YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 13, 2013

Victor Hugo’s “93” and Condorcet

Hugoquatrevingt-treize_The French Revolution at its most Jacobin extreme has been appropriated by Communists as a great bourgeois revolution that laid the groundwork for the absolutist morality of subsequent revolutions. This is a dangerous error for persons of libertarian beliefs, who also think kindly of progress, anti-racist policies, market economies, and feminism.

Hugo’s last novel, 93, published in 1874, lays out the moral quandaries of various factions in the French Revolution. It is notable that Ayn Rand admired this novel, and it affected her own We The Living (1937, see my blog https://clarespark.com/2011/01/12/ayn-rands-we-the-living/).

In my view, Hugo is aligned in this book that focuses on the moral quandary of the civil war in France (the French Revolution centered in Paris, as opposed by the rural Vendée), with the anti-capital punishment of the Marquis de Condorcet, whose advanced Enlightenment ideas have yet to be realized in our own times. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninety-Three and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marquis_de_Condorcet .

Here is a key passage in the Hugo novel in which a ci-devant aristocrat, a fighter for the Republic, Gauvain, argues with his beloved teacher Cimourdain, who has gone over to Robespierre, Danton, and Marat as they operated in the Committee for Public Safety.

[Cimourdain:] One day, the Revolution will be the justification of this Terror.

[Gauvain:] Beware lest the Terror become the calumny of the Revolution. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,—these are the dogmas of peace and harmony. Why give them an alarming aspect? What is it we want? To bring the peoples to a universal republic. Well, do not let us make them afraid. What can intimidation serve? The people can no more be attracted by a scarecrow than birds can. One must  not do evil to bring about good; one does not overturn the throne in order to leave the gibbet standing. Death to kings, and life to nations! Strike off the crowns; spare the heads! The Revolution is concord, not fright.  Clement ideas are ill-served by cruel men. Amnesty is to me the most beautiful word in human language. I will only shed blood in risking my own.  Besides, I simply know how to fight. I am nothing but a soldier. But if I may not pardon, victory is not worth the trouble it costs. During battle let us be the enemies of our enemies, and after victory, their brothers.

[Cimourdain:] Take care!

At the end, Hugo’s novel starts to look like Melville’s Billy Budd (not published until 1924, but written between 1886-91). The same moral quandary is revealed, and the Melville dénouement somewhat resembles the ending of the Hugo novel. Gauvain liberates his Royalist ancestor the ci-devant Marquis de Lantenac (only because the aristocrat risked his life to rescue three peasant tots in a fire), and after a strenuous argument with his conscience, subsequently offering his own life instead. Cimourdain, as a representative of the Jacobins, condemns the court-martialed Gauvain to the guillotine, but then takes his own life from remorse at having violated the higher law. (In Billy Budd, Captain Vere’s enigmatic last words as he lies dying from a shot from The Athée are “Billy Budd.”)

In the series Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Bobby Goren, often read as demonic by the critics, opposes capital punishment, but must serve the superiority of the Law above people. Read the interaction between Cimourdain and Gauvain, for it is a persistent theme in American culture. Even in our supposedly anti-Stalinist democracy, we struggle with the same paradox. And Hugo’s final published novel is a page-turner, and completely absorbing, free from the long digressions of Les Misérables.

La Torgue castle

La Torgue castle


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/.)

January 5, 2013

The (Gentlemanly) Rochester Synod: 1984 in 1948

ZolamovieWhat follows is an excerpt from chapter 8 of Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001, 2006 rev.ed.). It is meant to demonstrate the ideological character of the teaching of literature, and how consensus as to the teaching of the canon is often brought about in academic conferences. The writing is sardonic and takes no prisoners. I am not a gentleman, but I defend artists from their appropriators by proof of conspiracies, or to put it more politely, the building of consensus.

[From chapter 8, HCA:] In 1900, during the period of Melville’s alleged obscurity, some passages from Moby-Dick were excerpted in The International Library of Famous Literature, edited by Richard Garnett. Volume 12 of the series included “On The Track of the White Whale”; the volume was prefaced with a work of criticism by Emile Zola, “The Naturalist School of Fiction in France.” For Zola, the lineage of naturalism included Diderot, Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, and the brothers Goncourt; the antithesis to naturalism was mystical Romanticism. The author of “J’ accuse,” later rumored to be assassinated by the Right, had no difficulty reconciling the cultures of science and the arts through naturalism and realism.


[Clare’s comments:]… Half-a-century later, two Melvilleans, Leon Howard of Northwestern University and William Gilman of the University of Rochester, staged a four-part conference at Gilman’s university during the winter of 1948-49, adjusting and cleansing the all-too-naturalistic literary canon for the benefit of graduate students, “guests from the community” and “the general reader.”[i] The leading lights of American literature were there, including Stanley Williams, Willard Thorp, Leon Howard, Henry Nash Smith, Norman Holmes Pearson, Robert Spiller, Alfred Kazin, Harry Levin, and Lionel Trilling. A selection of twelve lectures was published and republished as The American Writer and the European Tradition.[ii] Now that America had become the most powerful nation on earth, the editors explained, it seemed appropriate that America

“produce a literature which will nourish and refresh European readers; at the same time it needs to perceive more clearly the source and nature of formative influences, both past and present, upon its literature…[“Cultural” responsibilities should be met through] the extension of commendable American influences abroad…discarding the mere violence which now is his forte but not the natural virtue which is his real strength…to cultivate the fertile ground that lies somewhere between our native Americanism and the European tradition (v, xi, x).[iii].”

