged by different men, according as they were of a more active or of a more passive nature.

The course of past years had constantly led me more and more to the exercise of my own powers. A restless activity was at work within me, with the best desire for moral development. The world without demanded that this activity should be regulated and employed for the advantage of others, and this great demand I felt called upon in my own case to meet. On all sides I had been directed to nature, and she had appeared to me in her whole magnificence; I had been acquainted with many good and true men who were toiling to do their duty, and for the sake of duty; to renounce them, nay to renounce myself, seemed impossible. The gulf which separated me from the doctrine of man’s total depravity now became plain to me. Nothing, therefore, remained to me but to part from this society; and as my love of the holy Scriptures, as well as the founder of Christianity and its early professors, could not be taken from me, I formed a Christianity for my private use, and sought to establish and build it up by an attentive study of history and a careful observation of those who were favourable to my opinion. (my emph.). [i] [End, Goethe quote]

It is my view that the key to Billy Budd, if there is any one such thing, is the notion of a private faith, of a personal relation to the deity, that underlined the Promethean powers of our species—a power that Melville had annexed to the cause of peace and to immeasurable and messy creation itself, a power that F. O. Matthiessen seemingly rejected. See http://clarespark.com/2010/12/29/f-o-matthiessen-martyr-to-mccarthyism/.

Yes, there are extenuating circumstances that apparently justify the harsh verdict of Captain Vere to hang Billy  (the Nore and Spithead mutinies during the 1790s when conservative England and Revolutionary France were at war).  Indeed, the crew murmurs in protest both when Billy is hung and when his body is consigned to the deep. It is at this point that Captain Vere reflects upon “…forms, measured forms….” that keep the underlings in line. Melville could be reflecting here upon the power of conventional fiction in supporting the rule of force.

After years of reading Melville and his critics, it is my view that he is always 1. Writing about his family and by extension Leviathan (the State) and their ultra-conservative character, calling forth his “heretical irruptions” that could separate him from his support system; and 2. Writing about writing itself, particularly deviations from inherited forms. He once exclaimed “I write as I please,” but he also felt exposed: one is so helplessly open in the act of writing. He had much to hide from his relatives, upon whom he was financially dependent. That is why I see his final manuscript as a testament to ambiguity and that kind of modernism that refuses neatly “measured forms.” He goes out as a romantic, perhaps even more romantic than in his early works: “Truth, uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges….”

Scholastic version of Billy Budd

[i] 81. Goethe, Truth and Poetry, Vol. II, 34-35.

November 21, 2011

Cormac McCarthy vs. Herman Melville

Premodern Cormac McCarthy

[This is the second of two blogs on Cormac McCarthy: see http://clarespark.com/2011/11/17/blood-meridian-and-the-deep-ecologists/]

At a bookstore in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a retired English professor friend of mine was offered a signed copy of McCarthy’s The Crossing for $1250. McCarthy does not sign his books any longer and apparently does not give interviews, except for this long piece for the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/1992/04/19/magazine/cormac-mccarthy-s-venomous-fiction.html?src=pm, authored by Richard B. Woodward, which contains the following passage:

“Blood Meridian” has distinct echoes of “Moby-Dick,” McCarthy’s favorite book. A mad hairless giant named Judge Holden makes florid speeches not unlike Captain Ahab’s. Based on historical events in the Southwest in 1849-50 (McCarthy learned Spanish to research it), the book follows the life of a mythic character called “the kid” as he rides around with John Glanton, who was the leader of a ferocious gang of scalp hunters. The collision between the inflated prose of the 19th-century novel and nasty reality gives “Blood Meridian” its strange, hellish character. It may be the bloodiest book since “The Iliad.”

From the interview, we also learn that McCarthy is a cult figure, that Saul Bellow was on the McArthur Foundation committee that gave CM a “genius” award, financing the writing of Blood Meridian, and that the author is a reclusive “radical conservative”, born of a Catholic well-off family in Tennessee, the son of a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority. (Another source adds that his sisters were high achievers, and that his father was stern.)  Also that he prefers the company of scientists to writers, and that he is no fan of modernity, quotation marks or semicolons. For a more recent interview see http://tinyurl.com/7dg52qr, that elaborates on the father-son theme.

I would like to go on with a psychoanalytic meditation on this writer, especially the father-son dyad, but I don’t know him.* Instead, this blog is about the Melville-McCarthy connection, which is tenuous at best.  First, the notion that Judge Holden is a Nietzschean Superman, beyond good and evil, may have been gleaned from David Brion Davis’s Homicide in American Fiction (1957), wherein Captain Ahab was limned as a Nietzschean Superman. That was the year (Fall, 1957) I took Davis’s class in intellectual history at Cornell U., and I well remember his linking Hawthorne and Melville as the authors who brought back the conception of evil into American culture, which, presumably, had been overly optimistic about the possibilities of perfecting human nature, supposedly a core belief in American exceptionalism. Or so I infer, for Davis may have been thinking primarily about racism, or, with students, anti-colonialism: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Brion_Davis, and my prior blog http://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/.

But on the subject of Enlightenment optimism regarding human nature, consider this passage from Benjamin Franklin’s letter to Joseph Priestley (7 June 1782):

“…Men I find to be a Sort of Beings very badly constructed, as they are generally more easily provok’d than reconcil’d, more disposed to do Mischief to each other than to make Reparation, much more easily deceiv’d than undeceiv’d, and having more Pride and even Pleasure in killing than in begetting one another, for without a Blush they assemble in great armies at Noon Day to destroy, and when they have killed as many as they can, they exaggerate the number to augment the fancied Glory; but they creep into Corners or cover themselves with the Darkness of Night, when they mean to beget, as being ashamed of a virtuous Action….”

[Perhaps writing a novel is for the male, a similar generative act to be submerged in darkness-- the powerless, demoralizing blackness that envelops today’s popular culture, whether it be gangsta rap, gangster movies, cultish vampire movies, recent movie versions of McCarthy’s books, or science fiction fantasies that end with the bad guys prevailing: see  Joss Whedon’s The Dollhouse, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, preceded by such antimodern classics as 1984 or Brave New World or Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork  Orange). In academe, the same tone is set in Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, that is elaborated in McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic tale The Road (2006).]

Second, return to Captain Ahab’s supposed amorality. He is nothing like Judge Holden, who is a  Nietzschean amoralist, even a Foucaldian, as these lines from Blood Meridian demonstrate:

“Might does not make right, said Irving. The man that wins in some combat is not vindicated morally. [Holden responds:] “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak….” [p.250, quotation marks not in original.]

On the most superficial level, perhaps, it may be said that Blood Meridian is some kind of homage or rereading of Moby-Dick (or even Joyce’s Ulysses). There are compound words, neologisms, and an often nauseating text. It starts with three quotations that correspond only roughly with the “Extracts,” there is an epic journey, in which most of the characters perish, and there is an Epilogue. But in Melville’s allegory, the first edition (published in England) not only lacked any survivors whatsoever, but ended with the Extracts, and these pages of quotations in turn ended with a Whale Song,[i] certainly to be taken ironically: “Oh the rare old Whale, mid storm and gale/ In his ocean home will be/ A giant in might, where might is right,/ And King of the boundless sea.”

Alleging that Ahab’s sin consists in his hubris, with Ahab believing 1. That truth exists; or 2. That he can extirpate evil from the world, has been one theme in scholarly and popular misreadings of the text. Surely, the Ahab as Superman reading by David Brion Davis must have been based in a common postwar belief (initiated by Charles Olson, then F. O. Matthiessen) that Ahab was an anticipation of Hitler and Stalin, and moreover that Hitler was influenced by Nietzsche, is probably the source of Cormac McCarthy’s misconception of Melville’s great book.

I will say this on behalf of a McCarthy-Melville affinity. In his recent novel, The Road, McCarthy uses the word “secular” twice. This suggests to me that CM’s bleak books are laments for the supposed loss of faith in a “secular” world (an argument that some conservatives make in the culture wars). Without religion, humanity is out of control and on its death trip, the road to oblivion. After the Civil War, Melville wrote a long poem, Clarel, and, earlier,  in his journal of the trip to the Mediterranean and environs in 1857-58. But in the poem of 1876, Melville distanced himself from his most pessimistic characters, inter alia, masking himself beneath his Promethean, secularizing Jew, whereas McCarthy is silent, preferring to hide himself and his meanings in “mystery.” One has to wonder about that suicidal sister, a character that haunts McCarthy’s latest novel, still in process.

*From reading interviews and other journalistic materials, I think that McCarthy’s well-received novel, The Road, tells us a lot. CM had two failed marriages as a younger man. He is older than I am now, and in his third marriage, had a son John, who is described by his father as delivering much of the dialogue in the novel. I infer that this last novel expresses his fear of dying before John reaches manhood, hence his father will no longer be there to protect him. Although in Blood Meridian, the Indians are as depraved and bloodthirsty as the whites and Mexicans, Indians and frontiersmen alike know how to survive cold and hunger, and also how to make do with the detritus that “civilization” leaves behind. Hence the Southwestern garb that McCarthy wears in his cover photos, along with the amazing ingenuity of the father figure in The Road.

[Added, 12/12/11: While reading Claude Bowers's The Tragic Era (1929), it occurred to me that the ruined Southern landscape under the occupation of Northern soldiers may have been part of the cultural memory transmitted by McCarthy's family or his neighbors. (His family originated in the North, but moved to Tennessee, the home of Andrew Johnson, staunchly defended in the Bowers best-seller.) This would give an added resonance to The Road. For more on Bowers, see http://clarespark.com/2011/12/10/before-saul-alinsky-rules-for-democratic-politicians/.]

[i]Moby-Dick was the neglected masterpiece that most excited the 1920s Melville revivers and their successors; it was first published in England as The Whale; unlike the American edition that followed, the title page featured an epigraph connecting Milton’s fallen Satan with Leviathan, and its last words, “Whale Song,” were a final blast at the ancient doctrine that Might makes Right. Readers seeking to understand the dynamics of the Melville Revival should ask whether the Leviathan State was a good or bad thing in the twentieth century, and what entities and social forces made it what it came to be. ….” These are lines taken from my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 2001, rev.ed. 2006)

October 15, 2011

Philip Weiss channels Hawthorne at Arrowhead, 1997

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[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, as shown on the Uprooted Palestinians website

[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.

October 1, 2011

Updated index to Melville blogs




http://clarespark.com/2009/09/03/advice-for-the-lovelorn-with-thoughts-on-hero-worship/ (Retitled Manifest Destiny or Political Liberty?)





















http://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/ (Hobsbawm’s reading of Moby-Dick as great indictment of capitalism/imperialism.)




March 11, 2011

Review excerpts re Hunting Captain Ahab

Eaton portrait of HM, hung in Houghton Library, Harvard

Someone has been searching for reviews of my book on the Melville Revival, so I dug up a summary of review excerpts prepared for the second edition, along with my letter to the editor of The Journal of Cold War Studies. My letter precedes the review excerpts.

Letter to the editor, Journal of Cold War Studies:

In his review of my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001), Brian Etheridge advised diplomatic historians or others interested in the Cold War, i.e., your readership, not to read my book, supposedly a study of interest primarily to Melville scholars like myself. This was a surprising judgment as it ignored my reporting of such weighty matters as the Harvard course on civilian morale (1941), the 1942 yearbook of the American Psychological Associations’s Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, the inception of the Committee for Economic Development, and how the Harvard functionalists and their cohort (including Henry Murray, Gordon Allport, Talcott Parsons, and Harold Lasswell) defined the base of fascism and formulated their programs of social relations and “preventive politics” with an unapologetic irrationalist approach (see especially my chapters 2 and 9).  Since I made constant connections between the (mis)handling of evidence in Melville studies and the efforts to maintain “social equilibrium” by the political scientists and social theorists mentioned above, one might think that I had justified my sub-title of “psychological warfare and the Melville Revival,” especially as one of my chief subjects was the career of Jay Leyda, a Stalinist intellectual and authority on propaganda, who helped to write the film Mission to Moscow, and whose leading role in postwar Melville studies contributed to an Orwellian inversion confusing freedom and slavery and, hence, vindicated double-talking “moderate men” who were the targets of Melville’s more daring characters. And yet the Etheridge review did not note the existence of such materials in my book.

I believe that the ideological tendency that I tracked over five centuries forms the substrate for revisionist views of the Cold War and even the assumptions of the United Nations and the “peace studies” that have proliferated since the second world war. Briefly, the practices of  the men and institutions that I studied operated on the assumption that all conflict could be resolved through the mediation of skilled individuals, noted for their objectivity, superior self-control and adroitness at manipulation of quarreling groups or individuals. In other words, there are no irreconcilable conflicts, and prejudice and hatred are simply projections of aggression onto “the Other” by the malleable masses who have been whipped up by autodidacts/demagogues like Captain Ahab. And of course, for the revisionists, the Soviet Union was “the Other” whose military threat had been wildly exaggerated by extremist anticommunists, held to be extreme individualists (narcissists) resisting the humanitarianism of the welfare state.

An example: Andrew Delbanco, a prominent figure in American Studies and director of the Columbia University program, has just published a widely publicized popular book on Herman Melville, in which he makes the claim that “some eighty years before it emerged as the central political fact of the twentieth century, Melville had described in Moby-Dick the reciprocal love between a demagogue and his adoring followers.” (173). This justifies Delbanco’s ahistoric linking of Ahab, Hitler and George W. Bush, now a pervasive gesture in left-wing journalism. Revealingly, the Soviet Union and its anti-American propaganda are invisible in Delbanco’s book. Similar appropriations of Melville’s writings for present-day partisan purposes (including the construction of the “multicultural” curriculum) are the chief subject of my book, page after page. And yet Etheridge claims that I failed to connect Henry A. Murray’s and Charles Olson’s propaganda services to the Roosevelt administration with Melville scholarship.

