YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 8, 2013

Is Ahab, Ahab? The Free Will Debate

Royal Doulton Ahab Jug

Royal Doulton Ahab Jug

I take it for granted that readers know that Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and some Jews believe, to various degrees, in free will, while atheists, Freudians, other Jews, and the Left lean toward determinism, turning our “choices” into problems to be solved, perhaps never. This blog discloses the evasiveness of the Melville industry in confronting Herman Melville’s most painful quandary.

There are two competing narratives in academic studies of Herman Melville:

1. The Narcissis/Icarus myth.  In this narrative, Melville, identified too closely with his romantic characters Ahab and Pierre, crashed or drowned after completing Moby-Dick (1851) and its sequel  Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852). The short stories of the 1850s begin what Melville’s first 20th century biographer, Raymond M. Weaver, named “the long quietus.” This narrative was taken up by Lewis Mumford, Henry Murray, and some New Leftists who would read “Billy Budd” as an ironic text, a work of protest not to be taken literally, notwithstanding Billy’s blessing of Captain Vere. But what these critics ignore is the unresolved character of the issue that most exercised Melville: the competing claims of science and religion that, unlike, say, cultural historian Peter Gay or the philosopher William James, he could not reconcile in some form of cultural pluralism. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/01/07/some-backstory-for-hunting-captain-ahab/.)

Here is an example of the author’s quandary: In “The Symphony” one of the final chapters of Moby-Dick, Starbuck has urged Ahab to give up the hunt for the White Whale and to return to the (ordered) family. Ahab replies, putting on the table the question that tormented Melville through life: Is it Fate (pagan), free will (Christian), or determinism (Spinoza style modernity) that informs “his” decisions. To leave this question unresolved, links Melville/Ahab with the demonic Fedallah (and perhaps the Wandering Jew).

[Melville quote:] “What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozzening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new- mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year’s scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swaths – Starbuck!”

But blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.

Ahab crossed the deck to gaze over the other side; but started at two reflected, fixed eyes in the water there. Fedallah* was motionlessly leaning over the same rail. [Moby-Dick, Chapter 132, my emph.]


*One internet source links Fedallah with Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book One: “Wandering o’re the earth, Through God’s high sufferance, for the trial of man, By falsities and lies the greatest part Of mankind they corrupted to forsake God their Creator, and the invisible Glory of Him that made them to transform Oft to the image of a brute, adorned With gay religions full of pomp and gold, And devils to adore for deities.” Another “deviant” painting suggests an affinity with the Wandering Jew, who is seen as daemonic, like Nature herself.

Fedallah as Wandering Jew: Behnone

Fedallah as Wandering Jew: Behnone

2. The Conversion Narrative. The second wave of Melville studies wrote a far different story of Melville’s rise and fall (and rise). Narcissus and Icarus were abandoned in favor of a Christian-neoclassical narrative, one that returned Melville/Ahab to the conservative family, by returning doubting Herman to conservative religion. It chief accomplishment was in rehabilitating “Billy Budd” through defending Captain Vere’s judgment in condemning Billy to death, and in declaring the Civil War as the turning point in Melville’s biography. No longer the whacko Romantic, the bloody catharsis of North versus South sobered up crazy Ahab; Melville was now a proper believer, as his long poem Clarel, a poem and pilgrimage to the Holy Land (1876) “proved.”  The chief perpetrators of this narrative have been the Yale graduate students of Stanley Williams, curiously led by autodidact Jay Leyda, an unabashed, unreconstructed Stalinist and lover of Sergei Eisenstein (who had made his own journey from early romanticism to neoclassicism at Stalin’s behest).

Implications for teachers and readers of Herman Melville’s oeuvre. Except for the primitivist early books that made Melville famous and that offer few problems of interpretation once the reader identifies the appealing primitivism in Typee and Omoo, teachers are at the mercy of their teaching guides and prominent academics, many of them blatantly on the Left. Andrew Delbanco & Co. are out to get Captain Ahab as the image of war-mongering Amerikkka, personified in George W. Bush, while other leftists praise Melville’s noble savages as premature anti-racism.