Since nine of the twelve scholars had participated in the Melville Revival, and since the editors assure us of the “underlying unity and the dynamic unity [the essays] bear to each other” (x), I shall attempt a synthesis, framed with an excerpt from the correspondence of Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis Mumford. They were both active in the 1920s Melville Revival, were repeatedly mentioned in the Martin Dies (HUAC) report of 1944, and are still admired by 1960s radicals. Jubilating over a returning trend in American culture, Brooks told his friend:

“…I have a clear strong feeling that things are coming our way, that another generation is coming along that is much more congenial with you and me than the minds that have been dominant in the last twenty years. I gather that you are encountering them in your Southern lectures, as I find them in several writers who are going to have something to say in the future (among them, Peter Viereck).” [iv]

Brooks was correct. Uncongenial, domineering [Jewish?] “minds” were out; romantic conservatives (like Viereck, an ardent Melville fan) were in. At Rochester, only a few months earlier, Louis Booker Wright and Theodore Hornberger (prolific scholars specializing in the English Renaissance and Anglo-American culture whose papers launch Denny’s and Gilman’s book) clarified the agenda for postwar humanism: they must claim the Enlightenment and the American Dream for themselves, which meant transfiguring the radical bourgeoisie and the dogmatic democrats it had spawned.[v] Hornberger emphasized stability, order, and balance found in the Constitution, eighteenth-century political theory and its conservative but progressive antecedents (Greece and Rome, “British parliamentary procedures” and Calvinist New England), praising Montesquieu, John Adams and Benjamin Rush, and ending with an affirmation of American cultural freedom defined against fascist mind-control:

“We have learned recently that under the Fascist regime John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was permitted to circulate on the theory that it would convince Italians of the degeneracy of the United States. Instead, the young men, or some of them, concluded that a government which would permit such a novel to appear must have something admirable about it. The moral is, it seems to me, is that Americans appear at their best to the rest of the world when they are self-critical. The charming thing about the Enlightenment and the American Dream is their dissatisfaction with what is and what has been. No one who reads Candide will ever again think that this is the best of all possible worlds. No one, I think, who reads widely in American literature will be either smug or chauvinistic (27). “

In the talks that followed, irrationalism as practiced by antebellum romantic conservatives was redefined as the rational antidote to complacency and excessive nationalism. Although Hornberger’s Steinbeck story was repeated by Harry Levin (182), Steinbeck’s fiction was deemed defective and romantic (170); the documentarians of the 1930s were attacked throughout the conference, directly or indirectly. As Hornberger had hinted, there were competing contenders for critical “social realism” (Thorp) in America: the spirit of Thomas Carlyle was in the saddle. Traditional writers like Melville (as Ishmael and Vere) who were “didactic, allegorical, romantic” veterans of the abyss (Levin, 180, 174), should be plainly distinguished from other romantics: Jacksonian Ahabs with their “lying spirit” and monomania (Howard, 84). Also discredited were “dyspeptic” pessimists expecting too much from America: the “sour liberals” of Partisan Review, presaged by the later work of Mark Twain (Thorp, 105, 104), and French-inspired naturalism (Levin, 174) catering to the “idolatry of the mechanical and of ‘facts’ ” (Pearson, 161, Kazin, 121). Trilling attacked “the extreme rationalist position” (148), while (pre-conversion) Dos Passos was hit hard in Kazin’s essay.

After the weeding out of the progressive bourgeoisie who would be (moderately) Left? Captain Vere! who had been blessed in the last breath of Billy Budd, (but not Billy Budd), and in the last words of Lewis Mumford’s biography (1929). Melville had his problems with Vere, but not the conferees at Rochester. Willard Thorp talked of him as an historic figure, joining Vere to Emerson, Thoreau and other classically educated intellectuals of the pre-Civil War U.S. Captain Vere, like veritas itself, was rooted in the Renaissance ideal of the Christian gentleman, “ready and eager to serve the state in the most intelligent fashion,” and promoting “the cultivation of man’s full powers under the restraint of law (Wright, 9).” The “proletarianizing” all-American [soil] growing materialists whose Faustian science had now created the Bomb (Wright, 4) and erased “personality” (Pearson, 166), must be shoveled out and replaced by the Euro-American compost that yielded the greatest inheritor of the English Renaissance, Thomas Jefferson (Wright, 14) and the poetically scientific (Pearson) writers of the 1850s, Mumford’s Golden Day. The search for a usable past had won these gentle but forceful flowers of “the saving remnant” (Wright, 51), who, like Emerson “believed that the tension between Conservative and Radical would be fruitful in the end” (Thorp, 95); who would be ready to spring to action, averting the confiscations of the “extreme Reformer” who “uses outward and vulgar means. [Who] precipitates revolution when other means would have done” (Thorp, 92). And who would disagree with that? [vi]