It is stressed throughout Hunting Captain Ahab, and most explicitly in chapter 7, that readings transforming Ahab into a totalitarian dictator occurred in tandem with a major growth in state power under the New Deal during the late 1930s, while during the same period Hitler turned decisively against the West. Before that turning point, Ahab was seen as either Melville the Promethean romantic artist on the side of “the people,” or as a democratic reformer reminiscent of Chartism, or as a symbol of indomitable humanity, doomed to failure but noble and tragic. It is Henry A. Murray’s confidential report to FDR on Hitler’s mind (filed in 1943, but begun in 1938) that explicitly links Ahab, romantic artists, Melville and Hitler himself. And Charles Olson worshipped Murray, following his lead as their correspondence strongly demonstrates. The outcome was a shift in Olson’s criticism away from his youthful admiration of the Ahab character, and dramatically displayed in his Call Me Ishmael (1947), that could have been dictated by Murray himself. In other words, Leviathan was increasingly acceptable in the late New Deal, displacing earlier Wilsonian localism; thus Ahab as Leviathan’s opponent had to be discredited, while Hitler became simply the tool of laissez-faire fascist Republicans.

Etheridge also implies that I have left the reader stranded in the 1940s; hence recent developments in Melville scholarship, like my Ahab-self, are muddled, which brings us to the matter of macro-history and scale. Prior to my book, the shift to an “anti-imperialist” reading of Moby-Dick (the ruthless demagogue Ahab as an “anticipation” of  Hitler, and the voyage of the Pequod as a representation of capitalist exploitation and doomed American imperialism) was assumed to be a New Left post-60s phenomenon. Such periodization glosses over not only the contested growth of a benevolent “progressive” Leviathan throughout the twentieth-century Melville revival, but ongoing “sykewar” against autodidacts and “Hebraic” radical puritans, initiated by the Tory party in England from its inception. By not transmitting the major theme of my book, i.e., persistent elite resistance to the popular decoding of antidemocratic propaganda, even in the progressive movement, Etheridge suggests that I have jumped willy-nilly across the centuries, abandoning historicism. Chapter 5 on the radical puritan as red specter, as well as quotations from David Hume throughout, should have justified my insistence on continuities in upper-class psychological warfare against the lower orders, from the Reformation to the present.

Surely it cannot be the case that “psychological warfare” refers solely to propaganda efforts by such agencies as the 1950s Psychological Strategy Board, or the Voice of America, or the USIA, etc. as Etheridge states. If diplomatic historians are not considering the intertwined issues of foreign policy and institutional control of domestic populations through mind-management within the humanities and social science curricula (either in the U.S. or in other countries), then I must ask for a reconsideration of their position. [End, letter to the editor, accepted but not yet published.]


[From Brian Etheridge’s review in Journal of Cold War Studies, Fall 2005, the first historian to review HCA:] “…a bold and challenging work that seeks to illuminate the role that scholarship has played in competing discourses on the relationship between individual and  society in the modern world. …Without question, Spark knows and is passionate about her scholarship. She ranges widely across the landscape of Melvillian scholarship, expertly addressing the various contexts in which Melville’s work has been appropriated. To this end, she has done an admirable job of unearthing unpublished commentaries and correspondence…. She also has a firm grasp of the larger cultural milieu in which M’s works circulated, and she ably charts the changing contexts in which these works have been debated.  …For those interested in learning about Melville’s life, his work, and his scholars, this is the book for you.” [I include these excerpts because he importantly validates my skills as an historian charting change, but curiously does not recommend my book to diplomatic historians. C.S.]

[Roy Porter (deceased):] “…light-years ahead of most academic monographs.” [in a letter of evaluation to Bucknell UP. Roy wrote to me that I could use anything he ever wrote to me personally or on my behalf for promoting my work.  See also his final letter to Kent State UP, using the word “superb” which I had never seen.]

[Kris Lackey, Southern Humanities Review, Spring 2002:] “Spark pursues two principle objectives: first, to liberate Ahab from his dictator’s reputation and to restore his radical birthright as a figure of the defiant artist; second, to liberate Melville from static and reductive identities that have served academics across the political spectrum. …Embedded in this vast prickly montage…are eloquent, moving passages that show us why Spark has fought this long battle to win him back from his revivers…. Insights like [hers] belong in the hornbook of Melville criticism.”

[Jason G. Horn, Christianity and Literature (Summer 2002):] “More is at stake than just another analysis of Herman Melville in this hefty, detailed, and wide-ranging study….And getting the facts to the public, whose own critical range of thinking is partially formed by institutional and intellectual debates, is all important for Spark.”

[Sharon L. Dean: American Literature :] “Spark puts the brow of Melville scholarship before us. Read it if you can.”

[Jeremy Harding, London Review of Books, Oct.31, 2002:] “Clare Spark is a devotee of Ahab the fallen angel. She believes that Ishmael has been puffed at the expense of Ahab, largely because Ahab’s free spirit is too anti-social. She objects especially to the idea that he is a one-legged Fuehrer hobbling up and down the bunker of the quarterdeck…which she considers a misrepresentation for socially proscriptive, leftish-centrist ends. …[Ishmael is] a ‘corporatist’–a non-revolutionary, consensual figure–whose star has risen as Ahab’s has declined; and, of course, he is a ‘multiculturalist’ (another form of conformism) who condescends, like Melville, to all races, as to most species, more or less impartially. He is also given to hair-splitting and the patient telling of like from like, while basking, too, in the reconciliation of opposites. He is the dialectician of the piece, and the great procastinator. [it goes on….]

[Guy Davenport, Harper’s Magazine, June 2002:] “It is [her] diagnosis…that the Melville Revival was a conspiracy to bring Melville in line with the kind of Orwellian liberalism that is teleologically indistinguishable from totalitarianism. …[it is] intricately argued and documented, requiring as patient a reading as Parker’s biography. And it delivers the goods.”

[S. I. Bellman, CHOICE, Nov. 2001:] “Spark’s meticulous study should appeal both to Melville scholars and to academic and general readers not primarily concerned with Melville’s career and hard times. …the book deserves consideration for a major literary award.”

[Robert E. Abrams, Modern Language Quarterly, June 2003:] “Yet Ahab exerts…a powerful pull on the very critics and scholars who demonize him. No doubt Hunting Captain Ahab itself is a valuable, highly unusual study because of how it gathers all sorts of academic marginalia to challenge and supplement a legacy of official scholarship. On the one hand, the ways in which such scholarship remains historically embedded in a matrix of political and institutional pressures are revealed; on the other hand, in the movement beyond officially published writing into a nether world of notes, remembered conversations, drafts, recorded interviews, and even crossed-out phraseology, we come upon confessions and lines of speculation that tell a considerably less straitjacketed story than the one told simply by scholarship cleansed of its messy origins.”

[The Year’s Work in English Studies, 2002:] “…a thought-provoking detailed analysis…She focuses on the political, institutional agendas of each site of Melville scholarship, locating a history of critical thinking on one of America’s most fought over writers, offering essential and compelling reading for Melville scholars.”

[Peter Thorpe, Bloomsbury Review, Jan-Feb, 2003:] “…an engaging work of scholarship by Clare Spark, an old-time, no-nonsense scholar who knows how to entertain us and keep our interest as she goes about the serious business of finding Captain Ahab…She writes about life itself and the perilous balancing act between things Ahabian and things Ishmaelian. …[She writes with] verve…hard-nosed joy and force. She brings Herman Melville alive again and helps us to understand what’s going on in our own American minds.”

December 29, 2010

F.O. Matthiessen: martyr to McCarthyism?

Maude Slye, Edith Atwater, Frank Oppenheimer, Matthiessen, Lillian Hellman

According to Jennifer Burns, historian and biographer of Ayn Rand, F. O. Matthiessen (1902-1950) was a victim of McCarthyism, hounded to death by zealous anticommunists. She does not provide evidence for this claim. While reading Ayn Rand’s novels and then two recent biographies, I was struck by the representation of Rand as another Captain Ahab: destructive, bossy, and, though an atheist, something of a Russian Jew. Similarly, Ahab was and continues to occupy the Romantic Wandering Jew archetype in the most important Melville literary studies. Their predecessor was Harvard professor F.  O. Matthiessen, like Charles Olson, a hero to many in the New Left. For the first time on this website, I am looting a section of the seventh chapter of my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001, paperback rev. ed. 2006). It reflects my politics at the time of writing, and I would revise it slightly were it to be republished today. What matters is the gross distortion of Moby-Dick that remains perpetuated in both high and popular culture. Ahab is Hitler is Jew is archetypal American, exceptional only in his capacity for mindless destruction of Nature and non-white peoples.

[book excerpt:] Charles Olson’s friend and mentor F.O. Matthiessen participated in Irving Babbitt’s antibourgeois offensive: American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, a monumental study of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville and Whitman, appeared in 1941; it was the organic synthesis that American literature professors opposed to Marx, Freud, and Parringtonian “economic determinism”[i] had demanded since the mid-1930s (and even earlier). In Professor Merton M. Sealts, Jr.’s view, Matthiessen’s New Criticism [ii] had rescued his generation from the art-erasing politics of Vernon Parrington:

[Sealts letter to me:] In the mid-sixties, shortly after I began teaching at the University of Wisconsin, a graduate student came into my office to tell me, excitedly, that he had discovered a book that would release him from “the tyranny of New Criticism”: Vernon Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought! To his surprise I observed that when I was a graduate student (1937-1941) it was New Criticism that had released me from the tyranny of works like Parrington’s…the “history of ideas” approach to American literature that was current in the 1930s had talked about everything except the literary quality of the texts under discussion–either because “literary quality” was supposedly lacking in those texts or because the commentators themselves were unable to recognize it. It was Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941) that assured many of us that what we planned to teach was worth teaching as literature.[iii]

Although he claimed to be fusing history and literature, in practice, the organicist Matthiessen set himself against both disciplines, leaving himself helpless to act either on his own behalf or that of humanity. By removing the study of literature from its “economic, social and religious causes” (but not from “its sources in our life”) and focusing on “what these books are as works of art,” then fulfilling the “double aim…to place these works both in their age and ours,” Matthiessen radically dehistoricized literary texts. One could move forward and backward between T.S. Eliot, Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne, or between Ahab and Hitler because historical specificity and concrete institutional referents had been banished: works of art gave birth to other works of art and yet, though fictions, their characters spoke to us today as if freshly minted. Matthiessen’s understanding of social conflict was expressed in timeless dualisms– Reason v. Passion, Good v. Evil, Civilization v. Savagery, or Heart v. Head: these antagonists made literature and history alike, but religion overwhelmed history and political science. In his draft Introduction to a selection of Melville’s poetry (1944), a pencilled addition mapped the Melville problem in the functionalist style as “Melville’s continual concern with the unending struggle, with the tensions between good and evil: within the heart and in the state, political, social, and religious.”[iv] And Matthiessen’s readings of “literary” qualities could be deficient in formal analysis or even accuracy, because he had appropriated nineteenth-century American literature to support the counter-Enlightenment corporatist goals of twentieth century progressive reform, eliminating textual facts that contradicted the lessons to be drawn from such works as Moby-Dick or Billy Budd, all the while (implicitly) distancing himself from Weaver and Mumford by promising to avoid “the direct reading of an author’s personal life into his works” (AR, xii). Excerpts from drafts and published versions of two major works, American Renaissance (1941) and From The Heart of Europe (1948) clarify Matthiessen’s positions both before and after the war. They seem motivated by the confluence of objectives: a personal and class need for clear, unambiguous, reliable authority (or its simulacrum) and the ideological requirement of his class to moderate the selfishness of upper-class college students lest an unbalanced society continue its path toward disintegration. So Matthiessen evaluated authors and works of art with these standards: symbols should be clear and unequivocal, for (Christian) democratic artists, like other earthy laborers, were craftsmen relating form to function; “individualism” must be tempered by social responsibility. It was Burke against Paine all over again. I will consider his works chronologically, but mostly postponing discussion of From The Heart Of Europe (1948) so that it may be set in the context of other postwar Melvillean pronouncements.[v]

In a book of more than six hundred pages dealing with five major writers and numerous other cultural luminaries of the antebellum period, Matthiessen devoted long sections to Ahab. No previous writer had lavished so much attention on this character, indeed the book was organized around the mad Captain. The preface had ended with a call for artists to abjure [Ahab-ish] anarchy and take the side of the people against the brutal Übermensch who would be limned throughout, while the very last page traced Melville’s progress from the “murky symbols” of Moby-Dick to the “comprehensive symbols” of Abraham and Isaac, Vere and Billy, as if Isaac’s life had not been spared by the Jewish God. In his early unbalanced writings Melville was really the Head person Ahab, not Ishmael and not yet Vere, the Heart person who understood Necessity. Matthiessen had written “…in spite of Melville’s enthusiasm for discovery and revolt [in Mardi], no depth of feeling has fused his instances with his abstractions” (early draft, 153). Instead of the dispassionate assessment of literary qualities that had been promised, Matthiessen delivered a stern rebuke to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century man: there were distortions of the text to support the hostile characterization of Melville/Ahab and to convince readers (and perhaps himself) that Melville was finally the democratic hero Billy who rightly blessed Captain Vere. I still wonder how Matthiessen, a man still revered by academic radicals as a martyr to McCarthyism, could have believed in his own writing.

For instance, the celebrated Father Edward T. Taylor, Methodist preacher to sailors at the Bethel Church in Boston’s disreputable North End, was the source for Father Mapple and identified as an “ex-seaman,” (AR, 127) but not as a protester of Lemuel Shaw’s positions regarding enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. [vi] Since Mapple and Ahab (if not always Taylor) were both proponents of the higher law and the “inexorable self” standing up to evil earthly powers, Matthiessen had erased a fact that would have suggested Ahab as an anti-racist, as a man leading a revolution against illegitimate authority on behalf of, not against, the common man. For Matthiessen, the “Keel of the Ages” in Mapple’s Sermon was not Ahab’s Keel, the conscience that informed the struggle for universal human rights, but the “equilibrium” between “sense impressions and his reflective mind” that Melville had achieved, for a change, in Moby-Dick (AR, 128). Father Taylor was mentioned throughout the book as a positive figure, perhaps because, as Emerson had noted, he had unified a diverse congregation at Concord in 1845 (127); spiced with the salty vernacular, his sermons had followed Matthiessen’s prescriptions for a rooted democratic intellectual discourse, appealing to “black and white, poet and grocer, contractor and lumberman….”[vii]

Matthiessen transmitted more serious distortions of the text, none of which, to my knowedge, has been noted by Melville scholars. Referring to the confrontation between Ahab and Starbuck on the quarter-deck, after Ahab nails the gold doubloon to the mast, bribing and hypnotizing the crew into joining his hunt for Moby Dick, Matthiessen described Ahab’s heartless and obsessive vengefulness through the eyes of “powerless” Starbuck:

[Matthiessen:] At the moment of the initial announcement of his vengeance, he rises to a staggering hubris as he shouts, “Who’s over me?” Starbuck, powerless before such madness, can only think: “Horrible old man! Who’s over him he cries;–ay, he would be a democrat to all above; look how he lords it over all below!” Yet Starbuck is forced not simply to resent but to pity him, since he reads in the lurid eyes the captain’s desperation (448).

