YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 10, 2010

Herman Melville: Dead White Male


[This short article summarizes my chief arguments in Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. It is slightly revised since publication on HNN: www.hnn.us/articles/665html.]

Since the Melville Revival of the 1920s, Moby Dick has become an undisputed classic of world literature and continues to grow in interest, especially this year and last with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Melville’s masterpiece in late 1851. Historians, however, are probably unaware that Herman Melville (1819-1891) and his pathbreaking modernist novels, always the targets of liberals (the “moderate men”)in both his time and ours, are now the objects of fierce disputes in “the canon wars” that have heated up since the mid-1980s. The literature created by “dead white males” has been challenged by some “multiculturalist” non-whites, feminists, and their allies. Moby Dick has been cited as chief offender, ostensibly crowding out worthy contenders for the attention of undergraduates. Melville himself has been described by such as Elizabeth Renker, Laurie Robertson-Lorant, Elizabeth Hardwick, Andrew Delbanco, and others as an abusive husband and father (i.e. as Ahab), though, as my research has shown, there is not a shred of documentary evidence that would justify such attacks on his character. How is this possible?

It is clear that Melville has become a symbol for an essentially imperialist, capitalist, patriarchal, ecocidal America, and his hero Captain Ahab a model of sorts for twentieth-century totalitarian dictators. Such readings by postmodernists have displaced earlier interpretations, some of which viewed Melville as a radical democrat and anti-racist, and Ahab as a nineteenth-century reformer. Other (more conservative) readings hitherto interpreted Ahab as tragic hero, symbol of indomitable humanity, yet doomed to failure in either the search for truth or for amelioration of the human condition. (In my book, I make a case for Ahab as both abolitionist, e.g., Charles Sumner, and modern artist, Melville himself, with the proviso that Ahab and Ishmael are sometimes at odds, sometimes confusingly blended.)

For seventeen years I pursued Melville’s pursuers by consulting the papers of leading Melville critics, some of whose archives were only recently opened. What I found was a tortured record of ambivalent Melville critics, who alternately hugged and repudiated their homme fatale. Institutional affiliations and class allegiance had a decisive effect on their analysis, with the result that Melville, in all his complexity, was not “revived” at all; rather he was diagnosed by jittery scholars as an extremist who wreaked havoc upon his family until he supposedly converted to moderation after the instructive blood-letting of the Civil War. Such diagnoses were the inevitable result of 1930s Popular Front culture and the objectives of the upper-class peace movement that followed World War II.

For instance, three of the key Melville critics, Dr. Henry A. Murray (leader in academic psychology and personnel assessment for the Office of Strategic Services, who came to be admired as a father of the New Left), Charles Olson (“father” of cultural pluralism and postmodernism), and Stalinist/Maoist Jay Leyda (photographer, film historian, and technical advisor to the film, Mission to Moscow), were skilled propagandists allied with the Roosevelt administration. All three men strongly influenced subsequent Melville scholarship and biography, and they and/or others suppressed primary source materials that conflicted with their political allegiances and recipes for moderately conservative reform. The result was (an ambivalent) witch-hunt directed against “crazy” Melville and his monomaniacal character, Captain Ahab; both of whom were seen as overly skeptical of authority. Real libertarian conservatives (like Merrill Root) applauded Melville.

The suppressed materials include the following items:

1. Melville’s annotations to Milton’s Paradise Lost, which strongly suggest that Melville identified with Milton’s Satan in his seduction of Eve (Book IX). Like the radical puritan, Milton himself in Melville’s reading, poked his nose into the affairs of his betters. When the annotations surfaced in the early 1980s, these materials were confined to a very few Melvilleans, and when finally published, leading scholars construed their message as evidence for the construction of a sobered-up moderate Melville (see https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/).

2. Letters from Melville’s descendants in Henry Murray’s papers at Harvard, which were never published. I was the first Melville scholar to see these letters (in 1995), and am persuaded that they would have scotched the rumors, circulated by Murray, Olson and others, that Melville was a wife-beater and a drunk.