Sadly, if this tirade against American “identity” is all there is to Herman Melville, we might as well watch Oliver Stone‘s revisionist Showtime series on post-WW2 history, or read Howard Zinn, rather than wading through the sometimes difficult prose of an author who was coming to grips with a confusing family and confusing culture that was pulled in sharply different directions. Melville’s family, no less than our own polity, pretended to serene unity and provided its [prisoners? Bartlebys?] with road maps to achieve the almost painless resolution of conflict, i.e. the conflict between science and religion, with the unresolved question of personal identity and motivation for every “rational choice.”

Is Ahab, Ahab? Am I who I think I am, and how did I get this way? Ask your students or family members that one in class or at a family gathering and see how far you get. (For some related blogs that explain why I wrote this one, see  https://clarespark.com/2012/09/28/bibi-and-the-human-nature-debate/,  or https://clarespark.com/2010/03/05/organic-conservatives-and-hitler/, or https://clarespark.com/2013/02/23/peter-gays-freud/.)


June 12, 2011

Call Me Isabel (a reflection on “lying”)

Illustrations by Maurice Sendak from a truncated edition of “PIerre”

From the chapter “The Journey and The Pamphlet” (Herman Melville, Pierre, or the Ambiguities,Book XIV):

“When a youth discovers that his father has been misrepresented as morally irreproachable, and is hence disillusioned and angry] an overpowering sense of the world’s downright positive falsity comes over him; the world seems to lie saturated and soaking with lies.” Properly instructed by philosophy, the youth will discard his romanticism, and then realize that “…A virtuous expediency…seems the highest desirable or attainable earthly excellence for the mass of men, and is the only earthly excellence that their Creator intended for them.”

During the research phase of my work on the politics of the interwar and postwar Melville Revival I discovered several juicy items. One factoid (that Melville was a brutal husband and father) was considered to be excellent red meat for a journal article by several editors, and indeed Andrew Delbanco (Columbia U. superstar) quoted my nugget in his Melville biography, without noting that it was bogus, and that I had demonstrated it to be bogus throughout my book.

Another fact (not a factoid) was the suppression of a family letter by key revivers strongly suggesting that the plot of Melville’s novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852) was taken from real life, and that Melville’s family had hidden the existence of a real-life natural sister roughly corresponding to the character Isabel (an archetypal Dark Lady, i.e., a rebel and emancipator) in the novel. Briefly, Pierre jilts the safely blonde and wealthy girl preferred by his mother, risks being disowned and ostracized, and runs away to the city to “gospelize the world anew” as a [Voltairean, Byronic, Promethean] figure. In short, Pierre is another Captain Ahab, a character who had been linked to Hitler in the approved Melville scholarship, and in my book, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001, 2006),  I show parallel passages in both novels linking the two characters as truth-seekers in the mode of John Milton speaking through Satan in Book IX of Paradise Lost.

When I offered to write journal articles about my findings (in the late 1980s), including the suppression of the family letter,  I aroused angry, even hysterical responses in editors. They wanted dirt on Herman Melville (he was crazy or violent), but not an accurate account of his family situation, one that made impossible demands to be both a good Christian and lover of truth, but not to disturb conservative notions of order. For these editors, like the officially sanctioned Melville scholars, were conforming to the profile of the moderate men that Melville had denounced in The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), see https://clarespark.com/2010/11/06/moderate-men-falling-down/. These scholars were therefore advocates of “virtuous expediency” as “Plotinus Plinlimmon’s” pamphlet had advised. To say that they were merely ideological or incompetent is to excuse what was a blatant lie—the pretense that the family letter didn’t say what it said, or ignoring its existence altogether in order to maintain the Melville-as-Ishmael fiction. Or you can call the polite suppression of the family letter a noble lie, if you prefer, for “community cohesion” and “stability” trump the discovery of the truth every time. Melville scholars generally approve of “virtuous expediency” and don’t see it as a sin against the truth. As Dr. Henry A. Murray argued, the perfect father was needed as “the focus of veneration”. Murray also linked Melville, the romantic artist, to Hitler in a confidential report to FDR.

