The Clare Spark Blog

November 18, 2009

The radicalism of the Founders and Herman Melville

New York Times, 8/26/86, I.23

Bookes into Dragon’s Teeth

How was it possible for Henry A. Murray or Charles Olson or Jay Leyda (all father-figures to many New Left intellectuals) to have read Melville as Hitler, as Jew, as White-Jacket, or Ahab, or Margoth?  How could this organic conservative be anathematized by other organic conservatives?  Melville was accused of exaggerating the suffering of sailors and other workers, hence lending the prestige of an upper-class witness to their grievances; and moreover he refused to turn ruthlessness into Christian charity: though Might was forced by circumstances to be harsh, that didn’t make it Right; authority was demented if it thought otherwise.  Anyway, the more alert members of the lower orders  saw through their double-talking; obscurantist “doctors” and philanthropy were too weak as remedies to correct the inhuman character and the violence of early industrialism and the newspaper-reading “mobocracy.”  It was Melville’s insistence that Christian morality be lived out in everyday life along with his refusal to idealize either leaders or the led, that made him a Jew to “pragmatists” patrolling the perimeters of dissent, spotting possible defectors to another class, escapees who had the self-assurance to lead meaningful reforms.  His darts at confidence-men pierced the very heart of the corporatist liberal project and its attempts to turn the stony prisons of class into sunny meadows (See Bartleby: “I know where I am.”)

Melville’s reservations about democracy as it existed during his lifetime (1819-1891) did not deviate from those of Thomas Paine or of Thomas Jefferson, Abigail and John Adams in their correspondence during the early national period:  There could be no informed political choice without universal training in critical thought; the press would be a negative influence insofar as it spread rumors and libels with no equally accessible corrective institutions to challenge them; Catholic immigrants, they feared, inured to obedience to the reactionary church, would undermine rational political processes; similarly Americans should not impose their system of democratic republican government upon foreign peoples (e.g. Spanish-speaking America) still in thrall to autocratic rule; the love of money would doubtless undermine the civil liberties they had fought so hard to establish; it would take hundreds of years for democracy to take hold and there would be periods of regression, but literacy and the presence of mass-produced books would prevent a thoroughgoing return to the Middle Ages.  Such were the fulminations of Hume’s “fanatics”: Lockean radical puritans and deists assessing the obstacles to a fully realized popular sovereignty; with Melville, neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but realistic.[1]

[1] See The Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed. Lester J. Cappon (Chapel Hill: U. North Carolina  Press, 1959). As I have argued above, Jeffersonian agrarian principles could also undermine democratic reforms insofar as they were coopted by Southern apologists for slavery and white supremacy. But in this instance I am referring solely to the question of free thought and popular education.


  1. […] and Nazis On Melvilleans’ Agenda, in: New York Times August 26, 1986, I.23, via Clare Spark: The radicalism of the Founders and Herman Melville, November 18, […]

    Pingback by Bookes into Dragon’s Teeth « Moby-Dick™ — January 29, 2010 @ 11:04 pm | Reply

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