Several participants advocated temporary despair as healthy and broadening, somewhat like the Grand Tour, the evidence of spiritual capacity and deep-diving: unflagging optimists lacked a soul. Melville and Whitman were exemplary, for Christian gentlemen/American artists do not yield to permanent depression. Perforce, Melville’s work after the nadir of the nihilistic 1850s would be annexed to the cause of Christian affirmation and acceptance of an imperfect world. If Melville had been in pain, yanked between “America” and “Europe,” ultimately it was good for his originality. “Melville” was cured; Progressive uplift and social hygiene had evacuated mechanical materialists, amplifying the message of Thorp’s essay in Literary History of the United States (1948), canonizing “Melville” defined as Ahab’s repudiator. Like other corporatist enactments, however, this ritual conversion of stony-hearted Jewish healers was a subversion of radical Enlightenment, claiming, of course, to uphold gentlemanly or true science, complete with stringent self-criticism. One might infer that cultural freedom was safe in their hands, that their unity was both a buffer against, and a solution to “war and economic chaos and the new fears aroused by atomic power” that had worried Thorp in Literary History. [vii]

The three Jewish participants, Kazin, Trilling, and Levin, affirmed their American identity, loyalty, and virtue by dumping the “naturalists,” agents of desolation to a peculiar people. As the final contribution, Harry Levin, Irving Babbitt Professor at Harvard, clinically probed iniquitous American mass culture (the Face that plagued Weaver?), then praised the redemptive power of the typically “American anguish” (evoked twice), for this “ambivalence of anguish” gives us pause; properly guided it could lead to an elevating new direction; “Melville,” original as the bearer of “tradition” in a chaotic trash culture, was the good seed:

“There is an American anguish in the face of Americanism,” Jean Paul Sartre has written. “There is an ambivalence of anguish which simultaneously asks ‘Am I American enough?’ and ‘How can I escape from Americanism?’” If anything can redeem us, it is this hesitation between our optimists and our pessimists, our frontiersmen and our expatriates. On the one hand, we have a unique background, which would be quite barren if it remained unique. On the other hand we are strengthened by a hybrid strain, the cross-fertilization of many cultures. What is commonly regarded as peculiarly American is blatant and standardized: Ford, Luce, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer. What is most original is most traditional: Melville. Moving in T. S. Eliot’s phrase, “Between two worlds become much like each other,” these opposites are neutralized. As Andre Siegfried predicted, Europe is Americanized and America is Europeanized. Organization conquers the Old World, chaos is rediscovered in the New. Beyond the clamor, beneath the surfaces of the present, the past continues, and our brightest lights are those that keep burning underground…(183, Cf. Leon Howard’s idea that Melville’s ambivalence reflects cultural conflict between Europe and America.)

In other words–given the proclivities of mass culture for “totalitarian realism,” as suggested by Levin with regard to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in a sentence immediately preceding the segment quoted above–the apparently conservative or reactionary traditionalist turns into his opposite: he becomes an invigorating innovator, a “critical realist.” Such were the cool assessments that have defeated seditious naturalist novelists–mystical yet bound to Benjamin Franklin’s independent science “and…the higher learning that we have built upon it” (Spiller, 40). Robert Spiller suggested we study Franklin to find a key to the problem of our present concern: “the growth of American culture from its first roots in American soil to a flowering after three centuries as a dominant world culture…If we can understand what happened to Franklin [1740-1750], we may appreciate more keenly the cyclic process by which a transplanted civilization developed from dependence to independence to dominance (32).”

Free will and personal responsibility were now ghosts in the machine of organicist discourse, caught by the determinism of biological cycles. A manufactured but heavenly pastoral of flowers, trees, seeds, and soil had drifted gently onto the grimy, bristling political science of the empiricists, a game anyone could play.[viii] People were no longer self-moving participants in describable social movements or class formations: they were either sour apples and weedy “extremists” (bad) or “moderates” (good) stoically enduring the fructifying tension associated with “self-criticism” and “social realism.” Who could resist the call of dreamy, peace-loving moderate men: dominant and yet attractive to European readers fed up with fascism, only starved by the revolt of the masses?[ix]

On Columbus Day, 1950, Yale professor Norman Holmes Pearson, another ex-Stanley Williams student and now a leader in the interdisciplinary field of American Studies, responded to comrade Leyda’s complaint that he was not permitted access to Emily Dickinson’s papers:

Norman Holmes Pearson of Yale, spy

Norman Holmes Pearson of Yale, spy

“I am annoyed, though not deeply surprised at the block in the Dickinson exploration. I only wish something could come of it, for if anyone needs your diligent scalpel, Emily Dickinson does. If it doesn’t go through eventually and you are left without a project, why don’t you do a calendar for Hawthorne, though I dare say the iconoclastic value would not be so startling in this case as for either HM or ED. At any rate if there is an impasse consider, with Leon’s help, shifting the subject to something else. Now that he and Louis Wright are the wheels with Guggenheim, they could fix the other end easily.[x]

Jay Leyda, the pathetic outsider with powerful friends, did gain access to the papers of Emily Dickinson to produce another calendar, assisted by the Guggenheim grant. Pearson was a veteran of the OSS, and, like Leyda, an expert propagandist. But we must not leap into dark conclusions: was the “iconoclastic value” of Leyda’s Log directed against Melville himself or the alleged excesses and deficiencies of earlier scholarship?


[i]               68. William H. Gilman to Leyda, 11 Dec. 1948: “Leon was here for a talk in an American literature conference we cooked up.” Box 23, Leyda Papers, UCLA.

[ii]               69. Margaret Denny and William H. Gilman, eds., The American Writer and the European Tradition (Minneapolis: Published for the University of Rochester by the Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1950). My page citations are from the Haskell House edition, 1968. Leyda told Gilman he liked these papers.

[iii]              70. Cf. Matthiessen, From The Heart of Europe, 54-55 on the deplorable European taste for Gone With The Wind and other trashy novels.

