The Clare Spark Blog

June 13, 2019

Re-reading Herman Melville (part two)

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 1:38 pm
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It was a fluke that I was allowed to write a dissertation on a major figure in literature in a department of history, but my being sympathetic to New Left radicalism and a Romantic, and having an advisor who had been a proletarian novelist, Professor Alexander Saxton, I was permitted to enter the ranks of literary criticism. Historians are expected to do archival research, but I was not prepared to find so many hidden motives in the men I investigated–all leading Melville biographers of one sort or another: they were Dr. Henry A. Murray, Jay Leyda, Raymond Weaver, and Charles Olson

The most controversial was gay Raymond Weaver, who was interested in Freud and early childhood relations (like myself) and who paid attention to HM’s conflicted relations with his mother and the character “Isabel” in Pierre l(1852); Jay Leyda was a Stalinist and later a Maoist who made his way through a forest of social democratic colleagues, who made hay out of his unflagging archival research and was even allowed entrance into the papers of Emily Dickinson; Harvard psychologist Dr. Murray, who seemed to have the ear of FDR, who left an unpublished Melville bio (including his notes), was more of a Jungian than a Freudian, who tried to cover up the existence of a real life half-sister; Charles Olson, poet, professor and a pioneer in the dissemination of a negative view of America, and who published an influential HM biography, Call Me Ishmael.

What did these figures have  in common? They were similarly purveyors of propaganda that distorted the facts that might be gleaned from a close reading of HM’s works. I plead guilty as I allowed my sympathy with the victims of slavery to distort my reading of Benito Cereno (1856). “Babo,” the leader was no exemplary rebel aboard a slave ship. Indeed, Agrarian and Christian Melville, lined up with the South, even saying in the voice  of Ishmael “Who ain’t a slave?….”

 HM was disdainful of all lower-class revolt. Rattled by the French Revolution, he identified with the aristocracy of Britain. And yet, he was proud of his heroic ancestors in the War of Independence. His democratic side was obvious to me, long ago, and I was taken in by his frequent protests regarding the treatment of the lower orders. But on the end, “Ishmael” sided with legitimate authority, like Edmund Burke.

Finally,  the Melville revivers preferred Queequeg-loving Ishmael over Captain Ahab; I gathered that the Ahab-Hitler  was too powerful in the 1930s-1940s for them to note  HM’s ambiguity and ambivalence throughout. Projecting a bisexual was less threatening to liberals intent upon co-opting hyper-individualist HM or his alter ego Captain Ahab. At the time of their publications in the 1930s-40s (Olson’s book was published later), social democrats accused the free market as producing “fascism.”

  

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