3. A family letter (discovered by Olson in 1934, handed over to Murray, and finally published by Amy Puett Emmers in 1978), that suggested Melville had a real-life natural half-sister corresponding to the character Isabel in his quasi-autobiographical novel Pierre, or The Ambiguities (1852). The significance of the letter remains extremely controversial but is important because the New Deal social psychologists, in both their social democratic propaganda, and in their attempt to boost public morale as world war loomed, were rehabilitating and idealizing good fathers (conflating Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt)while reinterpreting the libertarianism of Jefferson and Paine and generally circumscribing dissent. Melville’s “Hebraic” ethical universalism and constant interrogation of illegitimate authority (for instance the apparent exposure of his own father’s abandonment of an illegitimate daughter) were threats to their objective: the good father, as “focus of veneration” was the source of group cohesion in a pluralist society (Murray).

Melville criticism shifted dramatically after the first phase of the Melville Revival in the 1920s. Raymond Weaver, Melville’s first biographer (1921) had identified the Miltonic author with Ahab, and both were viewed as romantic rebels protesting Victorian philistinism and imperialist activity as represented by hypocritical missionaries in such early works as Typee. But between the wars, Melville, though born a Protestant and generally a freethinker, was frequently characterized as a Jew, the archetypal confidence-man, the “Hebraic” character only pretending to be a principled moralist (Murray, Olson, and others). During the postwar phase of the Melville Revival, it was necessary to reconstruct Melville as a “moderate man,” preacher of “virtuous expediency”–precisely the figure who was the target of his most trenchant satire. This shift responded to the perceived need for a centrist ruling coalition that could unite elements of both the prewar Left and Right. Accordingly, leading Melvilleans decisively separated the author from Ahab’s feisty empiricism/romantic individualism and identified him with aristocratic Captain Vere (in Billy Budd), a tendency that had already begun in the late 1930s.

The late 1930s turning point in Ahab readings is traced in my book and seems intertwined with several concurrent developments: an increasing acceptance of the big state (Leviathan: the White Whale) by “socially responsible” capitalists in the latter phase of the New Deal; the growing antagonism to Hitler as he turned against the West; and a shift from “scientific history” to “cultural history.” The story of the Melville Revival is less obviously intertwined with the history of ongoing antimodern influence on the humanities curriculum. Many of the scholars and critics who were supporting Mussolini and even Hitler during the mid-1930s (e.g. Southern Agrarians), entered the literary establishment as New Critics during and after the war. Definitions of fascism were adjusted accordingly. For some moderates, Hitler was switched from antibourgeois, neoclassical defender of community, to home-wrecking romantic, the autodidact as assassin, as Ahab, as Melville himself. Ex-fascist sympathizers were covering their tracks. This was news to me, and will be so to many historians.

Critics are eager to classify him, to annex a domesticated and pacified artist to their own political projects, not to understand his unresolved ambivalence about the possibilities of a freethinking democratic polity that could lead to “mob rule.” Hence nervous critics have frequently insisted on making him either an ultraconservative, a centrist, or a left-wing radical, and have managed his biography accordingly. But these categories are too static to describe an unresolved ambivalence or ambiguity that, in my view, continues to characterize politics in this and other industrial democracies. If Melville was worried about the destructive potential of an undereducated and misinformed mob society, so should we all be: in the first edition of Moby-Dick (publ. in England), the novel ends with the Extracts and the Whale Song, confronting the reader with the unresolved question “does Might make Right”? Quite the Brechtian/modernist move.


Cain, William E. and Gerald Graff. “Peace Plan for the Canon Wars.” Nation, March 6, 1989, 310-13.

Foerster, Norman, et al. Literary Scholarship: Its Aims and Methods. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941.

Lauter, Paul. “Melville Climbs The Canon.” American Literature (March 1994): 1-24.

Lorant, Laurie Robertson. Melville: A Biography. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1996.

Renker, Elizabeth. “Melville, Wife-Beating, and the Written Page.” American Literature (March 1994): 123-50.

Spanos, Jr., William V. The Errant Art of Moby-Dick: The Canon, the Cold War, and the Struggle for American Studies. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995.

Spark, Clare. Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2001. Paperback revised edition 2006.

Stone, Geoffrey. “Left Wings Over Europe.” American Review 7 (Oct. 1936): 564-85.