Matthiessen has erased both content and order: the text states “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” This is Ahab’s response to Starbuck’s accusation of vengeance and blasphemy. Ahab unmistakably announced that the whale hunt was not what it seemed. The text shows Ahab/Melville reproaching Starbuck’s philistinism, telling him to “hark” below the surface of the statement, as Ahab and other modern artists deploy analytic skills to discover the truth and to know themselves: Ahab’s speech is a call to revolution against illegitimate authority, but also a challenge to sincerely Christian readers harkening to Father Mapple’s higher law, in this case conservative New England’s complicity with the slave power. Moreover, Starbuck’s response to Ahab occurs in Chapter 38 (“Dusk”), not immediately after Ahab’s exclamation as Matthiessen implies.[viii] In my view, Starbuck feels invaded, but as a Christian, irresistibly tied to Ahab’s charismatic idea–in Starbuck’s later words, with “soul beat down and held to knowledge,–as wild, untutored things are forced to feed….” Starbuck’s initial response had been anger. Ahab noted that his passion had melted Starbuck’s usual icy incomprehension expressed in “an intolerable…doltish stare.” Ahab says compassionately, “my heart has melted thee to anger-glow,” then he (ambiguously?) apologizes: “I meant not to incense thee.” Perhaps the lurid eyes belonged to Matthiessen reading a double-message and had to be disowned. Similarly, “the queenly personality” who feels her royal rights, Ahab’s self-description and challenge to an indifferent and cruel deity in “Candles,” is negatively interpreted. Without quoting the source in the text, Matthiessen described what Ahab means by “queenly”: “The resources of the isolated man, his courage and his staggering indifference to anything outside himself, had seldom been exalted so high.” Matthiessen’s obliteration of the Milton-Melville connection in favor of Shakespeare-Melville made the task easier.[ix]

The Ahab-Starbuck interchange sums up the Melville Revival: a possibly ambivalent representation of radical Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions has been caricatured by conservatives. In their readings, the antagonists are bad Jews (the Hebrew prophets, Melville, narcissists, monomaniacs, abolitionists, modern women, materialists as either classical liberals or socialists) and overpowered bad Christians (Melvillains, as Merton Sealts Jr. calls himself and his colleagues), bad because they are seduced where they should struggle to resist. In all fairness, Starbuck should not pity Ahab: Matthiessen says Starbuck’s pity was forced. This shocking recognition of Ahab’s comprehensive cunning could lead to suicide to smother the bad Jew within gentlefolk like Matthiessen, or in the less gentle, the image of the “switching” Jew could rationalize social violence. Note that Matthiessen’s example of “the great artist” was T. S. Eliot, not Melville/Ahab, though he quoted Melville’s approbation of Hawthorne’s “usable truth” before this tribute to Eliot:

[Matthiessen:] Such steady inspection of life, which does not flinch from probing sinister recesses and is determined to make articulate the whole range of what it finds, is indispensable for the great artist. Only thus can he cut through conventional appearances and come into possession of what Eliot has called “a sense of his own age” (AR, 192-193).

Eliot is praised for the qualities Matthiessen lacked in himself, and that are abundantly demonstrated in the materialist Ahab, but here have been misapplied to the corporatist Eliot, enemy to freethinking Jews whose corrosive intellects dissolve natural ethnic, today, communitarian, bonds. The English Tories with whom Eliot bonded were paternalistic agrarians, relentless opponents to the rising industrial bourgeoisie that threatened to displace them. Their counterparts in 1930s America were Southern Agrarians, champions of the New Criticism and, like Harvard professors of American literature, supporters of Roosevelt. In a revealingly erroneous reading of Clarel (AR, 495), Matthiessen, like Willard Thorp before him, confused the merchant Rolfe with the ex-Southerner Ungar, the expatriate mercenary for the Turks, even though Melville had not blurred their identities in his text.[x] To be sure, Ungar had earlier expressed passionate criticisms of “Anglo-Saxon” imperialism, Mammon, and the brutal factory system (AR, 401), but so did the Tories of Young England. Expressing the concerns of other Jeffersonians, Melville had written:

The vast reserves–the untried fields;

These long shall keep off and delay

The class war, rich-and-poor-man fray

Of history. From that alone

Can serious trouble spring. Even that

Itself, this good result may own–

The first firm founding of the state.’ (4.21, 91-96)

Matthiessen had, in effect, made the reactionary Ungar (bearer of “a strain of Indian blood” and “the Catholic mind” or, in Poems, “the Latin mind though no longer in the Church”) a proto-socialist. This is an interesting ideological point since Melville’s character Rolfe was a well-traveled and thoughtful autodidact; his antidemocratic and antisemitic views link him to the organic conservatism of Christian Socialists like Melville’s contemporary Charles Kingsley, author of Alton Locke (1850). Rolfe muses whether or not the outcome of class conflict would be a more stable, legitimate, social order, paternalistically concerned with the condition of labor.[xi] Perhaps reflecting his own state of mind, Matthiessen continued his discussion of “Ungar’s” prediction of the coming socialism with the pessimistic judgment that the lower orders are uncontrollable and overly susceptible to false promises and flattery:

[Matthiessen:] Although Ungar glimpses that possible synthesis, he has little confidence in it. In his view popular ignorance often increases as society ‘progresses,’ and masterless men who have foregone all recognition of evil within themselves, are easy prey for demagogues. He holds that only an awareness of Original Sin can give significance to man’s struggle; and the last that is seen of him by Clarel, he is riding off with “that strange look/ Of one enlisted for sad fight/ Upon some desperate dark shore”(495).

Matthiessen’s apotheosis of Billy Budd’s sacrifice is the elixir soothing Ungar’s despair. The converted Melville “has come to respect necessity,” a fact proven by Melville’s check of a passage from “Peter Schlemihl”: “Afterwards I became reconciled to myself. I learnt, in the first place, to respect necessity” (note, 510). Such a mark, taken by itself, proves nothing. Although moody, Melville did not rest in Ungar’s pessimism. He did understand that history forces certain problems and constraints upon us; moreover, as any moralist would, he grappled throughout life with the ambiguous connection between freedom and necessity, structure and agency. But Matthiessen wants to convince the reader that Melville approves of Vere’s action in hanging Billy. Following earlier conservative readings, Matthiessen praised the Plinlimmonish balance achieved at the end of Melville’s life: he had grown out of the “angry defiance” of Pierre and The Confidence-Man (AR, 511); he cites Vere’s death without “accents of remorse” as proof that “Melville could now face incongruity; he could accept the existence of both good and evil with a serenity impossible to him in Moby-Dick” (draft, 819, AR, 512, “serenity” changed to “calm”). This judgment is further strengthened, pressing the unrighteous moralist Mapple’s inexorable self into Ahab’s materialist savagery:

[Matthiessen:] Vere is the wise father, terribly severe but righteous. No longer does Melville feel the fear and dislike of Jehovah that were oppressing him throughout Moby-Dick and Pierre. He is no longer protesting against the determined laws as being savagely inexorable. He has come to respect necessity (AR, 510). [xii]

Matthiessen had suppressed Melville’s delegitimating remark upon the occasion of Vere’s death from the musket ball shot from the Athée. In Melville’s text, Vere “dropped to the deck” just like Claggart, then the narrator comments, “The spirit that ’spite its philosophic austerity may yet have indulged in the most secret of all passions, ambition, never attained to the fulness of fame.” For Melville, Vere’s lack of remorse stemming from secret ambition was the black mark linking him to the ambitious, lying Claggart, but this evil character is connected to Ahab, not Vere, in Matthiessen’s reading (AR, 505). Captain Vere’s “rectitude” as he announces the verdict that Billy must hang reminded Matthiessen of the eighteenth-century Protestant minister Jonathan Edwards (whose name Melville had written in the margin to pinpoint “the Calvinistic text” preached to a dumb “congregation of believers in hell”):

[Matthiessen:] …the deepest need for rapaciously individualistic America [embodied throughout in Ahab] was a radical affirmation of the heart. He knew that his conception of the young sailor’s “essential innocence” was in accord with no orthodoxy; but he found it ‘an irruption of heretic thought hard to suppress.’…After all he had suffered Melville could endure to the end in the belief that though good goes down to defeat and death, its radiance can redeem life. His career did not fall into what has been too often assumed to be the pattern for the lives of our artists: brilliant beginnings without staying power, truncated and broken by our hostile environment. Melville’s endurance is a reinvigorating challenge for a later America (“reinvigorating” only in final draft, 819, AR, 513-14).

This was the conversion narrative, pure and simple. The later Americans should flee from wayward Prometheans like Hawthorne’s Roger Chillingworth and Ethan Brand, criminal precursors to Ahab, catastrophically possessed by their “proud lonely will[s]” (AR, 449-50, FHE, 30), to the open arms of Captain Vere, i.e., to the reinvigorating submission that Melville had mocked as ignoble servility in White-Jacket, a book Matthiessen rated as “running close to a tract of protest”(285).[xiii] Matthiessen’s final comments on Vere (and Coleridge) had linked the text to the America of the late 1930s and early 1940s, the years of the Hitler-Stalin Pact when the Anglo-American libertarianism of the radical bourgeoisie was once again off-limits to the Stalinist Left.

During the early and mid-1940s, the post-Weaver separation of Melville from Ahab energized by Mumford, Thorp and Matthiessen continued. An ominously antimodern, somewhat anti-Jewish article in College English (1943) moved Henry W. Wells of Columbia into his colleague Weaver’s territory, promoting Clarel at the expense of Moby-Dick. The following year, Wells, like Thorp, presented Melville as a moderate democrat, not the aristocratic rebel of Weaver’s biography.[xiv] Charles Olson, writing Call Me Ishmael after these judgments, again modified his reading of Ahab. In his earlier essay, “Lear and Moby-Dick” (1938) Ahab was condemned for the “solipsism which brings down a world,” while the crew participates in the “citizenship of human suffering”: this is Melville’s (Lear’s and Job’s) “meaning” (186, 189).[xv] Olson seemed to be pessimistically criticizing democratic leadership, but with respect for the crew. Call Me Ishmael (1947) more explicitly took on (protofascist) mass politics, linking Ahab’s “Conjur Man” destructiveness to heartless, Ethan Brand-style Enlightenment Reason:

[Charles Olson:] Melville was no naive democrat. He recognized the persistence of the “great man” and faced, in 1850, what we have faced in the twentieth century. At the time of the rise of the common man Melville wrote a tragedy out of the rise and fall, of uncommon Ahab…[T]he common man, however free, leans on a leader, the leader, however dedicated, leans on a straw [reason, the brain, C.S.]. (64)…In exactly what way Ahab, furious and without fear, retained the instrument of his reason as a lance to fight the White Whale is a central concern of Melville’s in Moby-Dick. In his Captain there was a diminution in his heart (72).

Similarly, Willard Thorp’s contribution to The Literary History of the United States (1948) abandoned Pierre: no longer a flawed but “fascinating book” (1938, lxxvii), it is “not a perfect book. It is not even a good one, judged by any standards” (458). Thorp’s other assessments returned with a new emphasis on the importance of Clarel and Billy Budd. Melville’s dangerous sympathies with the wantonly self-directed Ahab’s untrammeled curiosity and materialism had been averted; “private hurts” had been “healed” by the Civil War. The Epilogue to Clarel proved that Melville had chosen broad-minded Rolfe (468) over the antidemocrats, Mortmain and Ungar. In fact, the regenerated writer had come to a serene and manful end in all his Epilogues: the Epilogue to Moby-Dick proved that “young Ishmael” had seen through and rejected Ahab (461); from the Civil War poems onward, Melville had “worked his way to the solid ground on which he finally stood when he wrote Billy Budd” (404). For many liberal critics, the story has been either ambiguous or a thinly-veiled ironic antiwar protest written from the Left; as Hayford and Sealts have shown in their genetic reconstruction of the text (1962), Melville himself increased the polarity between Claggart and Billy. (In the earliest version, Billy is a sexually experienced older man, a guilty mutineer. Gradually he becomes the child-like naif. The poem “Billy in the Darbies” was written first, resulting in some disjuncture between the poem and the final version of the narrative.) For Thorp, however, the sharp division between the naturally depraved, monomaniacal, and subversive Claggart and naturally innocent Billy had shattered the “fetters” of ambiguity, as perhaps it had done for Melville-in-retreat. The brainy mixture of good and evil, “the strange union under the eaves” (457) that had chained Pierre to immobility (470), was finally unmuddied.[xvi]

[Harrison Hayford to Tyrus Hillway, co-founder of The Melville Society, 25 Jan. 1945:] I met [Merton Sealts] wandering in a daze one day just outside the Toasty, and he said “Either Melville is crazy or I am, or someone is.”

