YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

September 17, 2009

Moderate Men and “Dirty” Jews, Part Two

dirtyjew[Daniel Macmillan on impudent Scots, 1837:] The discontent of the lower classes is most painful in itself in the form it takes, and the spirit it springs from. How different was the old Covenanter spirit. These Covenanters were most noble. They fought for God’s truth, and wished to rid the earth of whatever was an abomination to the Lord. Duty was the highest thing to them, and they struggled hard to obey its behest. Their boldness was not a brutal, vulgar, ignorant temerity, without reverence, without faith, but solemn and noble. I feel sure of this, notwithstanding Sir Walter’s graphic misrepresentations. I have often talked with some of the remnant of that old stock,–a few who still keep alive the holy flame,–and know what true refinement lies at the bottom of their noble natures. But, alas, that race is becoming quite extinct. The poor men, the mechanics, weavers, and the like in our towns, care not one farthing for the Covenant, or for those deeper matters of which the Covenant was a symbol. They know nothing about duty or faith, or God; they care only about their rights; they talk only about reform, universal suffrage, from which they look for justice and deliverance from oppression. They do not look up to God for help in the old-fashioned way. This may be a ‘progress of humanity,’ and all the rest of that jargon, but I, for one, cannot admire it.

[Henry James, The American Scene, 1907] Who can tell…in any conditions and in the presence of any apparent anomaly, what the genius of Israel may, or may not, really be “up to”?[1]

[Carleton Coon, a Harvard physical anthropologist, cautiously exhorts readers in a textbook published by Macmillan, 1939:]  The subject of racial intelligence has…not progressed far enough to merit inclusion in a general work of racial history; it has furthermore provided too ready a field for political exploitation to be treated or interpreted as a side issue with scientific detachment.  Races, in the present volume, are studied without implication of inferiority or superiority….The people who came to America, from the time of the Pilgrim Fathers to the imposition of the laws restricting immigration, were selected; none were fully representative of the countries from which they came.  In America they were subjected to environmental forces of a new and stimulating nature, so that changes in growth such as their ancestors had not felt for centuries produced strange, gangling creatures of their children.  In America we have before our eyes the rapid action of race-building forces; if we wish to understand the principles which have motivated the racial history of the Old World, it behooves us to pay careful attention to the New. [2]

Willful blindness in literary history?  Melville scholars have rarely seen the Captain Ahab/Cain/Wandering Jew connection.[3]  They are aware, however, that Benito Cereno and Billy Budd were translated into German and published in 1938, that Nazi censors accepted these stories into the House whose visual arts were judenrein–purged of cultural Bolshevist cubism, expressionism and Dada–the House that sponsored heroic vitalism [Grosshans, 1983], and that refused “problematic and unfinished work” [Hinz, 1979, 9]; furthermore Melvilleans have been told by Charlotte Mangold that Frederich Schönemann, an American Studies scholar at the University of Berlin and director of the first Melville dissertation in Germany), was a German patriot hostile to United States democracy.[4]  Nevertheless, Mangold’s disturbing opinions and research, like Melville’s Jewish problem, have generally been evaded, denied, minimized, or misunderstood, perhaps for the very good and simple and obvious reason that “the Melville problem” is “the Jewish problem,” indeed, as Julius Streicher made emphatic, “democracy” (i.e., America) is the Jewish problem.

How can organic conservatives maintain order in the face of “Jewish” skepticism and adherence to scientific method? Was Herman Melville struggling with “religious doubt” or with the problem of destabilizing science and organic conceptions of order? For the conservative narrator of Melville’s lengthy poem Clarel, a Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876),  Hebrew fanaticism was carried in the Judaised Christian Nathan’s Puritan blood; I suspect that Melville identified with all his brainy Jewish characters and Wandering Jews (including Captain Ahab, Isabel, Margoth, Nathan, and Mortmain) but postwar cultural politics must have made it difficult to mention, let alone analyze, Melville’s immoderate Jews and crypto-Jews.  The Melville scholars are not uniquely weak or cowardly; rather, we are dealing with a cultural taboo: making comparisons between the structures and cultures of “the western democracies” with Nazi or Soviet totalitarianism may exude the odor of insubordinate, pushy, meddling, and atypical English radical puritans (see Part One of this blog, epigraph from Edward August Freeman’s biographer, Rev. Stephens). Yet nothing is more American than the lusty empiricism, materialism, and libertarian hankering for democracy, self-knowledge, and self-management that I understand the radical liberals to have been advocating, values that have been transmuted into their opposites by conservative promoters of Anglo-American cultural hegemony, such as Edward Augustus Freeman and his friends the Macmillan brothers, founders of the great publishing house.