I further discovered that in one College Board exam constructed by Terence Martin, it was correct to state that Ahab was a terrorist, while Ishmael was an advocate for interdependence–the antithesis of Ahab.  Does this distortion of the text rise to the ignominious accusation of lying, or is it merely ideological? When a student’s future is guaranteed by lying, what does it say about our culture and the path to success? The world is indeed, soaked in lies. Call me Isabel. If Anthony Weiner is to be punished, let us all take a personal inventory as we go about our business, deferring to others for opportunistic purposes.

Clearly, judging by the book sales of such as Jonah Goldberg and Ann Coulter, demonization of the Democratic opponents, like the world-wide demonization of Captain Ahab/Melville  is rewarded; similarly left-wing authors often return the favor, hence our polarized polity. Did Jonah Goldberg, like Noam Chomsky before him, lie about the major claim of Walter Lippmann’s important book Public Opinion, in order to buttress Goldberg’s populist agenda in opposing “the nanny state”? I say that he did. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.) Has this kind of wicked distortion anything to do with the witch hunt being mounted against Anthony Weiner? I thought it did, and criticized these right-wing publicists of hypocrisy. For this I was reprimanded by another scholar, who, in passing, denied that anyone could claim “absolute objectivity” as a historian.

Although I am generally very cautious about definitive answers to controversial questions,  I have no problem claiming absolute objectivity in declaring that many of Herman Melville’s most revered biographers withheld documents that would have changed their readings of his texts (not just the family letter about an Isabel, but other weighty letters that countered the rumor that he was a violent father and husband). In doing so, they betrayed the ideals of professional scholarship. I feel the same in authoritatively stating that Melville was ambivalent and a waverer, as many another writer has been– while in the dangerous position of endangering his economic survival by flouting the prejudices of his relatives or patrons (see the life of Goethe for another waverer, compare for instance the two Wilhelm Meister novels). The same goes for scholars who fail to defy their dissertation directors or colleagues (when warranted)  in order to get a job. If conforming to what is known to be timid scholarship is not lying, then I don’t know what is. (For more on this theme, see the following blog: https://clarespark.com/2011/06/13/weinergate-papa-freud-and-the-imperfect-father/.)

March 11, 2011

Review excerpts re Hunting Captain Ahab

Eaton portrait of HM, hung in Houghton Library, Harvard

Someone has been searching for reviews of my book on the Melville Revival, so I dug up a summary of review excerpts prepared for the second edition, along with my (unpublished) letter to the editor of The Journal of Cold War Studies. My letter precedes the review excerpts.

Letter to the editor, Journal of Cold War Studies:

In his review of my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001), Brian Etheridge advised diplomatic historians or others interested in the Cold War, i.e., your readership, not to read my book, supposedly a study of interest primarily to Melville scholars like myself. This was a surprising judgment as it ignored my reporting of such weighty matters as the Harvard course on civilian morale (1941), the 1942 yearbook of the American Psychological Associations’s Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, the inception of the Committee for Economic Development, and how the Harvard functionalists and their cohort (including Henry Murray, Gordon Allport, Talcott Parsons, and Harold Lasswell) defined the base of fascism and formulated their programs of social relations and “preventive politics” with an unapologetic irrationalist approach (see especially my chapters 2 and 9).  Since I made constant connections between the (mis)handling of evidence in Melville studies and the efforts to maintain “social equilibrium” by the political scientists and social theorists mentioned above, one might think that I had justified my sub-title of “psychological warfare and the Melville Revival,” especially as one of my chief subjects was the career of Jay Leyda, a Stalinist intellectual and authority on propaganda, who helped to write the film Mission to Moscow, and whose leading role in postwar Melville studies contributed to an Orwellian inversion confusing freedom and slavery and, hence, vindicated double-talking “moderate men” who were the targets of Melville’s more daring characters. And yet the Etheridge review did not note the existence of such materials in my book.