In the process of conflating corporatism with democracy, Thorp had, like Matthiessen, cleanly separated the good, questing, submissive adolescent (the redeemed Ishmael-Billy) and the bad father (Ahab-Claggart). The rhetoric Thorp applied to Billy and Claggart implied that their genetic inheritance was dissimilar: the difference between Aryan Billy and the black-hearted monster Claggart was perceived in virtually racial terms. The connection Melville had drawn between the two quasi-lunatics Claggart and Vere, however, was invisible. And Billy was good in Thorp’s reading because he understood the necessity for heroic self-sacrifice when Vere (Order, not Truth) demanded it. Thorp had consistently assimilated Melville’s career to the conversion narrative. The same gesture had bolstered the hegemonic humanities line contrasting Western democracy with German autocracy or Bolshevism, following the ideology of the Columbia University “War Issues” course devised to build support for American participation in World War I and continued in the plans for the Jefferson Memorial, 1939.[xvii] This might have been an honest contrast had not the corporatists been as intent as Nazi and Stalinist bureaucrats in treating the contagious Lockean and Jeffersonian ideas of the American Revolution, turning these radical thinkers upside down to invert slavery and freedom, reinstating the Great Chain of Being to heal wasted liberals.[xviii] By bringing ethnopluralism into the discussion of psychological warfare in the Melville Revival, I am saying that the core conflict between the wars was not democracy versus totalitarianism or autocracy; rather, the forces of modernity were arrayed against those of reaction, even inside “democratic” countries and often inside individuals. Reactionaries might or might not represent themselves as progressives. I have tried to clarify the dispute by deploying the distinction between “rootless cosmopolitans” (exponents of urbanized industrial, scientific society) and rooted cosmopolitans (exponents of small town life with pre-capitalist social relations). English and American Fascist writers of the 1930s made this distinction explicit.[xix]

After the war, Matthiessen and Alfred Kazin taught American literature in Austria and Czechoslovakia, describing their topic as the age of Whitman and Melville. Since both men wanted to teach Moby-Dick and Billy Budd, they divided their groups, Matthiessen discussing Melville followed by Henry James, while Kazin’s Melville was followed by Henry Adams. Matthiessen turned the journal of his fascinating and informative European experiences into a book, From The Heart of Europe (1948), with the published version forced to deal with the recent Soviet actions that had destroyed the independent democratic socialist state of Czechoslovakia, actions that were pending while Matthiessen was still there and for which he became an apologist. Matthiessen (whose father and grandfather had become wealthy through the applied sciences) felt he should explain why he never became a Marxist:

[Matthiessen:] I am a Christian, not through my haphazard upbringing but by conversion conviction while at Yale, and I find an[y] materialism inadequate. I make no pretense to being a theologian, but I have been influenced by the same Protestant revival that has been voiced most forcefully in America by Reinhold Niebuhr. That is to say, I have rejected the nineteenth-century belief in every man as his own Messiah, along with the other aberrations of that century’s individualism; and have accepted again the doctrine of Original Sin, in the sense that man is fallible and limited, no matter what his social system, and capable of finding completion only through humility before the love of God.[xx]

The cross-outs suggest that Matthiessen had no religion before he attended Yale, and that he was searching for the security of a clear, consistent set of rules. The rest of the statement is a grotesque Hume-style caricature of seventeenth-century left-wing Protestantism that is conflated with the most buccaneering irreligious capitalism and then made symbol for the entire nineteenth century. But he was “a radical democrat,” an admirer of Walt Whitman and Lenin (draft, p.10). In spite of its flaws, we should accept the Russian Revolution because “…the Russians have not been deflected from the right of all to share in the common wealth.” As for the disappointed libertarian Czechs, they really were moving toward socialism, despite apparent reverses. They should understand that

[Matthiessen:] Freedom can be gained and protected only by groups functioning together, with their sense of social responsibility as highly developed as their sense of individual privilege. That is what I understand by the definition of freedom as the recognition of necessity (FHE, 142).

In a passage that reiterated the primary thesis of American Renaissance (and derived from the aesthetic theories of Herder, Wordsworth and Coleridge), Matthiessen nostalgically described the role of art in primitive societies. Art best functioned as release:

[Matthiessen:] This knowledge is common in primitive societies where the role both of the medicine man and of the ritualistic priest or poet is to exorcise the evil spirit and to invoke the good spirit by naming them. The naming must be exact, and it requires all the magical skills of the artist, all his control over words to make them become one with the thing…the primitive exorcism by naming life even as it is in its worst moments, and thus releasing us from fear of the unnamed and unknown (FHE, 49).

Melville is not listed among the dark modern figures that provide a similar salutary catharsis: Hamlet, Schopenhauer, Leopardi, and Kafka. Matthiessen also distanced himself from fellow lecturer Lyman Bryson, who had criticized “mechanical Stalinists” and the “Hollywood mass producer” [sic] alike, both of whom were committed to “official versions of life” (draft, 66, FHE, 51-53). These statements, taken together and in tandem with American Renaissance, strongly suggest that Matthiessen was always frightened by the introspection and social inspection that discloses contradictions between signifiers and the signified, the critical process represented by Ahab’s leaps into the unknown, from light into darkness, into disillusion with father figures, thence into Pierre’s ambiguous choice to merge with Isabel, ambiguous not because of elusive or necessarily contaminated “truth,” but only with regard to the writer’s self-interest. Where would it all lead? Would the innocent be sacrificed in the effluent of righteous action? So Matthiessen preferred to melt into the mass and worship necessity.

He had been re-reading Moby-Dick: it was the book he most wanted to talk about in his trip to Europe; the emphasis on racial equality (that he had almost forgotten) had deeply moved him, but the auspicious beginning had been undermined by Melville’s submission to Ahab:

[Matthiessen:]…his ejaculation of the ‘divine equality’ among men was not borne out by what happened. Even the friendship between Queequeg and Ishmael was dwarfed and lost sight of in the portrayal of Captain Ahab’s indomitable will. The single individual, a law only to himself, treats his entire crew as mere appendages to his own ruthless purpose, and sweeps them all finally to destruction. No more challenging counter-statement to Emerson’s self-reliance had yet been written. No more penetrating scrutiny could have been made of the defects of individualism, of the tragedy that ensues when man conceives proudly of himself as pitted against the mass, instead of finding the fulfillment of his nature through interdependence with his fellow-men (FHE 36-37).

This characterization may not jibe with the text: Was Ahab pitted against the mass, or was that Ishmael’s and Starbuck’s reading? Melville’s long-suppressed annotations to Paradise Lost (along with remarks in his published letters and the not-so-muffled protest that he telegraphs throughout) indicated that he was writing under censorship; moreover he had no use for demagogues and mobs or frontier rowdiness and brutality. Melville’s marginalia strongly suggest that Ahab was the necessarily masked modern artist, the Promethean who would, however abandoned and mutilated by God and his fellows, stand alone if necessary, to speak truth to power; he was also speaking to posterity so that his less perceptive and more deferential fellows might one day be emancipated from illegitimate authority. Matthiessen’s Ishmaelite/Anglo-Catholic interpretation of Ahab’s motives rhymed exactly with the picture of the cynical demagogue Hitler disseminated by his colleagues Henry Murray and Gordon Allport in their worksheets on morale (1941). In 1948, Matthiessen praised the student with Heart and buried the [Head] whose views of Ahab diverged from the official story:

[Matthiessen:] In the final session of our discussion group [in Czechoslovakia] Vladimir Kosina raised the topic, “What is there in Moby Dick that would not have been written by anyone except an American?’ Several ideas were picked up from our earlier sessions: the author’s immersion in everyday experience, the union of work and intellect that we had found in Thoreau, Whitman’s kind of belief in the common man. One girl felt that Ahab was a thoroughly American hero in his determination, no matter what the obstacles, to do what he set out to do…. Some sentences from these students’ final essays were very impressive. Bohumil Seidl, after analyzing the basis for Ahab’s tragedy and finding it in the absolute ruthlessness of will that mistook its own desires for divine command, concluded: “The central moral problem in Moby Dick, the relation between will and feeling, particularly appeals to us who, not long ago, had opportunity to experience the disastrous consequences of a strong will in Germany, the will to power, surrounded by mythology and absolutely shorn of human feeling”[xxi] (my emph.).

The one unnamed girl who read Ahab as a positive figure is barely visible because Matthiessen preferred corporatist formulations of the causes of World War II, in Bohumil Seidl’s “very impressive” instance blatantly identifying a nation of American Ahabs with Nazi Head people. For Heart people, triumphant fascism as the outcome of class conflict, economic crisis, Stalinist tactics, and appalling sectarianism in the German Left is invisible.[xxii]

Such confusion is consistent with the counter-Enlightenment views of T.S. Eliot, Matthiessen’s ideal of positive intellectuality (though he later disavowed Eliot’s refusal of social action, FHE, 82). Matthiessen, like Mumford, Olson, and Thorp before him, was supporting the Tory “Melville” they inferred from the later texts. Ersatz critical tools left them helpless in the face of preventable disasters. “Starbuck” was periodically depressed. The conclusion to the life of Matthiessen was a leap from the twelfth floor of a Boston hotel room in 1950.[xxiii] Harvard English professor Kenneth Murdock wrote to Perry Miller after Matthiessen’s suicide:

[Murdock:] Matty’s nervous depression had been growing steadily more intense all winter, and he seemed to have lost any ability to conquer it by will. His friends urged him to see doctors, but he could not bring himself to do so, and I’m afraid his last months were spent in great anguish and loneliness. His friends did everything they could to help him, but he found it more and more difficult to see people and, I suppose, contributed to his final collapse by keeping steadily at work on his writing and sparing himself nothing. [xxiv]

[Added 12-29-10: Matthiessen's lover Russell Cheney died after the war, exacerbating the depression "Matty" had experienced during the late 1930s.]   The Harvard community of humanists, with all their erudition and accumulated wisdom, could neither help their friend nor in any rational manner explain the horrendous conflicts of this century. In the war between passion and reason, passion won out; Matty lacked the self-control that would moderate his austerity. His colleague William Ellery Sedgwick (1899-42) had earlier (probably) committed suicide; his unfinished study Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind, edited by Sedgwick’s widow Sarah Cabot Sedgwick and Theodore Spencer, was published by Harvard in 1944. Henry Murray reported that Mrs. Sedgwick blamed Melville’s Pierre for her husband’s death. But an unpublished poem by Sedgwick, “The Dark House,” suggests that Tory anti-intellectualism was the symptom of excessive self-denial in the service of class rule. It bred despair, isolation and emptiness, not the camaraderie and sane amelioration that the Heart people had professed. This is the poem as written in Sedgwick’s hand: [xxv]

Scribners 1932-36

Stands in the darkness

on the stairs

of the dark house

a life so young–he stands there

tiptoe to question;

stands in the darkness on a stair

makes tentative the silence there.

and near him there

(no where)

chipped by a clock

bright moments fly


are there only dark hours

and he waits for me.

Across the obscure accumulation of my days

and undecided ways

he waits.

And I’ll not come;

out of the emptiness I’d bring

I should not answer anything.

P.C.  Where I have been he is;

Where I shall be, he is before

and where he asks no more.

The questing Enlightenment mind lives with ambiguity and uncertainty: formulations of moral action in a secular world are necessarily experimental and provisional; we adjust received notions of morality to things as they really are, and the things might be strange indeed, nutty enough to merit structural transformations. While Melville found this lively habit of mind excitingly adventuresome (though it also gave him pause), these were exactly the “tragic” qualities that made Sedgwick and Matthiessen nervous. Similarly, “uncertainty” was the deadly enemy to social coherence in the worksheets devised by Murray and Allport to boost civilian morale before and after the war, even as they affixed the word “provisional” to their specific recommendations. Hitler felt the same way, and devised his theory of propaganda to forestall ambiguity, for this greyness made it impossible to mobilize support for wars to save the planet from Jewish or German Objektivitätsfimmel, the brain-buzz or craze for objectivity that made it hard to establish the harmonious “people’s community,” reunited because rescued from vertiginous, Jewishly instigated, internal contradictions. In his own words, Hitler explained that he was simplifying but not falsifying his messages; the masses were too irrational to cope with the finer points of such pivotal issues as German responsibility for the Great War. This congruence between Nazi and American propaganda was not concealed by Murray and Allport. Indeed, they imitated (almost) the totalizing propaganda of the Nazis:

[Worksheets, Murray and Allport:] The propaganda campaign must be based on a total view of the situation, expressed in an ideological language almost as inclusive as that of the Communists or the Nazis themselves. From the perspective of this ideology, all specific news items should be interpreted, so that they acquire significance beyond themselves and are seen as part of a coherent drama of dynamic forces. Radio programs of propaganda and propaganda leaflets should not be showered off hit or miss; perhaps at cross-purposes, and probably without effect, but should converge upon the master interpretation of the forces involved in the war. Only with a definite rationale, adhered to over a long period of time, can our propaganda have a cumulative effect and thus finally play an important role in the defeat of the enemy (p.2, worksheet on Psychological Warfare).

Harvard professors of American history and literature were joined to American, Nazi, and Communist social pathologists in their pedagogy of the paranoid sublime, the good fight between godly faith and demonic disbelief. But theirs was the destructive method they consistently attributed to wicked Ahab and the equally adolescent Pierre whose universalist ethics the corporatists had transmuted to absolutist domination while disseminating their own, preferred, “master interpretation.” By contrast with Ahab and Pierre, Matthiessen and his counterparts were pluralists of the blood and soil variety. Like Murray and Allport, Matthiessen wished for a modicum of diversity-with-integration, not fusion; we should rewrite our history. Concurring in the important revision of American nationality advanced by Randolph Bourne (1916) and Horace Kallen (1924), Matthiessen urged that the cultural domination of the old Anglo-Saxon elites be repudiated, and moreover:

[Matthiessen:] By making Americans more aware of the diversified strains from which we have come, it would enable us to know more about the rest of the world, and it could help to provide us with the international understanding we so much need now in fulfilling our unaccustomed but unavoidable role as a world power (FHE, 125-126, my emph.).


[i]               104. “Economic determinism” as used by the moderates studied here does not refer to an economic model that neglects the force of religion or other ideas in history. Rather, it signifies the ideas of the “mechanical materialists”:  the philosophes who spawned the mob-driven French Revolution. See Harry Hayden Clark, Thomas Paine, 1944. Clark’s consensus-building project is clearly directed toward separating Paine from the radical Enlightenment and from radical puritanism, while making him the standard bearer of American idealism and cultural freedom. Clark asks the reader to scrutinize Paine’s writing where he will discover Paine’s belief in science as revelation of natural order and harmony, rhyming exactly with the goals of progressive New Dealers (though the analogy is never exactly drawn). Readers could substitute the Axis powers for Paine’s Tory Britain or ancient Hebrew royalists.

[ii]               105. See the admiring essay by New Leftist George Abbott White, “Ideology and Literature: American Renaissance and F.O.Matthiessen,” Literature in Revolution, eds. George Abbott White and Charles Newman (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1972), 430-500, in a volume dedicated to Matthiessen; White attempts to separate him from other New Critics (considered today to be conservative).