[iv]              71. Brooks to Mumford, 18 Mar. 1949, The Van Wyck Brooks-Lewis Mumford Letters, ed. Robert Spiller (New York: Dutton, 1970), 343.

[v]               72. Cf. Harry Hayden Clark, Thomas Paine, v, xxi. “Since it was customary, before the rise of Fascism, for those devoted to American history to represent the Federalists and the Jeffersonians (with whom Paine was associated) as in sharp conflict, it is perhaps well to remind ourselves that they were both loyally American and, like brothers in one family, differed mainly as to the extent to which the people could be trusted to govern themselves and the extent to which the national government should take precedence over the state governments. Toward tyranny, monarchy, the idea of one politically established church, and the kind of ideas now associated with Fascism, they presented a common front… [quoting Paine] ‘[W]e see unerring order and universal harmony reigning throughout the whole… Here is the standard to which everything must be brought that pretends to be the work…of God’ (Clark’s emph.). Having interpreted Paine’s mind in the light of contemporary philosophic definitions and their relative emphasis given by men whom Paine acknowledged as his teachers, we have now arrived at the very core of his thought, ‘the standard to which everything must be brought,’ which is a divinely revealed and sanctioned law and order, in harmonious conformity to which society finds its happiness. Thus Newtonian deism, as interpreted by Paine, involved discipline and order just did Calvinistic Federalism in America, or Anglican Toryism in England, although the difference in background and terminology has prevented many critics from recognizing it, at least in the case of Paine.” Throughout, Clark presents the autodidact Paine as a neo-classical advocate of balance, opposed to mobs, favoring a welfare state, Federalism, free trade and internationalism, less of a Quaker than a Deist; Paine is a Freethinker likened to Alexander Pope; i.e. he is the reforming capitalist of the New Deal.

Clark’s research was funded by the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations. He was general editor of the American Writers Series for the American Book Company, publishers of the Willard Thorp Melville study discussed above, as well as The American Mind.

[vi]              73. Cf. John Stafford, The Literary Criticism of “Young America”: A Study in the Relationship of Politics and Literature 1837-1850 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, Univ. of California Press, 1952),1, 128. Stafford thanks Theodore Hornberger and Henry Nash Smith for inspiring his studies; his organizing tool for distinguishing conservatives and radicals is Emerson’s famous distinction between “Establishment and Movement.” The exemplary democrat Whitman is the culmination of Young America in literature. It is worth noting that Wilbert Snow, Olson’s advisor, was sent on an international tour by the US State Department to promote the poetry and ideas of Whitman immediately following the end of World War II. (See Snow’s memoirs.)

Leon Howard’s remark about “lying spirit” was clarified in his Melville biography, p.194. Howard was criticizing the transcendentalists’ search for “absolute, rather than relative justice”, and claiming that Melville understood the foolishness of Goethe’s (transcendentalist) statement “Live in the all.”

[vii]             74. Willard Thorp, “Herman Melville,” Literary History of the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1974), 468.

[viii]             75. I do not claim that materialism was hegemonic or unchallenged by moderate conservatives prior to the Rochester conference; the modern promotion of blood and soil theories of group identity would probably start with J.G. Herder, a leading figure of the German Enlightenment, continue with the racist geographers and social theorists of the nineteenth century, and bloom in the völkisch pseudo-materialist historical methods of Frederick Jackson Turner and other “social historians” including the founders of American Studies and “the new labor history” associated with the New Left that privileges “culture” over repression and corrupt leadership. Lockean environmentalism was simply co-opted and turned against workers; “race” and nativity became determining factors as concrete as the physical conditions with which persons coped, while Locke’s emphasis on experience and achieved understanding was tainted by association with unspiritual “materialism.” See for instance The Nation, 17 Sept. 1918, review of Joseph Kinmont Hart’s Democracy in Education: “The author feels that the crucial question of the time is whether our civilization shall conform to schemes handed down from the past, everything to be fitted into the old patterns, or whether education should be free to use the new energies which have been released, the new patterns suggested by new conditions. He strongly emphasizes the fact that thinking, only, does not lead to truth; what one feels and believes, his spiritual possession, is more fundamental to life and growth than what one reasons out and proves. The book…is an organism; it is concrete, yet always suggestive of the general, and at times of the universal; it is free from masses of detail; and while it is sufficiently technical for the author’s purpose, it has exceptional literary value.”

The positions I have outlined were frequently criticized by Stalinists and Trotskyists alike during the late 1930s in Science and Society. See Lancelot Hogben, “Our Social Heritage,” S & S (Winter 1937): 150-151, for remarks on right-wing slanders against quantitative materialism. Also William Phillips and Philip Rahv, “Some Aspects of Literary Criticism,” S & S (Winter 1937): 216, for a comment on genteel New Humanist condemnations of the “‘sordid’ naturalism of modern literature.” Samuel Sillen discussed blood and soil ideology in Carlyle, Ruskin, and Van Wyck Brooks; see his review of The Flowering of New England, S & S (Winter 1937): 262-265. Muddled liberalism (which glorified vacillations and eschewed simplicity) was noted by Edgar Johnson, “Henry Adams, The Last Liberal,” S & S (Spring 1937): 376-377; Carlyle was cited as a protofascist and Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke was criticized by Granville Hicks, “The Literary Opposition to Utilitarianism,” S & S (Summer 1937): 454-472.

