The Clare Spark Blog

September 6, 2009

The Hebraic American Landscape: Sublime or Despotic?

Daniel Boone and entourage

In one of my blogs tracing the impact of multiculturalism in the U.S. (,  I argued that “progressives” in numerous disciplines have been writing history as a subset of a poetic natural history, taking their cues from German Romanticism. In today’s blog, written as millions of American children return to school after Labor Day to be taught the national biography by teachers influenced by  progressive historians, such as Frederick Jackson Turner, I contrast their negative assessments of the American Sublime with that of Herman Melville’s character White-Jacket in his most Hebraic pronouncement.

The BBC series American Visions, was written and presented by Australian-born Robert Hughes, played by PBS and sponsored by BMW.  The segments plainly linked Chosen People, Barnum-esque 19th century landscape painters of the sublime (distinguished from the quiet Luminists and the retiring celibate Winslow Homer), frontiersmen, nouveaux riches money and its offspring Hollywood. Together these sinister forces have raped the Indians and the environment and romanticized the short-lived Old West with malevolent nativist intent.  In Hughes’ rendering, the appropriation of the land was total and uncontested: “It’s ours” says a proud American, a woman on the rim of the Grand Canyon, remarking on the interest taken by foreign tourists in the sublimity of the American landscape.  Not atypically, Frederick Jackson Turner is cited as author of the frontier theory of American identity as if he approved of it.  In fact, Turner was appalled by the growth of monopoly that rendered Marx’s predictions plausible; it would be a small step to transfer social control of a few huge industries to popular control; the antimonopoly populist movement, active while Turner wrote his famous essay on the closing of the frontier (1893), was a warning to prescient conservatives.

The Hughes version of the nineteenth century is the narrative favored by the American Studies movement and many other cultural anthropologists/historians.  In my view, the discipline is a Tory leftover deployed against their enemies, the radical Whigs, also Turner’s target. Following their trajectory of Nature’s Nation and its popular landscape paintings, it is first and foremost the physiognomy of the wild West that has determined American kitsch taste, its vulgarity and arrogant claims to superior moral purity, the latter signified by the gorgeous light pervading these landscapes.  Here is their Master Narrative: The God revered by the Chosen People does not smile on the gift of the senses, reason, and cultural freedom in the service of social amelioration and intellectual and moral development of each and every individual; rather the light of the Hebrew God oversees Manifest Destiny in its most brutal projects of annihilation. In the opinion of one prominent literary historian, the  American Sublime is “the end of the line” for humanity (a notion reiterated in film noir, see

In a book that energized anti-Melville forces from the late 1920s on, “White-Jacket” gave a ringing meaning to youth revolt that was unmistakably Hebraic/radical Protestant. It was the sublimity of a visionary republic that brought melancholy to dispossessed aristocrats, energizing the measures taken in retribution:

“…in many things, we Americans are driven to a rejection of the maxims of the Past, seeing that, ere long, the van of the nationals must, of right, belong to ourselves. There are occasions when it is for America to make precedents, and not to obey them. We should, if possible, prove a teacher to posterity, instead of being the pupil of bygone generations. More shall come after us than have gone before; the world is not yet middle-aged.

Escaped from the house of bondage, Israel of old did not follow after the ways of the Egyptians. To her was given an express dispensation; to her were given new things under the sun. And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people–the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. Seventy years ago we escaped from thrall; and, besides our first birthright–embracing one continent of earth–God has given to us, for a future inheritance, the broad domains of the political pagans, that shall yet come and lie down under the shade of our ark, without bloody hands being lifted. God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours. In our youth is our strength; in our inexperience our wisdom. At a period when other nations have but lisped, our deep voice is heard afar. Long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings. And let us always remember that with ourselves, almost for the first time in the history of earth, national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we cannot do a good to America, but we give alms to the world.” [White-Jacket (1850), Ch.36, my emph., quoted in Hunting Captain Ahab, chapter 4]

Since the late 1930s, numerous scholars have claimed that Captain Ahab was an arch-imperialist, compared by many to Hitler and Stalin. Was White-Jacket’s statement made in the spirit of Jefferson and world republican revolution or in the spirit of James Polk’s defense of slavery and expansion at the expense of Indians and Mexicans? Given Melville’s constant references to abused South Sea islanders, Indians, sailors and factory workers, these words need not be taken as crypto-imperialist, unless one confuses political emancipation with slavery or self-assertion with self-sacrifice, which some anti-imperialist scholars may have done. [See a retitled blog “Manifest Destiny or Political Liberty? . An extended endnote, updated here, followed this book excerpt and ends the blog:]

[Endnote:] Compare with White-Jacket’s approbation of a Hebraic America, Melville’s well-known comments in Israel Potter on America as “intrepid, unprincipled, reckless, predatory, with boundless ambition, civilized in externals but a savage at heart” (Chapter XIX), but also the “essentially Western” Ethan Allen: “frank, bluff, companionable as a Pagan, convivial, a Roman, hearty as a harvest” (Chapter XXII). David Brion Davis has used the White-Jacket quote as an example of Manifest Destiny in Antebellum American Culture: An Interpretive Anthology (Lexington, Mass: Heath, 1979). Similarly, Eric Foner, in a talk “The Struggle For Freedom,” delivered at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon, has cited the White-Jacket passage as an example of American forgetfulness of the past, its (selfish) future-orientation with respect to the notion of freedom, and its moralistic imposition of American values upon different societies; Foner thus makes Melville an imperialist (KPFK broadcast, 7/5/99). I am questioning these judgments.