[iii]              106. Merton M. Sealts to me, 20 June 1987. Sealts, a Stanley Williams student, is one of the leading Melvilleans and the scholar who completed the Olson project to reconstitute Melville’s library. Sealts, however, denies that he was a New Critic, but eclectic: “…my approach to…”I and My Chimney” combined the biographical orientation then current among Melvilleans with the new discipline of close reading (picked up from New Criticism) and an interest in symbolism deriving from such critics as Eliot and Wilson Knight.” Cf. Robert Spiller’s review of  Matthiessen’s book in American Literature 13 ( Mar.-Jan.1941-42): 432-435. Spiller commended his critical method which reconciled aestheticism and historicism through organic form (“a modern functionalism”). While advocating an extreme determinism (“masterworks” are entirely caused by (great?) “social and philosophical forces”), Matthiessen had rescued artists and literary history from the economic determinists: “those historians who evaluate literature in terms of its content of communism, agrarian democracy, Puritanism, materialistic determinism, or other borrowed ism. The central pole of reference is esthetic significance.” But see H. Lark Hall, V.L. Parrington: Through the Avenue of Art (Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press, 1994) where Parrington’s views are linked to those of Henry Adams, Randolph Bourne and other native born radicals (i.e. the corporatists described in my study).

[iv]              107. F.O. Matthiessen Papers, Box 6, Houghton Library, Harvard University. These sentences ended his Introduction to Herman Melville Selected Poems (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1944), a work dedicated to the late William Ellery Sedgwick. The published version changed the word “heart” to “mind.” Cf. the NEH project proposal for a Documentary Film on the Life and Work of Herman Melville, authored by George H. Wolfe. In a letter of 12 Feb. 1979 Wolfe (of the University of Alabama) asked Jay Leyda to join consultants Richard H. Fogle, Harrison Hayford, and Howard Vincent. The NEH application states that the film will treat “Melville’s relentless search to unravel the meaning of meaning and the nature of good and evil…his brilliant examination of the human condition…For Melville is concerned with nothing if not with the way men make ethical choices (and live with the results), engage life fully (or fail to), and deal with the ambiguous possibilities of good and evil in human affairs…his cosmic debates with himself about the nature of man. These interior battles bisect his life and work until finding some sort of odd solace in the final brilliance of Billy Budd.” That social cohesion was on Wolfe’s mind is indicated by his definition of Melville’s context: formation, dissolution, reformation of union. The proposal also mentions a third narrative voice, Lizzie, who will provide information about “Herman’s black moods, his monomaniacal writing habits, the state of his health, the progress of his literary works, his finances, and so forth.” Nathaniel Hawthorne is the most important single influence on Melville’s art; the Bible and Milton are not mentioned. See Leyda Papers, NYU.

[v]               108. Cf. The Harvard Report, General Education in a Free Society, 1945, 110-115. Matthiessen is mentioned in the acknowledgments as having either aided the Harvard Report or served on a sub-committee. Their recommendations for methods in high school teaching of English (“language and literature”) include these vague yet balanced strictures meant to emancipate students from both ignorance and faction-making critical habits: “Among prevailing trends to be discouraged in the study of literature, it would list: Stress on factual content as divorced from design. Emphasis on literary history, on generalizations as to periods, tendencies and ready-made valuations–in place of deeper familiarity with the texts. Strained correlations with civics, social studies. Overambitious technical analysis of structure, plot, figurative language, prosody, genre. Use of critical terms (Romanticism, Realism, Classical, Sentimental) as tags coming between the reader and the work. Didacticism: lessons in behavior too closely sought. These dangers are familiar to reflective teachers, as are their opposite extremes: Superficial reading of too much, with no close knowledge of either the content or its import. Lack of any aids to the understanding of what is being read. Indifference to or ignorance of techniques of literature. Avoidance of critical terms and appraisals when the student is ready for them. Irresponsible attitude to the implications of what is being read.” The authors then recommend “abridgement and selective editing” to make great works accessible to general readers. Imagine the “moderate” reader of this report, asked to determine what is too much or too little in her interventions.

[vi]              109. See Charles H. Foster, “Something In Emblems”: Citing Gilbert Haven and Hon. Thomas Russell, Father Taylor, The Sailor Preacher (Boston: H.B. Russell, 1872), especially Chapter XV, “In Reforms,” Foster argued that Taylor (originally a Virginian brought up among slaves) went back and forth on the abolition question and was an unlikely model for the ultra-abolitionist Mapple. But as the nineteenth-century authors (one a minister, the other Collector of the Port of Boston) more precisely put it, “…he shot back and forward between the contending hosts and ideas, faithful alike to his two central forces,–love of ideal truth, love of organic form. Truth must not shatter form: organism must not stifle truth” (250). Here is the double-bind constantly encountered and identified by Melville as I have argued throughout. Yet Taylor could not stomach the Fugitive Slave Act. His biographers report this conversation: “…just after the passage of the “Fugitive Slave Law,” he was standing at the door of the Methodist Bookstore, No.5 Cornhill, and Rev. Thomas Whittemore, the leading Universalist preacher, who was a very strong abolitionist, was passing. “Well,” said Father Taylor,” Brother Whittemore, are you and I going to turn slave-catchers and do the dirty work of these miserable man-thieves?” “No, said Mr. Whittemore, very indignantly. “No, no!” “No, no!” said Father Taylor, with greater emphasis, clapping him warmly on his back: “we’ll see them all in hell first; won’t we, Brother Whittemore?” (253-254).

Melville’s conservative narrators fit comfortably into the popular evangelical protestant culture of his day. The Bethel Church was funded by members of the Unitarian merchant class of Boston, and its purpose was conversion and moral uplift, not the politicizing of the sailor congregation. Taylor, a former sailor and circuit-rider, ardently defended Church and State (laws were inevitably imperfect, being the creation of devil-infested man, 175). With the example of successful mutinies before them (192), captains were asked to sacrifice their natural propensities to tyrannize sailors; while sailors were asked by Taylor, ever the temperance crusader, to give up drink and promiscuity (that were not only impoverishing their wives and children, but infecting and debauching heathen populations that missionaries sought to Christianize), to adhere strictly to duty, with a blissful heavenly reward in sight. One observer, John Ross Dix, described the one painting in the Bethel that transmits the message: “[The Church] is small and neat,–the only ornament being a large painting at the back of the pulpit, representing a ship in a stiff breeze off a lee shore, we believe; for we are not seaman enough to be certain on this point. High over the mast-head are dark storm-clouds, from one of which a remarkably small angel is seen, with outstretched arms, –the celestial individual having just flung down a golden anchor bigger than itself, to aid the ship in its extremity, we presume, although there is attached to the said anchor but a few inches of California cable, which for any practical purpose would not be of the slightest use. However, we must not be critical on allegories; and perhaps many a sailor now on the great deep has pleasant recollections of the picture: if so, a thousand such anachronisms might well be pardoned” (357-358). Another sailor-preacher, Enoch Mudge, was suggested by Jay Leyda as the source for Father Mapple (see below). The Historical Note to the N/N Moby-Dick, discussing the paucity of real-life models for Melville’s characters, names a sailor, Backus, as the source for Pip, then states “(The only convincing exception is Father Mapple, for whom Father Edward Taylor of Boston supplied more than a hint)” (636). We are not told why the editors are convinced. In his Melville biography, Hershel Parker mentions both Mudge and Taylor, but does not specify their politics.

[vii]             110. Matthiessen was quoting Emerson.  Haven and Russell, Father Taylor, are unclear on the integration question. One observer, pro-abolitionist Harriet Martineau, saw segregation at Bethel: “There is one great drawback in the religious services of his chapel. There is a gallery just under the roof for persons of color; and ‘the seed-carriers of the world’ are thus countenanced by Father Taylor in making a root of bitterness spring up beside their homes, which, under his care, a better spirit should sanctify. I think there can be no doubt that an influence so strong as his would avail to abolish this unchristian distinction of races within the walls of his own church; and it would elevate the character of his influence if the attempt were made” (348-49). However, Stevens, historian of the Methodist Episcopal Church, describes the perfect missionary with a different scene: “In a spacious and substantial chapel, crowded about by the worst habitations of the city, he delivered every sabbath, for years, discourses the most extraordinary, to assemblies also as extraordinary perhaps as could be found in the Christian world. In the centre column of seats, guarded sacredly against all other intrusion, sat a dense mass of mariners,–a strange medley of white, black, and olive,–Protestant, Catholic, and sometimes pagan, representing many languages, unable probably to comprehend each other’s vocal speech, but speaking there the same language of intense looks and flowing tears. On the other seats, in the galleries, the aisles, and the altar, and on the pulpit stairs, crowded, week after week, and year after year (among the families of sailors, and the poor who had no other temple), the élite of the city, the learned professor, the student, the popular writer, the actor, groups of clergymen, and the votaries of fashion, listening with throbbing hearts and wet eyes to the man whose chief training had been in the forecastle, whose only endowments were those of grace and nature, but whose discourses presented the strangest, the most brilliant exhibition of sense, epigrammatic thought, pathos, and humor, expressed in a style of singular pertinency, spangled over by an exhaustless variety of the finest images, and pervaded by a spiritual earnestness that subdued all listeners; a man who could scarcely speak three sentences, in the pulpit or out of it, without presenting a striking poetical image, a phrase of rare beauty, or a sententious sarcasm, and the living examples of whose usefulness are scattered over the seas” (367). Significantly, the authors compare Father Taylor to Wordsworth’s Peter Bell (437). I am reminded of Melville in his conservative mood, situated as a stylist in the culture of popular evangelical religion.

[viii]             111. Matthiessen had already set this up earlier on page 426, following a portion of Ahab’s quarter-deck speech rendered in blank verse with the statement, “Starbuck’s meditation opens the next chapter: “My soul is overmanned…” He has excised the chapter “Sunset.”

[ix]              112. See my discussion of Melville’s Milton annotations above and their relevance for Ahab’s probable allusion to Eve, addressed by Satan as “Queen of this Universe.” Matthiessen is contradicting his response to Olson’s draft essay, that Melville could not have lacked the tragic sense.

[x]               113. Willard Thorp, Representative Selections, xci,cxviii.

[xi]              114. Rolfe has been taken by corporatist Melvilleans to be Melville’s true voice in Clarel.

[xii]             115. Matthiessen uses the word “inexorable” to sting Mapple’s and Ahab’s “inexorable self” that stands up to illegitimate authority.

[xiii]             116. Cf. Olson, M.A. Thesis, quoted above; also the chapter on Dana in D.H. Lawrence, Studies In Classic American Literature (New York: Seltzer, 1923). Matthiessen flunks White-Jacket as art: of all Melville’s early too-concrete works, it is “[the] most heavy and diffuse through its number of surface details.” When the right-wing modernists looked for equilibrium between matter and spirit, the lurking model giving specifity to their abstraction was the “dynamic equilibrium” between master and man, characterized by “reciprocity” before the rule of capital destroyed such bonds.

[xiv]             117. Henry W. Wells, “Herman Melville’s Clarel,” College English 4 (May 1943): 478-483; “An Unobtrusive Democrat: Herman Melville,” South Atlantic Quarterly 43 (Jan. 1944): 46-51.

[xv]             118. But see H.M. Bossard to Olson, 26 Mar. 1938, giving him the reference he requested on Jung’s analysis of Hitler, “Wotan: a psychologist explores the forces behind German fascism.”

[xvi]             119. Page references are to Thorp, Literary History of the U.S. (New York: Macmillan, rev. ed.,1974). Melville tried to reform the missionaries in his first works; by the late 1850s, in his lecture “The South Seas,”he advised Americans to leave primitives alone until the “civilized” had reformed themselves. Thorp’s Christian Socialist account would support the aims of the internationalism of the postwar upper-class peace movement by rebuking Pierre’s excessive idealism and rejection of pragmatism. See Thorp Representative Selections, xxxviii; Thorp, Literary History, 470. The strange union refers to the living arrangements of Pierre and Isabel (later joined by Lucy) in the city.

[xvii]            120. See Carol Gruber, Mars and Minerva; also The Report of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission to the Senate and House of Representatives, June 1939 which stated “For more than 50 years, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the US, has been recognized by our citizens not only for the outstanding part which he took in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, itself, not only for his authorship of the Virginia Statute for religious freedom, but also for the services he rendered in establishing the practical operation of the American Government as a democracy, and not an autocracy.”

[xviii]           121. I am not claiming a moral equivalency between the New Deal and fascism or Soviet communism; state murder is not the same as marginalization or unemployment or amnesia. As I have argued throughout, while diffuse anxiety and self-censorship characterizes postwar American culture, libraries remain open, though access to state secrets is still limited, with the result that conspiracy theories further pathologize our political culture.

[xix]             122. See Donald Davidson, “Where Are The Laymen? A Study in Policy-Making,” American Review 9 (Sept. 1937): 456-481. Davidson was protesting against mushrooming independent citizen policy groups in the South, loosely allied with, but also critical of, the Roosevelt administration. Davidson derisively typed these fact-finders as either neo-abolitionists or as top-down social planners. Scientific industrial society had destroyed the capacity of Jeffersonian democrats to participate in the major decisions of their lives. The New Left phrase “participatory democracy” may be indebted to such 1930s agrarian thought, proudly professed by Davidson as “fascist.”

[xx]             123. “From the Heart of Europe,” “revised early draft 2,” p. 10, Box 6, Matthiessen Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University. See From The Heart of Europe (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1948), 82. In 1937, Reinhold Niebuhr had written “…religion is forced to tell many little lies in the interest of a great truth, while science inclines to tell many little truths in the interest of a great lie. The great truth in the interest of which many little lies are told is that life and history have meaning and the source and the fulfillment of that meaning lie beyond history. The great lie in the interest of which science tells many little truths is that spatio-temporal realities are self-contained and self-explanatory and that a scientific description of sequences is an adequate analysis of causes.” “The Truth in Myths” is reprinted in Gail Kennedy, ed., Evolution and Religion: The Conflict Between Science and Theology in Modern America (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1957): 94.