[ix]              76. See the title page illustration to Louis B. Wright’s textbook The American Tradition: National Characteristics, Past and Present (New York: F.S. Crofts, 1941). A great oak occupies the foreground; gently rolling hills nestle a Protestant church and a few other small dwellings; farm lands lie between.

[x]               77. Robin W. Winks, Cloak and Gown, 319, 317.

December 15, 2011

Billy Budd’s ragged edges

Benjamin Britten and friends

The Wikipedia entry on Melville’s Billy Budd has an extensive survey of the critical literature and the history of the text. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Budd.

This blog is intended to show what is at stake in the contending interpretations of the novella, and how my own research into the reception of BB may be relevant to our ongoing discussion of legitimate and illegitimate authority, and how literature may be appropriated to contending ideologies in the 20th century, especially during the post-1960s scholarship. For instance, a recent series of essays weighs Melville in relation to Frederick Douglass, as if racism, or its absence, is the primary object of scholarly scrutiny in Melville’s texts.

First and foremost, readings of Billy Budd determine which of two competing narratives explains the trajectory of Melville’s political biography. If BB is read as a “testament of acceptance” then the conversion narrative is sustained: That is, Melville starts out as a radical democratic troublemaker in Typee, accelerates his rebelliousness in the “trilogy” of Mardi, Moby-Dick, and Pierre, writes bleak but socially critical fiction in the 1850s, then, purified by the bloodshed of the Civil War, ends up as a moderate man, an organic conservative, both in his “Supplement” to his Civil War poems, Battle-Pieces, then in his lengthy poem Clarel, a Poem and a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, some more harmless poems and sketches, and finally the unpublished ms. for Billy Budd. I have dubbed the conversion narrative as echoing  Bunyan’s popular Pilgrim’s Progress.

In sharp contrast to the conversion narrative, stands the Narcissus/Icarus story of HM’s life, initiated by his first modern biographer, Raymond Weaver (1921) and followed by such bohemian luminaries as Henry A. Murray and Charles Olson after WW2. They similarly argue: too closely identified with Captain Ahab, HM drowned, crashed and burned with the critical reception to his trilogy, and, said Weaver, went into “the long quietus” after the abject failure of Pierre. (The allegorical Promethean, Satanic “trilogy” was published between 1847 and 1852).

Today, “Billy Budd” is often considered to be the second most important creation of HM. That its meaning is contested is demonstrated by the fact that urban Nazi libraries refused “Bartleby” but accepted BB and “Benito Cereno” with “restrictions.” Hershel Parker believes that BB is too incoherent to convey a single meaning.  This may be true, but it is my view that Melville conveyed a very strong meaning in one paragraph about the role of a chaplain on a Man O’ War that I quote here, along with its marginal notation:

[conclusion, Ch XXI, Constable edition, 1924:] “ Marvel not that having been made acquainted with the young sailor’s essential innocence, the worthy man [the chaplain] lifted not a finger to avert the doom of such a martyr to martial discipline. So to do would not only have been as idle as invoking the desert, but would also have been an audacious transgression of the bounds of his function, one as exactly prescribed to him by military law as that of the boatswain or any other naval officer. Bluntly put, a chaplain is the minister of the Prince of Peace serving in the host of the God of War—Mars. As such, he is as incongruous as a musket would be on the altar at Christmas. Why, then, is he there? Because he indirectly subserves the purpose attested by the cannon; because, too, he lends the sanction of the religion of the meek to that which practically is the abrogation of everything but force.”

Melville’s note in the margin: “An irruption of heretic thought hard to suppress.” Why heretical? Compare to Charles Sumner’s first public oration, 1845, in which he denounced all war as uncivilized and un-Christian. Sitting in the front row were the military brass of the time (July 4, 1845, Boston). Sumner’s heretical speech was a scandal, but earned him a devoted following among those often deemed as “insane Quakers.” Recall that Captain Ahab is described as “a fighting Quaker” in Moby-Dick (1851).

Experienced Melville readers may or may not be attuned to when he is being ironic or sarcastic and when he is deadly serious. I read the passage just quoted as the latter. It fits in with his general line in such works as White-Jacket (1850), where his view of the American mission is Hebraic, as Chosen People bringing the blessings of political democracy to other peoples, but “without bloody hands being lifted.” (See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/). The passage also reminds me of his marking up of Goethe’s autobiography, where Goethe describes his underground adherence to the Pelagian heresy:

[Goethe:]…What separated me from this brotherhood [the Moravians of Marienborn], as well as from other good Christian souls, was the very point on which the Church has more than once fallen into dissension. On the one hand, it was maintained that by the Fall human nature had been so corrupted to its innermost core, that not the least good could be found in it, and that therefore man must renounce all trust in his own powers, and look to grace and its operations for everything. The other party, while it admitted the hereditary imperfections of man, nevertheless ascribed to nature a certain germ of good within, which, animated by divine grace, was capable of growing up to a joyous tree of spiritual happiness. By this latter conviction I was unconsciously penetrated to my inmost soul, even while with tongue and pen I maintained the opposite side. But I had hitherto gone on with such ill-defined ideas, that I had never once clearly stated the dilemma to myself. From this dream I was unexpectedly roused one day, when, in a religious conversation, having distinctly advanced opinions, to my mind, most innocent, I had in return to undergo a severe lecture. The very thought of such a thing, it was maintained, was genuine Pelagianism, a pernicious doctrine which was again appearing, to the great injury of modern times. I was astonished and even terrified. I went back to Church history, studied the doctrine and fate of Pelagius more closely, and now saw clearly how these two irreconcilable opinions had fluctuated in favour throughout whole centuries, and had been embraced and acknowledged by different men, according as they were of a more active or of a more passive nature.