Ware, Carolyn F. Introduction. The Cultural Approach to History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1940.

Weiss, Philip. “Herman-Neutics.” New York Times Magazine, Dec. 15, 1996, 60-65, 70-72.



  1. Clare, I wonder if you’ve asked yourself about the burial place of Melville’s daughter Frances, the one whose antipathy for Herman increased as the Revival grew.

    1. Frances’ gravestone is missing from the Melville Society’s Melville Family Graveyard, which shows the memorials from Woodlawn Cem. in the Bronx.http://melvillesociety.org/galleries/collection99418604-72157634980645452/set72157635007516220
    This is the more curious because her daughter Eleanor Metcalf, according to an obit, is buried there. (I created a memorial for her at FAG. See below.) A photo of her tomb is on the Melville Society site, suggesting she lies near the Melvilles.

    2. A huge popular database called Find-a-Grave shows no memorial for Frances. This might not be surprising except that she is the daughter of the famous Herman, and his other children and family are linked to him, usually with long biographical entries. Try http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=Melville&GSfn=Herman&GSbyrel=in&GSdy=1891&GSdyrel=in&GScntry=4&GSob=n&GRid=705&df=all&
    and click on Find all Melvilles in Woodlawn Cem. in the left sidebar. This function should pick up anyone woman whose maiden name was Melville.

    3. My searches for Frances’ obit in four newspaper archives have produced nothing except a death notice in the NYTimes.

    4. Speculation: Given Frances’ antipathy for her father evinced in her later years when the revivalists were knocking on her door, is it possible that she could have deliberately chosen not to be buried in Woodlawn with her family and even to keep the news of her death out of the papers?

    I could learn what I want to know from a death certificate, which I can buy for $50 from the state of Massachusetts. It will indicate the disposal of her remains. I may have to do that, even though it will mean waiting a month for the reply. Still, it bothers me that such information is not publicly available. What do you think?

    Comment by Wayne Pounds — July 2, 2015 @ 2:06 am | Reply

    • I had no idea. I knew Paul Metcalf, the son of Eleanor Metcalf, and he never mentioned such a family detail. Too bad I didn’t know about this earlier. Thanks for yet another Melville mystery.

      Comment by clarelspark — July 2, 2015 @ 2:33 am | Reply

  2. […] If they have to suppress documents that contradict progressive notions, they will do that too. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/.) And the preferred “moderate” position is “multiculturalism” for it keeps us divided and […]

    Pingback by What is “context” and how is it relevant to the Pamela Geller flap? | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 5, 2015 @ 9:15 pm | Reply

  3. […] Some readers may recall the “canon wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, wherein the artistic production of dead white males was pushed aside in favor of  “subaltern” authors and artists who had been ignored owing to “white male supremacy.” Did these trendy academics use the Spinoza method or did they imagine a limited space for art and artists that necessitated the decapitation of those supposedly in “the canon?” My work on the Melville revival strongly suggests that Melville as canonical figure is a joke: he was way too radical then and now. A different “Melville” was constructed by his erstwhile revivers for reasons that were strictly ideological. (For details see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/.) […]

    Pingback by Spinoza as culture critic | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — November 13, 2013 @ 3:08 pm | Reply

  4. […] In order to respect oneself, there has to be a (relatively autonomous, striving) self. Too much of our current political culture has abandoned the very notion of the individual. It is not too late to take it back. (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/23/progressives-and-the-teaching-of-american-literature/. The “intolerable national egotism” is declared off limits to the moderate men. Also for more demonic characters in contemporary culture see https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/. This links Ahab, Bruno Heller, Patrick Jane, and Bobby Goren. For more on the suppression of primary source materials during the Melville revival, see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/.) […]

    Pingback by Preconditions for “hard liberty” | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — July 19, 2013 @ 5:19 pm | Reply

  5. […] sadistically) into the task of destroying his reputation as a man and a husband and/or father. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/. The most disturbing text was Pierre, or the Ambiguities that confronted the mother-son […]

    Pingback by Discovery anxiety « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 22, 2013 @ 2:01 am | Reply

  6. […] sadistically) into the task of destroying his reputation as a man and a husband and/or father. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/. […]