[xxi]             124. Matthiessen, From The Heart of Europe, 182-183. Sidney Kaplan, a liberal Melville critic and Leyda admirer, criticized  Eleanor Metcalf’s politics but commended Matthiessen’s “wonderfully eloquent and (last) words on Melville” in a letter to Leyda 21 July 1950. Commenting on the difficulties of Benito Cereno, Kaplan wrote,I do intend to examine the whole Melville canon, including the Civil War writings. Warren, Hettinger and Arvin leave much to be said. Some time ago Mrs. Metcalf wrote me that the only thing of interest she had was a presentation copy of Battle Pieces from Melville to his wife…and a brick from Malvern Hill. “If what you write,” she added, “gives a wider circulation to the prose appendix to Battle Pieces, that in itself would be a great service to his memory and fine contribution to the thinking and feeling of these torn days.” I fear I shall disappoint her there; I am not sure that the appendix was or is worth much as a moral-political document. It has the alarming odor of Bennett’s Herald. As you suggest, however, I shall try to see Mrs. Metcalf and talk with her.”

[xxii]            125. But see Leo Marx, “Double Consciousness and the Cultural Politics of F.O. Matthiessen,”Monthly Review 34 (Feb. 1983): 34-56. Marx believes that his teacher’s critical achievement (the recognition of contradictions) helped overcome the regnant organicism: “It signalled the virtual disappearance of the older complacent idea of our national culture as an essentially homogeneous, unified whole” (40). In my research, I have found no such complacency or sense of unity.  Marx discusses the context of Matthiessen’s suicide: personal loss (his lover Russell Cheney had died in 1945), and political persecution exacerbating a history of depression. By contrast, one prominent New Americanist critic sees Matthiessen as a consensus builder, papering over social conflict. See Donald Pease, Moby Dick and the Cold War,” The American Renaissance Reconsidered, ed. Walter Benn Michaels and Donald E. Pease (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985): 113-155.

[xxiii]           126. Cf., Henry W. Wells, The American Way of Poetry (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1943): 86; Wells (a founding member of the Melville Society) discusses Clarel as a revelation of America: “The section of Book One devoted to [the judaizing Nathan’s] past gives a vivid and circumstantial picture of many aspects of American life. Nathan’s pioneering family after migrating from Maine settled at last on the Illinois prairie. Here Nathan came into imaginative touch with the land on which he worked and with the Indian aborigines who preceded him. As a thinker he felt the force, in turn, of Tom Paine’s rationalism, of a narrow and fanatical sectarianism, of a transcendental nature-worship, and of the puritanical variety of Hebraism. This section of only ten pages constitutes a really remarkable epitome of no small part of America’s social and intellectual history.”

[xxiv]           127. Kenneth Murdock to Perry Miller, 12 Apr. 1950, Perry Miller Papers, Harvard University Archives.

[xxv]            128. W. Ellery Sedgwick Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University. There is another version, typed by Sedgwick’s colleague Theodore Spencer. I do not know the meaning of the line “Scribners 1932-36,” or the prefix P.C. which precedes the last verse which is written on the reverse of the page. Neither of these appears in the Spencer version.

June 17, 2010


American Progress

This blog continues a series in which I show how the post-Civil War Progressives appropriated Herman Melville’s fiction and poetry: one could describe their project as the taming of a rugged individualist, of a frontiersman. Their project was first designed to attenuate sectional loyalties in the American Leviathan: the moderate men will weigh in with their “materialist” history to monitor and ambivalently celebrate the frontiersman. In their construction of a national literature they intended to overcome post-Civil War sectional bitterness, while using that bad example to support the new Progressive reading of American history, as exemplified by Frederick Jackson Turner (an ex-student of Woodrow Wilson). Hence, Ahab (surfacing in 1851) would have to be a negative model for the moderate men of the following century, who attempted unsuccessfully to both defend national interests while simultaneously cooperating with an “international community” as embodied in the United Nations. If Ahab stands for a brutally expanding Amerika, then Melville as the converted Ishmael could be seen as the moderate corrective to a young country fatally dedicated to WASP supremacy and hyper-individualism, or worse, especially after two world wars, with recent immigrant masses frighteningly susceptible to the siren call of Bolshevism.

First read http://clarespark.com/2009/09/03/advice-for-the-lovelorn-with-thoughts-on-hero-worship/ (retitled Manifest Destiny and Political Liberty), and http://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/.

I begin with two views of Anglo-American culture and its expansionist frontiersmen as defined by Herman Melville in his allegorical work Mardi (1849).  Vivenza[1] stands for America, Bello is England, Dominora is Europe, Oro is God, Mardi is the world.  The first speaker is Taji the narrator who expects the Jacksonian expansionists to moderate their behavior in time; the second is Babbalanja, the philosopher who calls for all youthful minds in the West to join the Anglo-American project of intellectual emancipation, associating oppressive domination with the English upper classes, who have suppressed their libertarian tradition; the third speaker is a fiery youth antagonistic to free thought, associating it with the tyranny of the newly empowered democratic polity, some of whom, at the time of Melville’s writing, were promoting the extension of slavery to the Western territories.  The dialogue between democrat and aristocrat runs throughout Melville’s writing; but it is the third speaker, the fiery Tory youth, whose fear and anger pervade the humanities throughout its whispering sacred groves. Have they transmuted the boundless expansion of our moral and intellectual development (arguably Ahab’s project) into the illicit penetration and appropriation of Mother Earth, so that the act of discovery itself becomes criminal, tantamount to endorsing slavery?

Materials from my research into the Melville Revival along with the history of “Progressive” history-writing are presented chronologically, in order of publication.

[Taji:]    This chieftain, it seems, was from a distant western valley, called Hio-Hio, one of the largest and most fertile in Vivenza, though but recently settled.  Its inhabitants, and those of the vales adjoining,–a right sturdy set of fellows,–were accounted the most dogmatically democratic and ultra of all the tribes in Vivenza; ever seeking to push on their brethren to the uttermost; and especially were they bitter against Bello.[2] But they were a fine young tribe, nevertheless.  Like strong new wine they worked violently in becoming clear.  Time, perhaps, would make them all right….

[Babbalanja:] “…my lord, King Bello should never forget, that whatever be glorious in Vivenza, redounds to himself…My lord, behold these two states!  Of all nations in the Archipelago, they alone are one in blood.  Dominora is the last and greatest Anak of Old Times; Vivenza, the foremost and goodliest stripling of the Present.  One is full of the past; the other brims with the future.  Ah! did this sire’s old heart but beat to free thoughts, and back his bold son, all Mardi would go down before them.  And high Oro may have ordained for them a career, little divined by the mass.  Methinks, that as Vivenza will never cause old Bello to weep for his son; so, Vivenza will not…be called to weep over the grave of its sire.  And though King Bello may yet lay aside his old-fashioned cocked hat of a crown, and comply with the plain costume of the times; yet will his frame remain sturdy as of yore, and equally grace any habiliments he may don.  And those who say, Dominora is old and worn out, may very possibly err.  For if, as a nation, Dominora be old–her present generation is full as young as the youths in any land under the sun.  Then, Ho! worthy twain!  Each worthy the other, join hands on the instant, and weld them together.  Lo! the past is a prophet.  Be the future, its prophecy fulfilled.”

[Fiery Tory youth:]   “Sovereign-kings of Vivenza! it is fit you should hearken to wisdom.  But well aware, that you give ear to little wisdom except of your own; and that as freemen, you are free to hunt down him who dissents from your majesties; I deem it proper to address you anonymously.

“And if it please you, you may ascribe this voice to the gods; for never will you trace it to man….” [Mardi, 1849; 518, 519, 520, 524]

[Victorian poet and radical journalist (“B.V.”) James Thomson to Bertram Dobell, from the U.S., ca. 1872.  An admirer of Melville and Whitman, Thomson ambivalently contemplates the American melting pot and offers an interpretation of the sublime (“vastitude”) similar to Taji’s and Babbalanja’s; cf. Charles Olson’s emphasis on “scale” in his Melville criticism, along with the anti-expansionism he picked up from Frederick Merk at Harvard:]  I think we must forgive the Americans a good deal of vulgarity and arrogance for some generations yet.  They are intoxicated with their vast country and its vaster prospects.  Besides, we of the old country have sent them for years past, and are still sending them, our half-starved and ignorant millions.  The Americans of the War of Independence were really a British race, and related to the old country as a Greek colony to its mother city or state.  But the Americans of today are only a nation in that they instinctively adore their union.  All the heterogeneous ingredients are seething in the cauldron with plenty of scum and air bubbles atop.  In a century or two they may get stewed down into homogeneity–a really wholesome and dainty dish, not to be set before a king though, I fancy.  I resisted the impression of the mere material vastitude as long as possible, but found its influence growing on me week by week: for it implies such vast possibilities of moral and intellectual expansion.  They are starting over here with all our experience and culture at their command, without any of the obsolete burdens and impediments which in the course of a thousand years have become inseparable from our institutions, and with a country which will want still more labour and more people for many generations to come. [3]

[William F. Allen, Frederick Jackson Turner’s teacher, 1885:]  The solid and substantial character which the Federalism of Hamilton during the years 1789-97, gave to the national edifice secured by the Constitution; the sudden list to individualism, equally unexpected and undesired by the “fathers of the republic,” which was given by the Democracy of Jefferson during years 1793-1800; the territorial expansion of 1803, with its inevitable and far-reaching consequences–here were three fundamental and discordant forces, whose reduction to harmony would alone make this a period of vital importance in American history.  As the ship, sliding from the ways, lurching first to one side then to the other, settles down into her natural position, American history not only then but thereafter, was made during those fourteen years.[4]

[From the Preface to Scribner’s Statistical Atlas of the United States, 1885, the crucial and unappreciated influence on Turner’s sociological method of writing history, Fulmer Mood, 1943, 309.  “Race” and “nativity” are given the same objective status as “physical features” and economic statistics.]  It is the aim of this work to bring together and to present by graphic methods, all the leading statistical facts regarding the physical, social, industrial, commercial and political conditions of the United States.  It portrays the physical features of the country which more or less determine its development, the political history of the nation, the succession of parties and the ideas for which they existed; and the progress of settlement, throughout the valley of the Mississippi, and beyond the barriers of the Cordilleras.  It treats of the population, its varieties of race and nativity, its educational and religious condition, its occupations and its mortality.  Passing to the industries, it exhibits the great leading branches, agriculture, manufactures, mining, trade and transportation.  Under the head of Finance and Commerce, it pictures the wealth of the country, and its public debt and taxation, its foreign commerce and carrying trade, its expenditure and its force of revenue–thus presenting to the comprehension of all, the balance sheet of the General Government.  The work closes fittingly with a series of diagrams which summarize and bring together for comparison, the leading facts previously developed.

[F. J. Turner,“The Significance of the Frontier,” The Frontier in American History, 1921, 2, 3, 33, 34, 38, 39. A scientific warning about conditions favoring the recurrence of populist agitation delivered in 1893 to the American Historical Association:]  Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area.  American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier.  This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character….A primitive society can hardly be expected to show the intelligent appreciation of the complexity of business interests in a developed society.  The continual recurrence of these areas of paper-money agitation is another evidence that the frontier can be isolated and studied as a factor in American history of the highest importance.

The East has always feared the result of an unregulated advance of the frontier and has tried to check and guide it.  The English authorities would have checked settlement at the headwaters of the Atlantic tributaries and allowed the “savages to enjoy their deserts in quiet lest the peltry trade should decrease.”  This called out Burke’s splendid protest: “If you stopped your grants, what would be the consequence?  The people would occupy without grants.  They have already so occupied in many places.  You cannot station garrisons in every part of these deserts.  If you drive the people from one place, they will carry on their annual tillage and remove with their flocks and herds to another. Many of the people in the back settlements are already little attached to particular situations.  Already they have topped the Appalachian mountains.  From thence they behold before them an immense plain, one vast, rich, level meadow; a square of five hundred miles.  Over this they would wander without a possibility of restraint; they would change their manners with their habits of life; would soon forget a government by which they were disowned; would become hordes of English Tartars; and pouring down upon your unfortified frontiers a fierce and irresistible cavalry, become masters of your governors and your counselors, your collectors and comptrollers, and of all the slaves that adhered to them.  Such would, and in no long time must, be the effect of attempting to forbid as a crime and to suppress as an evil the command and blessing of Providence, ‘Increase and multiply.’  Such would be the happy result of an endeavor to keep as a lair of wild beasts that earth which God, by an express charter, has given to the children of men.” [end Burke quote]

[Turner, cont..:] …[T]o the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics.  That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; the masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance that comes with freedom–these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier….And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.

[Frank Jewett Mather, Jr. The Review, August 9, August 16, 1919:]…no ordinary person loves Melville….Upon the reader’s slant towards this sort of parable [Ishmael and the try-works, as Ishmael separates his persona from Ahab’s] will very much depend his estimate of “Moby Dick.” [5]

[H.M. Tomlinson, The Literary Review of the New York Evening Post, Nov. 5, 1921:]  “Moby Dick” is a supreme test. If it captures you, then you are unafraid of great art.  You may dwell in safety with fiends or angels and rest poised with a quiet mind between the stars and the bottomless pit.

[John Freeman to John Haines, April 23, 1926:]…Melville is out, and I wait to see if two continents are aware of his greatness.  Or will the brave sprats gore this Whale anew?  God forbid that the traducers of Swinburne’s genius should perceive Melville’s, with their little viper eyes all of rancour and squint….

[Lewis Mumford to Raymond Weaver, May 21, 1928:]  Melville is a very whale to handle, isn’t he?  My task waxes as my energies wane.

[Raymond Weaver, 1931, p.190:]  The man who had created Moby Dick had in early manhood prayed that if his soul missed its haven it might at least end in utter wreck. “All Fame is patronage,” he had once in long past written to Hawthorne; “let me be infamous.”  But as if in contempt even for this preference, he had, during the last half of his life, cruised off and away upon boundless and uncharted waters, and in the end he sank down into death without a ripple of renown.