The course of past years had constantly led me more and more to the exercise of my own powers. A restless activity was at work within me, with the best desire for moral development. The world without demanded that this activity should be regulated and employed for the advantage of others, and this great demand I felt called upon in my own case to meet. On all sides I had been directed to nature, and she had appeared to me in her whole magnificence; I had been acquainted with many good and true men who were toiling to do their duty, and for the sake of duty; to renounce them, nay to renounce myself, seemed impossible. The gulf which separated me from the doctrine of man’s total depravity now became plain to me. Nothing, therefore, remained to me but to part from this society; and as my love of the holy Scriptures, as well as the founder of Christianity and its early professors, could not be taken from me, I formed a Christianity for my private use, and sought to establish and build it up by an attentive study of history and a careful observation of those who were favourable to my opinion. (my emph.). [i] [End, Goethe quote]

It is my view that the key to Billy Budd, if there is any one such thing, is the notion of a private faith, of a personal relation to the deity, that underlined the Promethean powers of our species—a power that Melville had annexed to the cause of peace and to immeasurable and messy creation itself, a power that F. O. Matthiessen seemingly rejected. See https://clarespark.com/2010/12/29/f-o-matthiessen-martyr-to-mccarthyism/.

Yes, there are extenuating circumstances that apparently justify the harsh verdict of Captain Vere to hang Billy  (the Nore and Spithead mutinies during the 1790s when conservative England and Revolutionary France were at war).  Indeed, the crew murmurs in protest both when Billy is hung and when his body is consigned to the deep. It is at this point that Captain Vere reflects upon “…forms, measured forms….” that keep the underlings in line. Melville could be reflecting here upon the power of conventional fiction in supporting the rule of force.

After years of reading Melville and his critics, it is my view that he is always 1. Writing about his family and by extension Leviathan (the State) and their ultra-conservative character, calling forth his “heretical irruptions” that could separate him from his support system; and 2. Writing about writing itself, particularly deviations from inherited forms. He once exclaimed “I write as I please,” but he also felt exposed: one is so helplessly open in the act of writing. He had much to hide from his relatives, upon whom he was financially dependent. That is why I see his final manuscript as a testament to ambiguity and that kind of modernism that refuses neatly “measured forms.” He goes out as a romantic, perhaps even more romantic than in his early works: “Truth, uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges….”

Scholastic version of Billy Budd

[i] 81. Goethe, Truth and Poetry, Vol. II, 34-35.

October 4, 2011

Coulter’s demons, Melville, John Adams on the late 18th C.

Ann Coulter. Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America. New York: Crown Forum, 2011. 354 pages. $28.99.

Best-selling author Ann Coulter, with 19th century ultra-conservative French writer Gustave Le Bon for backup, has determined that the liberals of the US today are a hysterical mob, given to group-think and heinous atrocities, depicted here in detail as she pivots from the enraged French scum to such favorite targets as MSNBC, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, the better for our sick delectation. Upon reflection as I look at her repeated examples, it seems to me that her pages depicting mob-driven mayhem (600,000 French casualties!) are to be compared to 53 million unborn babies massacred by her arch-enemies, pro-choice feminists. She has just as little love for The Declaration of the Rights of Man,* gays, androgynes, liberal Jews (all Jews?), and other women, the latter the objects of Le Bon’s contempt as well.

This is most ironic, for whereas Le Bon was an irrationalist, but a secularist pondering how to control the lower orders since revealed religion (allied with arbitrary authority), had lost its gleam, Coulter, flying his counter-Enlightenment flag, allies herself with the divinely-inspired rationalism she imputes to Anglo-Saxons, the American Revolution, and the Federalist Papers. Such “harmonious order,” delivered by rules-regulated, mob-smashing, yet calm leadership, is invidiously compared to the “Latin” nations’ proclivity for cannibalism, blood lust, tumult and mindless, i.e., womanish, violence. Coulter may be one of the last respectable nativists.

As a book claiming “political science” status, Demonic is so wild and undisciplined that it hardly bears further discussion. Some of her more egregious howlers: 1. The most romantic radicals of the 1960s are conflated with their liberal opponents. Think of the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968, where liberals were the target of the Weathermen and other radicals. 2. Coulter is a conservative, who uses Republicans mostly to suit her argument. Hence, they are useful as anti-racists during the Civil War and Reconstruction, but she does not distinguish between Conservative and Radical Republicans, who had divergent agendas; it was such as Sumner and Stevens who put civil and economic rights for the freedmen at the top of their must-do lists, and before that, Alexander Hamilton’s antislavery position got him labeled as an abolitionist by the Jeffersonians who sought to tear him down from his own lifetime to ours. (See Stephen F. Knott’s book for the juicy details.)

I prefer to compare her pornographic rant to some leaves from Herman Melville’s manuscript, “Billy Budd, Sailor: an inside narrative” for his last composition (unpublished in his lifetime) also pondered the contested legacy of the French Revolution, clearly the subject of his [always controversial and enigmatic] novella:

[Melville, as published in Weaver’s Constable edition, vol.13, not available on the internet:] “The year 1797, the year of this narrative, belongs to a period which as every thinker now feels, involved a crisis for Christendom not exceeded in its undetermined momentousness at the time by any other era whereof there is record. The opening proposition made by the Spirit of that Age, involved the rectification of the Old World’s hereditary wrongs. In France, to some extent this was bloodily effected. But what then? Straightway the Revolution itself became a wrongdoer, one more oppressive than the Kings, and initiated that prolonged agony of general war that ended in Waterloo. During those years not the wisest could have foreseen that the outcome of all would be what in some thinkers apparently it has since turned out to be, a political advance along nearly the whole line for Europeans.”