I believe that the ideological tendency that I tracked over five centuries forms the substrate for revisionist views of the Cold War and even the assumptions of the United Nations and the “peace studies” that have proliferated since the second world war. Briefly, the practices of  the men and institutions that I studied operated on the assumption that all conflict could be resolved through the mediation of skilled individuals, noted for their objectivity, superior self-control and adroitness at manipulation of quarreling groups or individuals. In other words, there are no irreconcilable conflicts, and prejudice and hatred are simply projections of aggression onto “the Other” by the malleable masses who have been whipped up by autodidacts/demagogues like Captain Ahab. And of course, for the revisionists, the Soviet Union was “the Other” whose military threat had been wildly exaggerated by extremist anticommunists, held to be extreme individualists (narcissists) resisting the humanitarianism of the welfare state.

An example: Andrew Delbanco, a prominent figure in American Studies and director of the Columbia University program, has just published a widely publicized popular book on Herman Melville, in which he makes the claim that “some eighty years before it emerged as the central political fact of the twentieth century, Melville had described in Moby-Dick the reciprocal love between a demagogue and his adoring followers.” (173). This justifies Delbanco’s ahistoric linking of Ahab, Hitler and George W. Bush, now a pervasive gesture in left-wing journalism. Revealingly, the Soviet Union and its anti-American propaganda are invisible in Delbanco’s book. Similar appropriations of Melville’s writings for present-day partisan purposes (including the construction of the “multicultural” curriculum) are the chief subject of my book, page after page. And yet Etheridge claims that I failed to connect Henry A. Murray’s and Charles Olson’s propaganda services to the Roosevelt administration with Melville scholarship.

It is stressed throughout Hunting Captain Ahab, and most explicitly in chapter 7, that readings transforming Ahab into a totalitarian dictator occurred in tandem with a major growth in state power under the New Deal during the late 1930s, while during the same period Hitler turned decisively against the West. Before that turning point, Ahab was seen as either Melville the Promethean romantic artist on the side of “the people,” or as a democratic reformer reminiscent of Chartism, or as a symbol of indomitable humanity, doomed to failure but noble and tragic. It is Henry A. Murray’s confidential report to FDR on Hitler’s mind (filed in 1943, but begun in 1938) that explicitly links Ahab, romantic artists, Melville and Hitler himself. And Charles Olson worshipped Murray, following his lead as their correspondence strongly demonstrates. The outcome was a shift in Olson’s criticism away from his youthful admiration of the Ahab character, and dramatically displayed in his Call Me Ishmael (1947), that could have been dictated by Murray himself. In other words, Leviathan was increasingly acceptable in the late New Deal, displacing earlier Wilsonian localism; thus Ahab as Leviathan’s opponent had to be discredited, while Hitler became simply the tool of laissez-faire fascist Republicans.

Etheridge also implies that I have left the reader stranded in the 1940s; hence recent developments in Melville scholarship, like my Ahab-self, are muddled, which brings us to the matter of macro-history and scale. Prior to my book, the shift to an “anti-imperialist” reading of Moby-Dick (the ruthless demagogue Ahab as an “anticipation” of  Hitler, and the voyage of the Pequod as a representation of capitalist exploitation and doomed American imperialism) was assumed to be a New Left post-60s phenomenon. Such periodization glosses over not only the contested growth of a benevolent “progressive” Leviathan throughout the twentieth-century Melville revival, but ongoing “sykewar” against autodidacts and “Hebraic” radical puritans, initiated by the Tory party in England from its inception. By not transmitting the major theme of my book, i.e., persistent elite resistance to the popular decoding of antidemocratic propaganda, even in the progressive movement, Etheridge suggests that I have jumped willy-nilly across the centuries, abandoning historicism. Chapter 5 on the radical puritan as red specter, as well as quotations from David Hume throughout, should have justified my insistence on continuities in upper-class psychological warfare against the lower orders, from the Reformation to the present.