[Poet and editor of the London Mercury, J.C. Squire (former Fabian Socialist, during this period, interested in adapting Italian Fascism for England) delivers a lecture series on American poetry at Cambridge University, his alma mater; this excerpt on Whitman, Nov. 11, 1933.  Squire quietly  warns old fogeys about the stultifying American practice of writing only about the Bay of Naples, Vesuvius, Acropolis, Pompeii, etc. which had been rejected by Walt Whitman, father of modern poetry]: “…all that went on while Whitman was writing that revolutionary stuff.  Can you blame the man for being so spasmodic and violent?  He simply could not bear these cultivated surroundings: it was bad enough in the old cultivated surroundings: it was bad enough in the old cultivated country but when you have got a new one, as Whitman found when he was a young man and a middle-aged man, a thing that was not deeply rooted but just existed because it was supposed to be good form to be cultivated, an extremely violent reaction is sure to be expected.  Had he been born in Europe he no doubt would have been an original, eccentric and rather violent revolutionary, but being born in America with that hot, fiery temper and modulation it was only natural that he should go to the extremes to which he did.  We must forgive him his eccentricities, his endless undigested catalogues geographical and geological…facts which make no music and always any sense even: we must forgive him all this because of the havoc he made of things being too crustified, that music seldom came out in rhyme….[Box 5, J.C. Squire papers, UCLA]

[Ralph Henry Gabriel, The Course of American Democratic Thought, 1940, 74:]  Melville sensed that the concept of the moral law which dominated the Middle Period was a utopian ethics.  The doctrines of progress was [sic] an affirmation that men, through apprehending the moral law and through making it effective in society can advance toward some paradise from which sin and baseness have vanished.  Melville looked upon such a goal as a Never-Never Land.  To found, as Emerson did, a philosophy of individualism upon such a dream of utopia seemed to Melville to be an attempt to transform men into children.

What then is the fundamental moral law?  Melville could only answer that the essence of the world is a dualism between good and evil.  He saw it everywhere: the beautiful English countryside and the rotting tenements of Liverpool where he had seen a mother and her babes starving; Fayaway and the sweating bones left from the cannibal feast; the law of love proclaimed by the Man of Nazareth and the world [“] a den/Worse for Christ’s coming, since His love/ (Perverted) did but venom prove.”….

[From a document first published in 1942: Frederick Jackson Turner’s proposal for “International Political Parties in a Durable League of Nations” (for Woodrow Wilson, 1918):]

[F. J. Turner is saying below that national political parties in America overcame sectional loyalties; that this precedent would be effective in stopping Bolshevism internationally, indeed would respond to the pacifist democratic masses. Note the double bind: the elastic bond makes it possible to cater to local interests without destroying international unity. Remember that Wilson was a Southerner who opposed the sectional bitterness that followed the Civil War, hence his delight with The Birth of a Nation. By following his ex-student Turner’s formulation of wild West in contrast to conservative East, he could displace the North-South polarization—indeed as did Thomas Dixon in his novels.]

[Turner:] The following is an abstract of suggestions (derived from the study of the history of American sectionalism and the geography of American political parties) upon the bearing of American experience on the problems of the League of Nations.  The conclusion is reached that in such a League there should be a Legislative body, with substantial, but at first limited, functions, as well as a Court, or Council of Nations, and particularly that the operation of international political parties in connection with such a Legislature would promote the permanence of the League….

…American ideals as so nobly set forth by the President, have found a quicker response among the European laboring classes than elsewhere, and in the passion for democratic peace among the masses lies the hope of the peace of the World internationally.  What light does American experience cast upon the possibility of so using the masses as to promote international unity?…We have given evidence that immigrants from all nations of the world can live together peacefully under a single government that does justice….In a region as diversified in some respects as Europe itself, and as large, the national political parties ran across all sections, evoked intersectional or nonsectional party loyalty, checked the exclusive claim of the section to a vote in the interest of the section, furnished the dissenting minority within the section an organic connection with party associates in other sections, at the same time that this connection was dependent upon just recognition of the special section in which the minority lived.  It was an elastic bond, but one that was strong.  It ran horizontal cross-sections of party ties across the vertical lines of sectional division.  It enabled the voter to act continentally, and it compelled the statesman to act on lines of policy that transcended his section, if he would secure a continental following strong enough to bring him success.

6. There is a distinct advantage in utilizing this party system in a League of Nations…In essence it means the utilization of that body of internationalism already in evidence not only in such organizations as radical political parties, such as the International, the I.W.W., Socialists generally, etc. but also the opposite tendencies seen in international business combinations, scientific and educational international organizations, and conservative forces generally.  The class struggle, so called, is in fact not a national but an international struggle.  If party organization of the radical element alone exists, and if this organization is also dominated and shaped by some one or two nations, as Germany or Russia, it will be extended, as it has been, to other countries in the form of secret, or intriguing societies, proceeding by revolutionary methods, with little or no regard for the separate interests of the nation into which it is introduced as an alien, and with the helmsman operating from the outside, and steering a course which almost necessarily involves adhesion to the primary interest of the country in which such a party is recognized as a powerful interest in the determination of the policy.

Is it better to try to exclude these international political forces from the organization of the new order, or to utilize their internationalizing tendencies by enabling them to operate upon an international legislative body, responsive to play of parties?  Is it worth while to use the fact of class consciousness to diminish the violence of national consciousness?

There can be little doubt that the common people, whether of the extreme radical wing of socialists, or of the conservative party groups, were reluctant to enter the war, and are now in Germany and Austria-Hungary the severest critics of the autocratic group which deceived them and misled them….

7. One recoils from any suggestion of adding a party loyalty international in its appeal to the loyalty of the individual nation.  But the very idea of a League of Nations involves some diminution of the national feeling, some cultivation of international loyalty.  If one could keep the Bolsheviki serpent out of the American Eden, he would hesitate to admit any international party organization which permitted such organization.

But in the reconstruction and ferment which will follow the return of peace, there will be doubts about the existence of Edens anywhere, and the Bolsheviki serpent will creep in under whatever fence be attempted.  May it not be safer to give him a job of international legislation rather than to leave him to strike from dark corners, and with no sense of responsibility?….

…It must…be admitted that the difference between section and nation are many and deep, and that there are some points in which international jealousy and controversy might be promoted rather than restrained by internationally organized parties operating on a legislature…There will be sectional jealousy and suspicion in any League, with whatever form of political organization.  It is inherent in its nature.  The problem is the introduction of checks and antidotes to this tendency.[6]

[Ralph Henry Gabriel, “Thorp, Curti, Baker: American Issues,” American Historical Review, July 1942, 875-876:]  Dr. Thorp and Dr. Baker insist in the foreword [American Issues, 1941] that aesthetic considerations have controlled the choices for Volume II.  “American eagerness to have a national literature,” they affirm, “has too often led us to praise as creative writers men who produced social documentation rather than works of art.”  “We have aimed”, they add, “to include in the second volume only such writing as can honestly be said to show the artist’s hand at work, consciously shaping his material.”…The functional approach to intellectual history fails to take account of some of the forces that bring about the change from one climate of opinion to another….”

[Fulmer Mood on the molding of a great mind:  Frederick Jackson Turner descended from 17th century immigrants, born in the “native community” of Portage, Wisconsin to newspaperman father and ex-schoolteacher mother, no longer pioneers, hence: “Their home was thus one in which some concern was felt for things of the spirit, a space where limited and cramped views did not prevail.”  His insights into behind-the scenes management were gleaned from father, Chair of Board of Supervisors of Columbia County who had to harmonize the interests of Protestants and Catholics, rival nationalities and towns [284-287].  Turner’s democratic ideals were shaped by the character of his birthplace: “The world of Portage, which he had a chance to study thoroughly, taught him things not learned in books.  Portage was plain, a homespun community, democratic in spirit, neighborly.  Turner was of it, genuine; unassuming.  In after years he was to walk in stately academic processions, wearing the cap and gown, singled out for special distinction, for honorary degrees.  But he took the honors with the humility of spirit of one who knew that thereby American democracy complimented not the man Turner but Turner the scholar, the servant of a nation’s best ideals….The social ideals of this young man, early acquired, never disintegrated.  To the last he retained his loyalty to democracy” [285, 287, 293].  Turner’s conception of American history: “as the history of a group of sectionally different communities, each one established in a physiographic area of its own, each one devoted to its particular economy and social life, its own culture and politics.  In the large view of affairs that he upheld, it was the interplay and interdependence of these sections with one another that formed the stuff of American history.  The forward moving frontier was important because, in its westward progress it advanced with unique virgin physiographic areas and thus generated the beginning of still other sections” [337].  The achievement of (classically educated) Turner’s The Rise of the New West: “The grand topics of Congressional debate and legislation were considered in the light of sectional influences impinging on Congress in the persons of sectional champions, political figures in national life.  Federal policy was thus shown to be a resultant of compromise and conciliation which reduced the originally extreme claims of rival sections to a decent moderation.  Natural history, as studied in Congressional action and presidential policy, came thus to have coordinate interest and importance with the internal history of the sections.  And underneath all, the strong tide of nascent democracy was shown silently on the upsweep, moving toward the political victory of Andrew Jackson in 1828.” [Mood, Development of Frederick Jackson Turner as a Historical Thinker, 1943, 346].

[John Maurice Clark delivers a series of lectures at Columbia University, 1946] …when the world was ‘in the grip of a mighty struggle.  On one side are forces driving toward chaos and anarchy, political, social, economic, and moral.  On the other side are forces of centralized control.  Between them stand the forces and men who are trying desperately to salvage a workable basis for a humane and ordered community, in which some effective degree of freedom and democracy may be kept alive without wrecking society by their undisciplined exercise and disruptive excesses.’  [quoted in Schriftgiesser, Business and Social Policy: The Role of the Committee for Economic Development, 1967, 15-16.]

[Willard Thorp, “Herman Melville,” Literary History of the United States, 468. Fourth edition, revised.] The faith which Melville longed for while he was writing Clarel, and finally achieved in when he wrote Billy Budd was not the faith of his fathers.  He did not receive it in a moment of conversion to any inherited system of belief.  He had to construct it for himself. But it was complete and it was sufficient to satisfy him at last.  That he had to make the faith by which he could live–and that he succeeded in his long effort to do so–suggests why he has been so appealing a figure to many later writers whose struggles resemble his own.  War and economic chaos and the new fears aroused by atomic power have been as unsettling to men of sensibility as were the issues of Melville’s day to men of his kind.  Writers like Yeats and Auden, unable to rest in any traditional faith, had–even as Melville did–to construct their own.  Modern man must believe or he is lost.  That is the meaning of Clarel. “If Luther’s day expands to Darwin’s year,/Shall that exclude the hope–foreclose the fear?  The running battle of the star and clod/ Shall run for ever–if there be no God.” [7]

[William Gilman, Melville’s Early Life and Redburn, 1951, 216]…Like Taji and Ishmael, [Redburn] is another of the “isolatoes” whose social and spiritual predicaments became more and more the subject of American works, from Walden and Huckleberry Finn to “Gerontion,” “Prufrock,” and Look Homeward Angel.  Although Redburn does not realize it, it is the failure of the American dream that produces the sense of being an outcast with which he leaves home.  The emotional brutality of the sailors leaves him “a kind of Ishmael” on the ship.  And his isolation in Liverpool and the monstrous poverty of the place furnish glimpses of the growing conflict in the nineteenth century between man and the modern city.  In his love of historical tradition, Redburn is the civilized Westerner who seeks to assimilate and be assimilated by his own culture.  But in Liverpool Redburn finds a commercial and relatively new metropolis, blind to the past and interested only in profit, inhuman in itself and dehumanizing its swarming populace.  It allows widows and children to starve, and except for its churches it thrusts Redburn out of doors.  In Redburn’s awareness of the way a large city crushes both body and spirit in man, Melville makes one of the earliest statements of the cleavage between the individual and his environment in the modern world.

[H.M. Tomlinson, 1949, epigraph to Introduction, Eleanor Melville Metcalf’s Herman Melville: Cycle and Epicycle, 1953]  Our peering curiosity is the measure of his mastership. His contribution to the fun of life, and his deepening of its mystery, only quicken interest in his person, and desire to examine his relics for traces of his secrets.

[Lewis Mumford prefers the moderate middle distance:]  As far as my general approach goes, I stand by my original treatment of Melville in those very features that least comport with the present style of academic biography and criticism.  Just because every aspect of Melville has by now been subjected to microscopic magnification and ex-ray [sic] analysis, there remains perhaps a special place for works that regard him with the naked eye, at a reasonable distance, bringing out the main features and deliberately suppressing the pores and the pockmarks.  Not the least use of careful documentation is the freedom it gives to abandon the methods that produce it, once the results are taken into account.  Otherwise the scholarly virtues of patience, scrupulousness, exactitude, exhaustiveness would come at too high a price.  Without sufficient will to generalize and select, present-day American scholars are perhaps too often tempted to bury by an overload of minute analysis, meant chiefly to impress other scholars working in the same territory, works that were once in danger of being smothered by indifference.

…Like high-fidelity zealots in sound reproduction, many scholars in this generation make no distinction of value between music and noise; and even cheerfully sacrifice music to noise if the latter can be more accurately recorded and reproduced.  Against such minds my revised study may volunteer, as a scarred veteran, to join an open counter-attack.

…Let the reader treat this book as a guidepost, or rather, a partly effaced milestone, on the original narrow country lane of Melville scholarship.  That road has now turned into a six-lane motorway, busy with traffic: dashing private cars, ponderous trucks, bus-loads of tourists on guided tours.  Those who like to linger on an old shadow-dappled lane will not go so fast or get so far: but they will have the freedom to collect their own thoughts, inhale fresh air, take in the landscape, and pluck a few roadside flowers for themselves.  Since I have drawn freely from Melville’s own words whenever they were available, frequently without quotation marks, the voice that will accompany them on this solitary stroll will often be that of Herman Melville.  My task as a critic will have been well done, according to my own lights, if henceforward they ask for no better guide than Herman Melville.  [Lewis Mumford takes on the supposedly fact-fetishizing Stanley Williams faction of Melville scholarship: “Preface to the New Edition,” Herman Melville: A Study of His Life and Vision (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962): xiii,xiv.  See my book on the Melville Revival for his suppression of pores and pockmarks in the 1920s.)

[U. of Pennsylvania Professor Hennig Cohen, “Why Melville Isn’t For the Masses,” 1969:]  Herman Melville is no doubt the most famous but least celebrated writer in the history of American literature and the evidence received up to now does not indicate that the 150th anniversary of his birth…was an occasion for popular commemoration.  The reasons are almost Melvillean in their ambiguities.  First, Melville is a writer who arouses intense but private responses.  It is not easy to share him because this means sharing one’s privacy, and the sum total of many intensely personal responses does not equal mass popularity.  Though he identified with the outcasts and wanderers, the Ishmaels, Melville himself was no escapist fleeing the drudgery and frustrations of civilization for high drama aboard whaling ships and exotic adventures on the South Sea islands.  He was deeply committed to the world in which he lived and in his fashion, a sociable man.  Moreover, he was involved in significant manifestations of American destiny as both sailor and writer–to such an extent that the subject matter, even the style of his life and books exemplify the national character, and the metaphysical themes that engrossed his thinking are expressions of the national mind….”