In the first part of this statement, Melville takes the same dim view of the French Revolution as Coulter and the most ultraconservative thinkers of the period. But he leaves the question open, asking the reader to think very hard and for him/herself, given the more positive views of significant philosophers (e.g. John Stuart Mill) who wrote during his lifetime. Melville was an American patriot and a great admirer of the Declaration of Independence, “that makes a difference” as he wrote to a friend. But for Coulter, Thomas Jefferson is too Frenchified, even a “flake,” and she much prefers the godly [Anglophile] John Adams. But what should she have made of this much reproduced and discussed quote from Adams, clearly aligning the Constitution with the Enlightenment, and with the intonations of Prometheus?

Tom Paine Press image for Billy Budd opera

[Adams:] “The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”

*At a book talk in Los Angeles, Coulter stated that the French have no conception of individual rights. The Rousseau-maddened Jacobin mob leads directly to Hitler and Mussolini. This is the same line advanced by Jonah Goldberg in his Liberal Fascism. See my discussion of the latter here: https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/.

May 5, 2011

Assimilation and its malcontents

Yesterday on Facebook I started a thread asking my friends what they thought that assimilation meant, then refined it to assimilation in a democratic republic. I got this strong response from Tom Nichols, a political scientist and frequent contributor to the History of Diplomacy (Humanities Net) discussion group:

“Assimilation, to me, has never had a negative connotation. To me it means that if you ask to immigrate to another country, you’re accepting that you’re asking other people to let you make your home with them. The house rules are posted up front: you don’t get to pick and choose. If the adopting country is attractive enough to you to move there and seek citizenship, then you must accept all of the communal responsibilities of citizenship. But let’s leave the U.S. out of it for a moment, and let’s pretend we’re talking about assimilation if you move to Saudi Arabia. If you want to move to the Kingdom, then suck it up: the little missus is going to have to wear a headscarf. It’s their country, not yours, and if you want to join their family, get it straight about who wears the veil and who wears the pants. It might be ridiculous, but it’s their right as a society. On the other hand, it’s our right not to have to move there, and this might explain why talented, smart people in the West are not deluging the Saudi consulates for immigration visas.

Or better yet, take France, which has had the stones to pass some laws we would never have the guts to pass here. If you move to France, you respect and practice French values, at least in public — and that means you don’t form roving packs of boys raping unveiled women in Marseilles. If your son is in one of those packs, you don’t later defend him by saying that in your culture, women who are unveiled are asking for it. (If you like your own culture so much, then stay where you are.) It means you accept the decisions of the legally-elected French government until the next election, and
if you lose in that election, you don’t protest those decisions by wilding in the streets because it’s your “culture” to do so. You become French, and you damn well stand up when the French flag is raised. Assimilation doesn’t mean losing your identity; in a democratic republic it means your public identity must conform to the values that made you want to move in the first place. It means not being cynical about being an immigrant. And in a democratic republic, the bargain is this: it means your private life is just that — private. Do what you like at home, but one you step outside, your public life conforms to the norms of the Republic. Most importantly, you cannot be a hypocrite. You cannot come to France, take citizenship, study in the great
halls of the Sorbonne, gorge on wine and cognac, chase the local gals, download porn at prodigious rates over Europe’s free and uncensored internet, and then complain that the EU is just a decadent, indulgent melange of perverts and that is why you therefore maintain two or three passports, just like you have two or three wives, no matter what those French snobs think about it. That all sounds harsh, maybe, but the solution is clear: if you don’t like it, don’t get off the plane at De Gaulle. Try Russia or Japan or Mexico, pull your anti-assimilationist *merde* there, and see how that goes for you. So vive la France. And good luck to every other country that takes in and tolerates immigrants who think that “immigration” means staking out a community like some sort of hostile base camp deep in enemy territory. Let’s have more assimilation and less use of the word “culture.” Oh, and PS: Learn French, damn it.” [end, Tom Nichols quote]

I was glad that professor Nichols picked France as his example, as it has been secular (off and on)* since the much derided French Revolution, a revolution that took its inspiration in part from the previous American Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment to the Constitution. This is significant to me because some “traditionalist” conservatives regularly condemn “secularism” as if the conception was derived from the godlessly atheistic Soviet Union. These same persons are busy finding fault with the separation of church and state, and combing through documents for proof that the Founding Fathers were godly and never intended to leave spiritual matters to the privacy of the individual conscience. Hence, the culture wars. I have written about that tendency among the social conservatives before on this website, and deplore their abandonment of libertarian ideas originated in the early modern period.

To end this blog, let me make a distinction between multiculturalism ( a pseudo-solution to the existence of prejudice or bigotry) and the pluralism guaranteed by our Constitution, particularly in the First Amendment. The American and French Revolutions were children of both the Reformation and the Enlightenment, with the exception of the divergent German Enlightenment, the latter an irrationalist assault on the Age of Reason. Multiculturalism was consciously counter-revolutionary, a response to the French philosophes, materialists all, who preceded them. As I have shown with quotes from Herder and his followers on this website, the notion of national character, a racialist and collectivist idea, was the linchpin of their philosophy.