Surely it cannot be the case that “psychological warfare” refers solely to propaganda efforts by such agencies as the 1950s Psychological Strategy Board, or the Voice of America, or the USIA, etc. as Etheridge states. If diplomatic historians are not considering the intertwined issues of foreign policy and institutional control of domestic populations through mind-management within the humanities and social science curricula (either in the U.S. or in other countries), then I must ask for a reconsideration of their position. [End, letter to the editor, accepted but not yet published.]


[From Brian Etheridge’s review in Journal of Cold War Studies, Fall 2005, the first historian to review HCA:] “…a bold and challenging work that seeks to illuminate the role that scholarship has played in competing discourses on the relationship between individual and  society in the modern world. …Without question, Spark knows and is passionate about her scholarship. She ranges widely across the landscape of Melvillian scholarship, expertly addressing the various contexts in which Melville’s work has been appropriated. To this end, she has done an admirable job of unearthing unpublished commentaries and correspondence…. She also has a firm grasp of the larger cultural milieu in which M’s works circulated, and she ably charts the changing contexts in which these works have been debated.  …For those interested in learning about Melville’s life, his work, and his scholars, this is the book for you.” [I include these excerpts because he importantly validates my skills as an historian charting change, but curiously does not recommend my book to diplomatic historians. C.S.]

[Roy Porter (deceased):] “…light-years ahead of most academic monographs.” [in a letter of evaluation to Bucknell UP. Roy wrote to me that I could use anything he ever wrote to me personally or on my behalf for promoting my work.  See also his final letter to Kent State UP, using the word “superb” which I had never seen.]

[Kris Lackey, Southern Humanities Review, Spring 2002:] “Spark pursues two principle objectives: first, to liberate Ahab from his dictator’s reputation and to restore his radical birthright as a figure of the defiant artist; second, to liberate Melville from static and reductive identities that have served academics across the political spectrum. …Embedded in this vast prickly montage…are eloquent, moving passages that show us why Spark has fought this long battle to win him back from his revivers…. Insights like [hers] belong in the hornbook of Melville criticism.”

[Jason G. Horn, Christianity and Literature (Summer 2002):] “More is at stake than just another analysis of Herman Melville in this hefty, detailed, and wide-ranging study….And getting the facts to the public, whose own critical range of thinking is partially formed by institutional and intellectual debates, is all important for Spark.”

[Sharon L. Dean: American Literature :] “Spark puts the brow of Melville scholarship before us. Read it if you can.”

[Jeremy Harding, London Review of Books, Oct.31, 2002:] “Clare Spark is a devotee of Ahab the fallen angel. She believes that Ishmael has been puffed at the expense of Ahab, largely because Ahab’s free spirit is too anti-social. She objects especially to the idea that he is a one-legged Fuehrer hobbling up and down the bunker of the quarterdeck…which she considers a misrepresentation for socially proscriptive, leftish-centrist ends. …[Ishmael is] a ‘corporatist’–a non-revolutionary, consensual figure–whose star has risen as Ahab’s has declined; and, of course, he is a ‘multiculturalist’ (another form of conformism) who condescends, like Melville, to all races, as to most species, more or less impartially. He is also given to hair-splitting and the patient telling of like from like, while basking, too, in the reconciliation of opposites. He is the dialectician of the piece, and the great procastinator. [it goes on….]

[Guy Davenport, Harper’s Magazine, June 2002:] “It is [her] diagnosis…that the Melville Revival was a conspiracy to bring Melville in line with the kind of Orwellian liberalism that is teleologically indistinguishable from totalitarianism. …[it is] intricately argued and documented, requiring as patient a reading as Parker’s biography. And it delivers the goods.”