Here are the responses from three American scholars (widely respected for their sensitivity to anti-Semitism and other libertarian concerns in literature and politics) to my letter asking them to comment on Melville’s conceptions of his Jewish characters and related matters: with Fiedler (author of an important article in Commentary, “What Shall We Do About Fagin?”) I was concerned with growing anti-Semitism after WWII and the pressure he (and other Jewish radicals) must have been under in the attempt to expose antisemitic stereotypes in English literature; with Kazin, I wondered about Philip Rahv’s switch from Melville quasi-deprecator (1940) to Melville fan (1949). [5]

[Leslie Fiedler:] “Let me begin by saying that I do not consider Herman Melville, finally, an anti-Semite at all. He was as ambivalent on the subject of Jews as on so many others.  But I would finally agree with what Sholem Kahn said way back in 1957. [In Commentary, praising Clarel.]

“What I have been concerned about and writing about–the Partisan Review embrace of Melville, Hawthorne, James, etc.–has little to do with the subject that concerns you, though James was indeed an anti-Semite.  What troubled me was what I felt to be a contradiction between the radical politics and élitist aesthetics of that group.  The problem of “deradicalization” is more complex than you make it.  Not all of the people involved with Partisan Review, did, in fact, become deradicalized.

“In any case, I don’t think a fear of an attack on American Jewish radicals played a part.  The years after World War II were, in fact, a time of philo-Semitism.  As far as my own political development ever since is concerned, it has been too erratic and full of contradictions to be characterized by any conventional label.

“As a final word, let me suggest you try to read Clarel a little harder.  It is a difficult book, more involved with Melville’s relationship to his Christian heritage than to the Jews.” [April 3, 1987].

[Michael Rogin:]  “No doubt as a part of my general effort to rehabilitate Melville, I’ve avoided thinking about his use of Jews, except for some things I say in my book about the pyramids–and a little about Clarel.  But Clarel as a book I mostly avoided–and I see I am sending you this note on the date of your talk.  Wonderful title, wonderful subject.  But I don’t have anything to say on it.  Freud, yes, Marx, yes, Nietzsche yes, Arendt, yes, but not Melville.” [April 23, 1987.  My UCLA talk was entitled “Good Jews, Bad Jews, and Wandering Jews in Herman Melville’s Clarel.”]

[Alfred Kazin:] ” I don’t regard Melville as a ‘radical.’  I think he became more and more of a philosophic Tory–this after being a sort of conventional radical democrat (romantic period) in early works.  Melville’s views of Jews seem to me less interesting and significant in every way than his absorption in the Bible and his conflict with himself about religious questions.  Hawthorne’s portrait of HM in his journal–HM on way to Palestine–is the classic and unforgettable picture of Melville’s religious agonies, doubts, searchings, etc.  Melville, of course, did not know many or any Jews, so I find that question merely theoretical.

‘I never remember any views of Melville’s politics on Rahv’s part.  Rahv was such an intellectual Marxist to the end that he would not have understood the complexities of Melville’s very American views of democracy.” [8 July 87, Graduate Center, CUNY]