American nationalism (as expressed in the American and French Revolutions, and constantly invoked by the anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts Charles Sumner) had an ideological component that asserted the common good against privilege; it was not simply a claim for territory, language or ethnicity as conservative nationalism would be.  Compare the liberal nationalism defended by Charles Sumner* with that of Andrew Stark, “Adieu, Liberal Nationalism,” New York Times, 11/2/95. The author, a teacher of management at the University of Toronto, defines liberal nationalism in terms of primal differentiation from the mother, making it “even more irrational than chauvinistic nationalism. Bereft of any appeal to ‘mystical’ qualities like race, religion and culture, it relies on more primal, elusive entities like consciousness, existence, sense of self.” Stark’s definition reveals the depoliticizing inherent in any and all “identity” politics.

One standard reference in the field of American Studies is Ernest Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1965), 51. Tuveson first presents Marxism as counter-Enlightenment, then links it to millennial movements in Britain and the U.S. The mocking epigraph of the book is a statement by Woodrow Wilson: “America had the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world.” Elsewhere he suggests a continuity of identity between “the young republic” (1), “the ancient Jewish tradition of apocalyptic” (2); the epic form and sublimity (5); and “the evil” of (naively hopeful) American participation in World War II (8). The passage from White-Jacket was quoted 156-57, without the analysis of context; Tuveson notes Melville’s apparent “profound disillusionment with these high expectations” in Clarel.

See also Edward Said, Culture And Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1993). Said begins by defending anti-Western cultural nationalists from the charge of separatist chauvinism: “…far from invalidating the struggle to be free from empire, these reductions of cultural discourse actually prove the validity of a fundamental liberationist energy that animates the wish to be independent, to speak freely and without the burden of unfair domination (xx-xxi).” But this standard disappears when applied to Melville: “There is…a dense body of American writing, contemporary with the British and the French work, which shows a peculiarly acute imperial cast, even though paradoxically its ferocious anti-colonialism, directed at the Old World, is central to it. One thinks, for example, of the Puritan “errand into the wilderness” and, later, of that extraordinarily obsessive concern in Cooper, Twain, Melville and others with United States expansion westward, along with the wholesale colonization and destruction of native American life (as memorably studied by Richard Slotkin, Patricia Limerick, and Michael Paul Rogin); an anti-imperial motif emerges to rival the imperial one” (63). Puritans, Melville and Ahab now merge: (citing C.L.R. James and Victor Kiernan) “Captain Ahab is an allegorical representation of the American world quest; he is obsessed, compelling, unstoppable, completely wrapped up in his own rhetorical justification and his sense of cosmic symbolism” (288). Is Melville Ahab or not? Melville was critical of Ahab, Said notes, but follows his qualifier with the vehement scientistic statement, a non sequitur: “Yet the fact is that during the nineteenth century the U.S. did expand territorially.” Is Melville then a hypocrite? Commenting on the comparison between Saddam Hussein and Hitler during the Iraq war, Ahab is a cynical scapegoater: “Anyone who has read Moby-Dick may have found it irresistible to extrapolate from that great novel to the real world, to see the American empire preparing once again, like Ahab, to take after an imputed evil” (295).

Too much purity and stridency disturbs the pluralist peace: the “imputed evil” Americans profess to find in Third World dictatorships is a pretext for a more sinister domination. For a critique of the counter-Enlightenment “anti-imperialist” intellectuals, including Said, see Christopher Norris, Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1992), 127-130: “To imagine that truth might at length win out through a detailed, critical, investigative treatment of the relevant source materials is merely to demonstrate one’s lingering attachment to the old Enlightenment paradigm” (127). Richard Rorty and his cohort in ‘postmodern bourgeois liberal pragmatist’ culture are practicing a cynical Realpolitik imposed from above (128). Counter-narratives don’t solve problems: we need facts (130). It must be said that none of the scholars upon whom Edward Said relies has done the empirical investigation of Melville and Ahab that could justify Said’s characterization of Ahab the crazed imperialist.**

*For Sumner’s views on liberal nationalism, see archived blog “Margoth v. Robert E. Lee: Rival Visions of National Unity.”

**Cf. Hume’s distinction between Presbyterians and Independents, History of England, Vol. 7, 18-19 (year 1644): “The enthusiasm of the [comparatively moderate, C.S.] Presbyterians led them to reject the authority of prelates, to throw off the restraint of liturgy, to retrench ceremonies, to limit the riches and authority of the priestly office: the fanaticism of the Independents, exalted to a higher pitch, abolished ecclesiastical government, disdained creeds and systems, neglected every ceremony, and confounded all ranks and orders. The soldier, the merchant, the mechanic, indulging the fervours of zeal, and guided by the illapses of the spirit, resigned himself to an inward and superior direction, and was consecrated, in a manner, by an immediate intercourse and communication with Heaven.” Ahab, a “fighting Quaker,” would seem to be an example of the latter.


  1. […] I have already compiled a list of turning points for the ascent/decline of “the West” here: But the purpose of this blog is to suggest a counter-narrative for American history, warts and all. The goal is to find an approach to US history that will not leave students or your home-schooled child adrift with lifeboats offering only tendentious accounts of US history, and offering either idealized or demonized versions of the American past. (For a patriotic account by “America’s greatest writer” see […]

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  3. Thoughtful comment on PJ Media re Romney speech.

    Comment by btraven — October 10, 2012 @ 6:23 am | Reply

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  8. […] character and cultural identity. The vanguard of Chosen People (asserted by Herman Melville! has been banished to the back of the line in Ivy League universities and in the humanities in […]

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  9. […] I would like to go on with a psychoanalytic meditation on this writer, 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, and my prior blog […]

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