[S. I. Bellman, CHOICE, Nov. 2001:] “Spark’s meticulous study should appeal both to Melville scholars and to academic and general readers not primarily concerned with Melville’s career and hard times. …the book deserves consideration for a major literary award.”

[Robert E. Abrams, Modern Language Quarterly, June 2003:] “Yet Ahab exerts…a powerful pull on the very critics and scholars who demonize him. No doubt Hunting Captain Ahab itself is a valuable, highly unusual study because of how it gathers all sorts of academic marginalia to challenge and supplement a legacy of official scholarship. On the one hand, the ways in which such scholarship remains historically embedded in a matrix of political and institutional pressures are revealed; on the other hand, in the movement beyond officially published writing into a nether world of notes, remembered conversations, drafts, recorded interviews, and even crossed-out phraseology, we come upon confessions and lines of speculation that tell a considerably less straitjacketed story than the one told simply by scholarship cleansed of its messy origins.”

[The Year’s Work in English Studies, 2002:] “…a thought-provoking detailed analysis…She focuses on the political, institutional agendas of each site of Melville scholarship, locating a history of critical thinking on one of America’s most fought over writers, offering essential and compelling reading for Melville scholars.”

[Peter Thorpe, Bloomsbury Review, Jan-Feb, 2003:] “…an engaging work of scholarship by Clare Spark, an old-time, no-nonsense scholar who knows how to entertain us and keep our interest as she goes about the serious business of finding Captain Ahab…She writes about life itself and the perilous balancing act between things Ahabian and things Ishmaelian. …[She writes with] verve…hard-nosed joy and force. She brings Herman Melville alive again and helps us to understand what’s going on in our own American minds.”

November 27, 2010

Melville “unpainted to the last”?

Gore Vidal and Jay Parini at Key West, 2009

Read this first. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/books/review/Marshall-t.html

Megan Marshall reviewed Jay Parini’s novel purporting to explain the Melville problem. She pans this folly, but praises Andrew Delbanco’s study of HM, because Delbanco is untouchable, being a member of the literary establishment. Oddly, she does not mention Hershel Parker’s two volume biography or other Melville scholarship.

   I do not deny that Melville was masked, at the same time that he pulled off (or tried to) pierce the masks of powerful others. But that is not the same as imagining that he was unknowable or evasive or that extant materials elude accurate readings of his life and art.

   As Harrison Hayford noticed long ago, Melville’s prisons were a major motif in his fiction. As I have insisted ever since I started working on “the Melville problem”, Melville was ambivalent, but displays his ambivalence openly. Ambivalence is the only response for a man who longs to invent new forms but is unable to break away from his patronage system and closest relatives for reasons of psychological and financial dependency. So he writhes, and in his Laocoön agony discloses everything we need to know to comprehend his supposedly mysterious texts, with the appropriate amount of stoicism on the part of the author. Or perhaps you will hear a scream as I sometimes do.

   Jay Parini is the literary executor for Gore Vidal. Is it any surprise that Melville’s supposed secretiveness has to do with the claim by many gay readers and critics that the most important thing to know about HM is his sexuality, which was either closeted or practiced furtively? But is an unfulfilled longing for sex with males his Big Secret? Or is HM after bigger fish, say double binds, mixed messages, and irrational, abusive authority in a new republic where “the Declaration of Independence makes a difference?” Listen, gentle reader, to the man who once blurted out (through one of his characters) that we apparently throw ourselves so helplessly open when we write.

    “Unpainted to the Last” is the title that Professor Elizabeth Schultz gave to a big book of Melville illustrations and other art works inspired by his characters. This is the state of Melville scholarship today: anything and everything goes in the Melville industry in the name of a “multiplicity” that would have made Melville wince, groan, and laugh out loud.

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.

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