Such responses are typical.  Melvilleans seem oblivious to Melville’s fascination with the Wandering Jew; similarly they apparently are bored or repelled by crazy, simple-minded and destructive Isabel;[6] perhaps the Melville scholars have not thought hard enough about the Terror-Gothic style in life and art.  But I don’t think so.  The centenary of Melville’s birth, 1919, the “official” beginning of the Melville revival, is also the year that Hitler entered politics.  No one has wondered (in print) about the ways Melville-ism (the social lesson drawn from “Melville’s” life and art since 1919) has been drawn into the Titanic struggles of our century, in which contending ideologies all claim the soubriquet “progressive” and love the People.  Specifically, (some) Marxists and left-liberals anchored to rationalism, materialism, science, and class conflict as both descriptive and normative, compete with movements which, though not identical, share the conscious or unconscious romantic belief that a natural organicism, a rooted cosmopolitanism, will be restored with the rejection of “modernity”; i.e., the expulsion of (Jewish) hammers, (Jewish) machines, and (Jewish) money interest: [7]  These are corporatist liberalism, Italian Fascism, German National Socialism, and “New Age” or “Green” tendencies in the post 1960s counter-culture.

I am not suggesting that Melville was ever a proto-Nazi; people who resembled the aristocratic “Melville” (the conservative False Self) loathed the Hitler mob as vulgar upstarts and denounced “the Holocaust” just as “Tommo” condemned massacres of unarmed Indians.[8]  But Melville’s bad Jews are not limited to the “Hegelised” German-Jewish geologist Margoth (as Rolfe gathered from his physiognomy), or to the old orthodox Jewish men cursed by Clarel who blocked him from the rescue of the “good” Jewesses, Agar and Ruth, held captive by Nathan’s Zionism, and (perhaps) thwarting their conversion to the (less bigoted) Christianity and (perhaps) causing their untimely deaths.  The Wandering Jew, in his most lethal constructions, inhabits Melville’s imagination and Western culture.  Margoth “the apostate” yet “such a Jew” is no aberration, no inexplicable bout of bad taste.  Rather Margoth (like Banadonna, Daniel Orme and others) is the critical artist/scientist and Lockean materialist, the revolutionary bourgeois-becoming-god-knows-what, the radical puritan whose cultural practice mocks and delegitimizes organicist formulations of society and nature, turning gardens into wastelands, the Bible into a text among other texts. (For more on Margoth as symbol of modernity, desacralizing the Holy Land,  see prior blog “Margoth v. Robert E. Lee: https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/)

Afterward. In this two-part blog, I have dealt with mostly modern forms of antisemitism: the association of “the dirty Jews” with an anti-social love of filthy lucre (see the New Testament), the drive of “the Chosen People” toward domination of the entire world, and insolent, sometimes sub rosa, radicalism. In the footnotes, I have also reiterated the arguments of prior blogs, that many of today’s “anti-racists” carry a racialist discourse common to the counter-Enlightenment organic conservatives who have co-opted the term “progressives” and who, while professing their moderation, have evacuated the Enlightenment in a protofascist direction.

But there is a more subtle association of “dirt” with “the Jews,” and it has to do with the most basic precepts of Judaism. The High Holy Days are upon us, and it is the occasion when the Jew is obliged to take an inventory of his conduct during the past year. The harm done to others must be acknowledged, repented, and reparations made to the injured party. But such introspection is not confined to ten days of the year. Rather, it is a cultural pattern of many Jews, secular or religious, that s/he asks herself continually, “what if I am wrong in my opinions?” or “how do I know when my apparently benevolent behavior may have ulterior motives that are self-interested, and not at all generous?” The answers to this ongoing self-questioning are rarely  unambiguous and clear, but rather impure, unclean, and messy. Here is one possible source of the “dirtiness” that many hostile non-Jews, confident in their own moderation, purity and righteousness, ascribe to “the Jews.” And readers of my blogs may recall that Hitler found such dirty ambiguity and uncertainty intolerable. What of the millions who continue to admire him today? How do they intend to clean us up? for Part One of this series, see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/17/moderate-men-and-dirty-jews-part-one/.

Footnotes.  [1] Henry James, Collected Travel Writings: Great Britain and America (Library of America, 1993): 468.  See commentary by Alan Trachtenberg, “Conceivable Aliens,” Yale Review     42-64.

[2] Carleton Stevens Coon, The Races of Europe (New York: Macmillan, 1939): vii-viii, 652.  Cf. Lothrop Stoddard, Harvard Ph.D. urging readers in the early 1920s to stop “the revolt of the under-man”and the destruction of the white race by thinking “racially.”  Stoddard’s environmentalism is a “materialism” intended to displace empiricism: it is of course the same old conservative organicism; key words identify the pseudo-materialist discourse: “milieux,” “climate,” “roots” and “equilibria” used to describe social organization and relationships.