[This is the first of two blogs on the antics of the moderate men who tamed Herman Melville. For Part two see http://clarespark.com/2010/06/18/whaleness-2/. You will find yourself at the end of a journey smack in the middle of the Democratic Party and with progressive Republicans too.]

NOTES. [1] Cf. Vivia, the hero of Pierre’s failed attempt at a masterpiece, in Pierre (1852).

[2] This is clearly a reference to Senator William Allen of Ohio, 1803-1879, a Jacksonian expansionist and supporter of Lewis Cass, the latter implemented Indian removal for Jackson: both were advocates of “Popular Sovereignty,” which in practice would have allowed individual states to determine the legality of slavery.

[3] Quoted in A Voice From The Nile, 1886, marked by Melville (Walker Cowen, II, 699). Thomson, then secretary to an English company formed to operate an American silver mine, had just “discovered that the shareholders had been deluded into purchasing an utterly unsound concern, so that his mission and his situation as secretary came to an end together.” (Dobell, Thomson’s biographer.)

[4] William F. Allen, 1885, writing in The Nation, quoted in Fulmer Flood, “The Development of Frederick Jackson Turner as a Historical Thinker,” 1943.  Allen, Turner’s teacher, brought order to the field by producing the first Syllabus of American History, 1883.

[5] The Review was a new journal welcomed by The Nation, May 3, 1919, p.675, as another voice to brake the rapid drift toward the extreme left, joining them, New Republic,and Dial. Mather refers to the “parable” in which Ishmael, after nearly capsizing the ship, turns his gaze away from the hypnotic try-works that represent the primitive emotions unleashed in violent revolution, and that will sink the Pequod: this turning away (apparently) saves Ishmael.  It is conceivable that the Epilogue to Moby-Dick establishing Ishmael’s survival may have been tacked on after British critics complained that the narrator could not be dead; or, the change may have reflected a typically Melvillean oscillation, or a calculated move to please audiences with different politics.  The Whale, in its original Bentley English edition, clearly establishes the whale as amoral authority, the object of the artist as conquering hero, and locates the work in the tradition of the Miltonic Sublime.  On the title page, there is an epigraph from Paradise Lost omitted from the American first edition: “…There Leviathan,/ Hugest of living creatures, in the deep/ Stretch’d like a promontory sleeps or swims,/ And seems a moving land; and at his gills/ Draws in, and at his breath spouts out a sea.” The Extracts (the montage of quotes from other authors concerning whales) does not begin the book, but ends it; the last verse is a “Whale Song”: “Oh the rare old Whale, mid storm and gale/ In his ocean home will be/ A giant in might, where might is right,/ And King of the boundless sea.” Thus the reader is left, not with an image of the pathetic orphaned Ishmael, transmitting the anti-pride message of Job, but a sea shanty glorifying the force and militarism that was deeply offensive to Christian pacifists; the grabbiness that Melville had repudiated in the chapter on Loose Fish and Fast Fish.  Here the key word is “boundless.” (Cf. Taji’s quest at the end of Mardi.)  He could be referring to the boundlessness of scientific inquiry that conservatives claimed was leading to unprecedented forms of tyranny, and for which Ahab had been punished with blindness.  The point is that no Melville scholar has proven that Melville’s original intention was to save Ishmael, and the issue has been neglected, given the weight accorded to Ishmael’s sudden illumination in teaching guides and other material directed at students.

[6] Turner Ms. in Wilson papers since 1918, published in American Historical Review, April 1942, 545-551; William Diamond of Johns Hopkins explained that Turner’s ms. was taken to Paris by Wilson in 1918, along with “a great staff of technical experts, several dossiers of material which he thought might be of use to him.”  Here was an example of the manner in which historians could put their knowledge to work for society, and one which suggested answers to questions that were current again in 1942.  Italics were added to the ms. by an unknown hand.

[7]Thorp distanced himself from Christian sectarianism and radical Protestantism throughout.  He seems to adhere to Christian Socialism (like Matthiessen); Margaret Farrand Thorp wrote a biography of Charles Kingsley, reviewed in London Mercury.  Thorp was a collaborator of Donald Drew Egbert in his survey of American socialism.

June 12, 2010

Preface to second edition of Hunting Captain Ahab

Posa's creator, Friedrich Schiller

His bosom glows with some new-fangled virtue,

Which, proud and self-sufficient, scorns to rest

For strength on any creed. He dares to think!

His brain is all on fire with wild chimeras;

He reverences the people! And is this

A man to be our king?

           – Schiller, Don Carlos, Father Domingo speaking


     I admit it. This is a passionately-written study of censorship and self-censorship that is also more detailed than most academic monographs. As a multi-voiced modernist collage, mining and organizing nuggets of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary thought spanning five centuries, it is unusually presented. I am preoccupied with vindicating Ahab as the explorer-creator who resides within Melville’s nervous imagination, reading and protesting the mixed-messages dispensed by the family and other confusing institutions insisting  that there is no conflict between the post-Enlightenment search for Truth and the maintenance of traditional Order. And why not? Captain Ahab, a stand-in for bemused autodidacts everywhere, is now routinely caricatured as a crusading madman, whose mistaken imputation of evil in his enemy and determination to “strike through the mask” of duplicitous authority is simply a ruse that covers up his own unquenchable and uncontrollable thirst for power and domination. Television writers and newsmen drop Ahab’s name and can expect a self-congratulatory nod from the reader, who would not be caught dead indulging in such narcissistic delusions and misguided rage. Given this apparent consensus of sobered-up Ishmaels, who would dream, say, of scanning the orations of Charles Sumner, the Senator from Massachusetts and Melville’s contemporary, whose antislavery resolve finds resonance in Ahab’s determination to grapple with Leviathan?

[Charles Sumner, 1848:] “This [new coalition of antislavery men] will be the Freedom Power whose single object will be to resist the Slave Power. We will put them face to face, and let them grapple. Who can doubt the result?”

 [Ahab, chapter 135:] “…Towards thee I roll, thou all destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee….”

       Before this book appeared, who has objected, with appropriately extensive evidence, to the misappropriation of this fictional character, this pre-Hitlerian Ahab and synecdoche for America ? And who has traced the shift by politically-motivated Melvilleans away from Ahab as Promethean artist/antebellum reformer, and toward Melville as prophet of totalitarian dictatorship in that subsequent blood-soaked black century doomed through unleashed mass politics?  I refer to those scholars and their followers who have been most responsible for the Ahab-tyrant connection: reacting to Raymond Weaver’s artist-Ahab, they were Henry A. Murray, Charles Olson, and Jay Leyda, whose intellectual biographies are attempted in chapters 6 through 9. Can a scholar care too much about the welfare of students and of other readers where Ahab-ish demystifications of hitherto idealized authority are concerned? Promethean readers would like to make distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate authority so that their own capacities for creativity and innovation are not warped, or their curiosity misdirected. Could it be that Melville’s alleged wife-beating (notwithstanding the lack of material evidence for such conduct) reflects discomfort with Melville as fist-shaking Ahab, avatar of radical Enlightenment (that forbidden rupture with the past suggested in Hawthorne’s “blood-incrusted pen of steel” that the latter associated with the Wandering Jew)? As a creature of  Enlightenment, should I tamp down my indignation that reforms in the humanities curriculum during the early 1940s that are specified here were constructed by ultra-conservatives intent on propagating “the tragedy of mind?” William Ellery Sedgwick (1899-1942), knew that he had found the key to Melville’s psyche as expressed in his art: Thinking can only take us from youthful utopianism and joy to mature and realistic desolation as we discover the foulness of human nature, or so he said posthumously, for he had suffered a heart attack in early 1942 under mysterious conditions, perhaps not the suicide that was rumored, and that I had reported as fact in the first edition. Harvard published his Herman Melville: Tragedy of Mind in 1944, and Jay Leyda sent this book (along with Matthiessen’s American Renaissance) to Sergei Eisenstein in 1946; it is still cited approvingly by Melvilleans. But Sedgwick’s stoicism could only depress and immobilize students trying out an adult identity with new-fangled virtues and intellectual skills that might alarm their families of origin.  Similarly “progressive” advocates of “organic unity” between generations and between ancients and moderns (like Sedgwick), had published with supporters of fascism and Nazism in the mid-1930s (pp.631-33, n.44), or were, like Leyda and Matthiessen, uncritical supporters of Stalin’s Soviet Union (chapter 8).

   So much for my closing/opening argument to the jury of readers, new and old. In response to helpful feedback from other Melville readers, there have been corrections or other refinements in some previous assertions about the personalities and politics of the Melville revival; I believe they strengthen the chief argument of my book: that Melville was ambivalently attracted to a positive view of the human capacity to uncover the secrets of the self, of nature, and of society’s mechanisms of control; that he was obliged, even driven, to resist inquisitorial internal and external voices, and that his (underground, partially erased) optimistic opinions continue to be repressed or marginalized by “moderate” Melvilleans; and that most established academic critics, defenders of the New Deal corporatist liberal state, aver that such radical protestant heresies as had existed in his pre-Civil War stage were mercifully transcended in Ahab-Melville’s conversion to Captain Vere. The irrepressible conflict engendered by Sedgwick’s fanatical abolitionist New England forebears turns out to have been repressible after all.

    The most fruitful corrections and additions to the hardcover book are these: two of Melville’s lengthiest Bible markings ( p.164), previously either unattributed or misattributed to St. Evremond), were actually extracted from major works by Goethe as translated by Carlyle: Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and Wilhelm Meister’s Travels. As Goethe scholar Jane K. Brown tells us, the confessional Wilhelm Meister novels encompass Goethe’s Faustian drive to boldly expand his creative powers and the equally urgent call for renunciation of such individualistic self-absorption to protect traditional  hierarchies and social cohesion, a need made more forceful in the wake of the French Revolution. Goethe’s movement from the boundlessly expanded and developed art-making self to the austere and contracted social self can be seen in the contrast between Ahab and Ishmael/Vere. But had Ahab been discarded?

[Schiller’s Marquis Posa:] “…grant us liberty of thought… Tell him in manhood, he must still revere/ The dreams of early youth….”

 [Evert Duyckinck, 1851:] “[Ahab is] the Faust of the quarter-deck.”

      I found in Carlyle’s The Life of Friedrich Schiller, and in Schiller’s play Don Carlos, suggestions that Melville’s “heretic” “irruption” never ceased: he was writing “Billy Budd” with a synopsis of Schiller’s motif  (“Keep true to the dreams of thy youth”) pasted to the interior of his writing desk, perhaps to warn against lapsing into conformity with Vere’s mob-managing “measured forms.” What were those youthful dreams about? Glory, fame, or the uncircumscribed freedom to describe his inner and outer worlds, like other romantics, creating forms that had never been admitted to art as patronized by neo-classicizing elites?  In his Schiller biography, Carlyle likens Goethe to Shakespeare, and Schiller to Milton, invidiously contrasting Shakespeare’s “catholic”  “quiet eye” with the “sectarian” passions of Milton, who is “earnest, devoted; struggling with a thousand mighty projects of improvement; feeling more intensely as he feels more narrowly; rejecting vehemently, choosing vehemently; at war with the one half of things, in love with the other half; hence dissatisfied, impetuous, without internal rest, and scarcely conceiving the possibility of such a state.” (Should we think of Daniel Orme’s “vital glance” or  Margoth’s “brave vitality” as a Melvillean riposte to the Carlyle “quiet eye” quietism he attributed to Faust’s creator?)

     One of the chief themes of my book is the persistence of such Carlylean put-downs,  whether applied to Milton and other radical puritans of the seventeenth century or to left-wing romantics, including Byron or the pacing insomniac Melville in his earnest, enthusiast mood. I have argued throughout that the suppression of Melville’s annotations to Paradise Lost is one of the worst examples of censorship in Melville studies; but since the hardback edition of HCA appeared, happily, the annotations to Milton’s poetry have been published.  Critical commentary, however, tends to render Milton and Melville alike as moderates, while no one has teased out the implication of Melville’s partially erased ratification of Satan’s seduction of Eve (p. 147): “This is one of the profound atheistical hits of Milton. A greater than Lucretius, since he always teaches under a masque, and makes the Devil himself a Teacher & Messiah” ). When I saw this annotation in 1990, I began to wonder if Melville was not simply ambivalent or vacillating (as many Melvilleans, including Hayford, Leyda, and Parker had agreed), but ever masked, his most heartfelt Posa-type sentiments voiced only through his “dark” or Promethean characters–Ahab, Pierre, Isabel, Pitch, and Margoth. We may never know.

    My last thoughts in this preface are directed to political scientists, historians of U.S. foreign and domestic policy, and scholars in cultural studies who remain dubious about “science” and its claims for objectivity, or who doubt that empiricist historians, limited by “point of view,” can reconstruct prior institutions. Too often the history of mind-management has been written by “moderates” or leftists, who attribute antidemocratic propaganda to the protofascist bourgeoisie, to a monolithic and savage right-wing America, wrongly exemplified, I believe, by the hallucinating map-maker and mad scientist Captain Ahab. Melville’s “dark” characters were inadmissible to scholars of “the vital center”; as their private notes and letters have shown, many nevertheless suffered depression and other extreme mental distress while evacuating Melville’s modernists. Similarly “progressive” scholars may be snatching from their students’ hands those critical intellectual and emotional tools essential to Progress, most particularly an educated reverence for the potential of “the people” in analyzing and overcoming the less attractive impulses of our common humanity. I speak of “the people” not as a compact mass or “jacobin” mob, but as the great liberal Charles Sumner envisioned his uniquely blessed countrymen: a collection of striving individuals “created in the image of God,” critical and self-critical, but never succumbing to Bartleby’s existentialist despair. It is to the everlasting credit of Kent State University Press that they have brought this paperback edition and its innovations in style and content to the attention of a wider audience. My gratitude for their support lies beyond words.

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