The Clare Spark Blog

April 27, 2019

Re-reading Herman Melville, re-reading myself as Melville scholar/historian

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 11:55 pm

Being a perfectionist (like other upwardly-mobile middle class kids) I worried whether or not my big book, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (2001, and second edition paperback 2006), had errors of interpretation, now that I had become a classical liberal, instead of a quasi-Marxist. So I reread those major works that constituted “the Melville problem.” Though most of the scholars had recognized the difficulty of Melville’s texts: his blending of aristocratic and radical values often noted as (confusing) ambiguity and ambivalence, I had criticized their legit researches as propaganda for corporatist liberalism, a perplexing ideology to which I was strongly opposed at the time.

That was mostly wrong, and I apologize to those few who are still alive. If they didn’t have my particular historical indoctrination that was their training as literary critics, whereas I picked up the New Left emphasis on racism, but often failed to see it where it plainly existed in Melville’s short stories and novels. Melville’s texts could not be fit into any “socialist” proclivities. whereas the whole Melville, a sort of mirror to myself, was too much the family-proud aristocrat for that. Focusing on his pity for “suffering humanity” did not make him any the less of a snob, subject to the same social pressures as I had been; I.e. HM was a conflicted bourgeois though masculine (thus was more adventurous than even this educated “girl”).

Moreover, I did not pick up on his identification with a pro-slavery Agrarian Southern elite. Of course, he thought that we were all slaves, which could have been a projection for all of us.

So did that make him unique, ideologically speaking? What about his attitude toward a single truth? That comes out in his ambivalence toward Captain Ahab (in my view, his character Ahab was a radical Enlightener.) I make no apologies for that reading, for even in his post-Civil War crypto-Catholic Clarel (1876) he was still troubled by the conflict that beset the 19th Century: the antagonism between (materialist) science and (mystical) religion. Moreover, he had lost both his sons, then his favorite (?) sister and mother before the lengthy poem was published..

Recently, I came across a (liberal?) interpretation of HM’s politics as “alt-Right”! This gets me to my final point: that there  is not much difference between our time and HM’s (mid-19th C.) Yes, there have been unanticipated advances in technology and industrialization, but the same old ambiguities and ambivalences beset the artist, even a surpassingly great one such as Herman Melville.hunting-captain-ahab-psychological-warfare-melville-revival-clare-spark-paperback-cover-arthunting-captain-ahab-psychological-warfare-melville-revival-clare-spark-paperback-cover-art


  1. Good Morning Clare! I just came across the preface to your Captain Ahab book in my files. You sent it to me in an email on May 26, 2006. I was the archivist on the Leyda Papers at Tamiment. Now I am going through my own files and there was your email! The point I want to make looking back on the Leyda papers and Ahab and Melville. I think what scholars forget is that New England has its own culture that is and was more progressive than the rest of the country. Melville was very influenced by New England writers of the Transcendental Movement during his time in western Massachusetts. Leyda came under this influence while researching both the poet Emily Dickenson and Melville. New Englanders believed themselves the moral and intellectual equal of anyone, and resent authority. Ahab is the perfect foil for this.

    Comment by MARTHA A FOLEY — April 29, 2019 @ 1:43 pm | Reply

    • I remember you! The chapter on Jay Leyda is the most voluminous in my book. Leyda was indefatigable as a Melville scholar.

      Comment by clarelspark — April 29, 2019 @ 1:48 pm | Reply

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