I want to draw a critical distinction between two kinds of merging; corporatists coerce harmony in the interests of ruling groups, while liberals merge the interests of humanity in the attainment of universal human rights. A society whose institutions are characterized by easily discernable class antagonisms, thus riven by multiple conflicts, will be molded by the corporatist leader into “the body politic” possessing consensus, legitimacy, and a “national character.” For the racialist thinker, nationalities or ethnic groups are talked about as if a conglomeration of contradictory institutions, classes, and individuals could become, in fact, one coherent body, The People. Language is deployed to arouse anxiety accordingly.

John Locke and other revolutionary modern thinkers (including the Freud of The Future of an Illusion) had a different model for human interactions, focusing on human resourcefulness and resilience, not weakness and vulnerability. The Radical Enlightenment thinkers, following Locke, stressed the need for insight into man-made political institutions; structures that were not to be confused with natural bodies. A person responds to the conditions of the natural and built environments with a more or less educated understanding, adapting to, or transforming the conditions (or leaving). The fearful isolation and relative helplessness of the individual, so pronounced in the irrationalist Charles Olson, is mitigated by social cooperation, shared knowledge, and social action. For the rationalists, individual or social progress is sometimes incremental, sometimes relatively sudden. But simply modifying the built environment would not instantly remove all forms of illegitimate authority to create a better human being or a better breed of wheat in one generation, as the Lysenkoists and other utopian social engineers imagined. These latter ‘environmentalists’ harkened to a more primitive social theory that supported irrationalist methods of persuasion to protect leaders from the surveillance of their constituencies. The two competing “environmentalisms” must be differentiated.

In his conception of the tabula rasa Locke had drastically modified the ancient Greek or Roman conception of environmentalism, which held that individuals and peoples were stamped or inscribed by climate, geography (“soil”) and culture–molded like a bit of clay. In the racialist discourse of today, such inscriptions are transmitted in “the blood” no matter where peoples or their progeny might travel. Necessarily opposing the Lockean model, which implied a fresh start for every newborn child and awesome responsibilities for its parents and other educators, the racial theorist could employ this older time-tested vocabulary of “blood and soil” to manipulate emotions, thus inducing physical responses in the audience. The unwary reader or listener would respond to dirty words, bad blood, environmental “molding” or any other evocation of “fallen flesh” with visceral revulsion or panic as if these words were germs or toxins: real threats to health and wholeness from the environment that had slyly infiltrated the body.

The radically Enlightened theorists, whether they were Marxists or classical liberals, saw class conflict and its multiple manifestations in institutions and social movements as an engine of history; their arguments for amelioration were based on ethical universalism, specifically the right of all individuals to development. The conservatively enlightened ethnopluralists counter-attacked with scientific racism: for the Social Darwinists, world history was determined solely by racial competition. Nations became individuals with a national character and a will to power; the fittest survived. At the behest of Progressive anthropologists in the 1930s, the concept of ‘race’ was shifted to ‘ethnicity’. The Leninist policy of tactical alliances with national liberation movements in Asia, Africa, or Latin America, no matter how antidemocratic, reinforced the acceptance of the organicist discourse for twentieth-century Leftists: there was no longer a universalist concept of socialism (i.e., the movement toward ever more democratic societies as understood by seventeenth- or eighteenth-century political theorists, then the Second International), but many Marxisms, each one filtered through the traditional culture of the oppressed “ethnic” group. So authoritarian, militaristic Third World cultural nationalists could reject “the West,”also conceived as an organic unity, without objections from Leninist intellectuals.