    Pingback by Discovery anxiety « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 21, 2013 @ 9:53 pm | Reply

  7. […] through the fiction of Herman Melville, who was well aware of Voltaire as a great infidel. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/. Melville invokes Voltaire in his annotations to Book 9 of Paradise Lost mentioning comparing […]

    Pingback by Sandy Hook massacre and the problem of Evil « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 15, 2012 @ 10:22 pm | Reply

  8. […] Notable about the four books is the target audience of educated lay readers. Hence his claims are not sourced, but he does provide bibliographies and indices. What is most striking about the tetralogy is his range: economic history, political history, social history, the arts, mathematics, and sciences. In those cases where my own scholarship is competent (the arts), I found his opinions to be either sketchy, derivative, or ideological and hence distorted and present-minded.  (See https://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/. For a drastically different reading of Melville’s Moby-Dick see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/.) […]

    Pingback by Hobsbawm, Obama, Israel « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 8, 2012 @ 9:21 pm | Reply

  9. […] Note that Harvard educators of educators are not worried that our young adults cannot read or comprehend Shakespeare or Milton (say Hamlet, King Lear, The Tempest, or Paradise Lost), let alone such American classics as Moby-Dick). It is not bullying to throw out the masterpieces of civilization as written by dead white males, but it is bullying for a teacher to express disapproval of a sex-change operation, assuming that the interaction even took place as reported by “Zachary Kerr.” (The teacher was not given a platform to respond.) Victims never lie or exaggerate. (For more on the smashup of the old literary canon see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/.) […]

    Pingback by Bullies « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 19, 2012 @ 7:04 pm | Reply

  10. The Holy Bible’s Influence on Herman Melville and Others…

    The Moral Liberal Lookin’ at ya…

    Trackback by The Moral Liberal — August 1, 2010 @ 3:23 am | Reply

  11. Josie Shaw passed on family gossip to Weaver early on. Both Olson and Murray gave dark hints in publications, but the rumors took off, I am told by Don Yannella, when Paul Metcalf gave a talk at Glassboro State College in New Jersey in 1972. Then when Paul Metcalf made a book out of our correspondence (ENTER ISABEL), he repeated Olson gossip. My dissertation reported Weaver’s notes (from 1919), and that started Renker’s campaign.
    I had to beg Mrs. Murray for access to Murray’s letters from the descendants (Allan Melville’s daughters, plus Eleanor Metcalf), stored in Harvard University Archives. I was not allowed to see his responses (the Murray Papers are closed, to all apparently except Forrest Robinson, who used them for his biography, and then he claimed at a 1991 symposium at UCLA that Murray had discarded all his notes for Moby-Dick and Pierre, which was a bald-faced lie, as I found them when I visited Harvard in 1991).
    All this material is detailed in my book (except for the Yannella bombshell that Paul Metcalf had believed the rumors and passed them on to students, and I have only Yannella’s word for this. Paul may have egged on Renker who visited him in Pittsfield).
    Andrew Delbanco had the nerve to cite my report of Weaver’s notes in his Melville book, and nothing else. Never mentioned the letters from the Morewoods and Eleanor that reported one absurd thing: Lizzie was offended that Herman reproached her for leaving her used handkerchiefs around the house.
    Hershel Parker availed himself of my book when he completed his two volume biography of HM. Needless to say, both Hershel and Harry Hayford supported my view of the matter (here I refer solely to the wife-beating accusation).
    The more interesting question to me, is who owned Melville’s two volume (?) edition of Milton’s poetry? Murray was given the keys to Arrowhead by the Morewood sisters, and had unsupervised access to Allan Melville’s trunk of memorabilia. I asked Forrest Robinson straight out if Murray owned the annotated Milton, but he denied it. Whoever did own it remains anonymous.

    Comment by clarespark — June 11, 2010 @ 3:06 pm | Reply

  12. Clare,
    Can you say anything more about letters in Murray’s file at Harvard? What else did Melville’s descendants say?

    Where and when did the wife-beating rumor begin? Thanks,

    John Gretchko

    Comment by John Gretchko — June 11, 2010 @ 1:17 pm | Reply

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