Upper-class eugenicists fretted over race suicide and the rising tide of color. Today’s anti-imperialists, some of them ‘Marxists’, decry “white supremacy” as the source of Third World underdevelopment. It is wrong, in my view, to confuse individuals with groups or to impute racial group character to classes. The multiculturalists (ethnopluralists) urge their followers to be strong and unified, as if personal or ethnic group strength and the power of the will alone could remove the sources of exploitation. Reading their unfounded optimism backward into history, the ethnopluralists resort to myth in order to strengthen and unify their racial or ethnic group against the taunts of the dominant culture. But see Julian Huxley and A.C. Haddon, We Europeans (London: Harper, 1936), 16-18. Huxley noted that scholars lacking training in science had mistranslated “ethnos” as race (17). This book was appropriated by Ashley Montagu who, while denouncing the concept of race, subtly attributed to the ostensibly non-racist concept of “ethnicity” the Lamarckian qualities of blood and soil, citing the Huxley book as support: Montagu wrote that the internationalist Huxley had advocated “ethnicity” as an organizing concept for anthropologists. But for Huxley ethnicity was a term of convenience referring solely to any population under discussion with no connotation of uniformity or kinship, while for ethnopluralists, the substitution of ethnicity for race generally did not remove the implication of group character.

The Trotskyist writers of Partisan Review were acutely aware of these issues made urgent by Popular Front literary policies that had demagogically substituted the war between “fascism and democracy” for the conflict between capital and labor in the Depression; see Philip Rahv, “Two Years of Progress–From Waldo Frank to Donald Ogden Stewart,” PR 4 (Feb. 1938): 22-30.

[3] See for instance, Wyn Kelly, “Melville’s Cain,” American Literature (March 1983): 24-40, who attempts to classify  variants of the Cain legend, 31, but there is no mention of the Wandering Jew in her text or references (nor in Susan Sontag’s work, although she knows that Jews were blamed for cholera and other plagues).

[4] See Berthold Hinz, Art in the Third Reich (N.Y.: Pantheon, 1979);  Henry Grosshans, Hitler and the Artists (N.Y.: Holmes and Meier, 1983); Charlotte Weiss Mangold, Herman Melville in German Criticism From 1900 to 1955 (University of Maryland diss., 1959): 109, fn 2.  Mangold (and other Melvilleans) should have more fully identified Schönemann. Max Weinrich’s index in Hitler’s Professors, op.cit. (282) identifies him as an important Nazi scholar in the following entry: “[b.] May 30, 1886. Instructor, Harvard U., 1913-1920. Professor of North American Civilization, U. of Berlin. Author: “Der Anglo-Amerikaner und das Judentum,” Wk II (1942); “Das geistige Geschichte Amerikas,” NSMon, October, 1942, 657-666; “Hintergrunde und Tendenzen des USA-Imperialismus,” Völk und Reich, 1942, 697-706; Die Veinigten Staaten von Nordamerika (Berlin, Junker und Dunnhaupt, 1943, 160).”

[5] See Philip Rahv, “The Cult of Experience,” Partisan Review (Nov.-Dec.1940), 412-424, then his review of Newton Arvin’s 1949 Melville study.

[6] For instance, Lewis Mumford and Henry A. Murray, but recently Ann Douglas in The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977).

[7] George Mosse, Germans and Jews: The Right, The Left and the Search for a Third Force in Pre-Nazi Germany (New York: Howard Fertig, 1970).  There is an instructive (and still current) debate in Partisan Review (Fall 1938) between Edmund Wilson and William Phillips, regarding Marx’s relations to Hegelianism and organicism generally, 66-90 with Wilson taking the Hegelian position, Phillips the more materialist one.  Wilson’s views might be compared to those of E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, as applied, for instance in Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1984). There has been some interest in Wilson on Melville on the internet Melville discussion group.  Wilson published an anthology in 1943, The Shock of Recognition, including Melville’s admiring essay of the anti-materialist Hawthorne, “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” Interestingly, Wilson was not part of the Melville Revival.

[8] Uriel Tal in Christians and Jews in Germany feels that Christian anti-Semitism eschews rabble-rousing massacres, but would exclude Jews from positions of authority in education and government, 232.



  1. […] internet as a source of pathology was briefly mentioned in the second episode of THE FOLLOWING. See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/17/moderate-men-and-dirty-jews-part-two/, on the general ignorance even among intellectuals regarding antisemitism and its […]

    Pingback by Decoding “Call me Ishmael” and The Following « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 30, 2013 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

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