[Added after I was working on the blog, from Tom Nichols:  just to be clear, I think every country’s culture is its own business, and that each nation decides for itself what is acceptable within its own social norms — except when those practices become so dangerous to human life that they must be stopped (like, say, genocide or ritual female mutilation). I just happen to think that *Western* nations have the same rights.”

* When I first wrote this I had forgotten that the Declaration of the Rights of Man has had a rocky history in France. When Melville’s Billy Budd says farewell to the Rights of Man, we have a hint that Melville was not assigning to his character the qualities often ascribed to him.

March 30, 2011

Eric Foner’s Christianized Lincoln

Columbia U. Professor Eric Foner

Eric Foner’s recent history book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery ((N.Y.: Norton, 2010) has received the coveted Bancroft Prize. In this blog, I deploy a critical tool used by postmodernists, but with a different purpose. According to the “pomos,” all history writing necessarily falls into one literary genre or another, and the “master narratives” used in the writing of the history of the West are suspect (because the Pomos reject Progress and the [protofascist ]Enlightenment). Much as I deplore the cultural relativism and epistemological skepticism of the pomos, I found such an analytic approach useful in identifying trends in Melville criticism, especially biography. Early revivers of Melville’s reputation followed the Narcissus/Icarus myth. “Ahab”(i.e., Melville) over-reached in the writing of Moby-Dick, so crashed and drowned in the crazy book that followed—Pierre, or the Ambiguities. Drowned, he was done for and lost his reading public. But a competing myth or narrative followed that one (and it is deployed by Foner in his Lincoln study): the conversion narrative as exemplified in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  In this rendition, Melville, sobered up by the blood bath or quagmire of the American Civil War, recovers to write Clarel: a poem and a pilgrimage to the Holy Land–his very long “Christian” poem (the narrator is devout, but not the title character) and later his supposedly Christianity-infused “Billy Budd,” with Billy blessing the State that is killing him. Of course, all Melville scholarship is controversial, and Melville never followed the neat and consoling mythic narratives that are used to reconcile the deep ambivalence he felt about most issues that roiled the 19th century. Real lives, unlike myths, are messy.

Eric Foner’s new book follows the conversion narrative: Lincoln begins as a conventional white racist, but is pushed by events and the pressures of Radical Republicans away from his earlier desire for colonization of American blacks to Africa, and toward redemption. Like Foner’s massive book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877, Foner’s latest history makes Reconstruction utterly unfinished. But in this one he more overtly praises growing state power to remedy injustice, and pulls the reader along as Lincoln “grows” even in his religious references and belief in a God that intervenes in the affairs of humans. Foner’s narrative, dry and boring as most of it is, made me weep by the time I got to the end. Hence, the reader is left responsible to remedy the deficiencies of Andrew Johnson’s awful administration and everything that follows. Foner, a populist-progressive (as far as I can tell), mentions Karl Marx only once, to buttress the notion that the real American Revolution followed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Charles Sumner is lauded throughout because he, like the other Radical Republicans, pushes Lincoln in the correct direction. This is the most positive evaluation of Sumner that I have seen since the 19th century, when he was the object of adulation in New England among the abolitionists and thousands of blacks as well. However, in his earlier book on Reconstruction(1988), Foner misreported that Sumner opposed the 8 hour day for workers (p. 481), which was not true, for Sumner came around and voted for the eight-hour day as a result of his friendship with Ira Steward. Another source reported that Sumner thought that labor was overworked and needed the time for education and leisure. (See also a sarcastic reference to Sumner, p.504, footnoting David Herbert Donald’s mostly hostile biography of [the crypto-Jew] Sumner.) So I take this deviation from the usual anti-Sumner line to be opportunistic. (In the writings of others, especially the cultural historians, Sumner is an extremist, another monomaniacal, war-instigating Captain Ahab.) We the readers are supposed to follow the lead of the Radical Republicans into the Promised Land of racial equality, whatever that means. (For a related blog noting the triumph of communist-inflected black nationalism see https://clarespark.com/2012/12/01/petit-bourgeois-radicalism-and-obama/.)

December 29, 2010

F.O. Matthiessen: martyr to McCarthyism?

Maude Slye, Edith Atwater, Frank Oppenheimer, Matthiessen, Lillian Hellman

According to Jennifer Burns, historian and biographer of Ayn Rand, F. O. Matthiessen (1902-1950) was a victim of McCarthyism, hounded to death by zealous anticommunists. She does not provide evidence for this claim. While reading Ayn Rand’s novels and then two recent biographies, I was struck by the representation of Rand as another Captain Ahab: destructive, bossy, and, though an atheist, something of a Russian Jew. Similarly, Ahab was and continues to occupy the Romantic Wandering Jew archetype in the most important Melville literary studies. Their predecessor was Harvard professor F.  O. Matthiessen, like Charles Olson, a hero to many in the New Left. For the first time on this website, I am looting a section of the seventh chapter of my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001, paperback rev. ed. 2006). It reflects my politics at the time of writing, and I would revise it slightly were it to be republished today. What matters is the gross distortion of Moby-Dick that remains perpetuated in both high and popular culture. Ahab is Hitler is Jew is archetypal American, exceptional only in his capacity for mindless destruction of Nature and non-white peoples.

[book excerpt:] Charles Olson’s friend and mentor F.O. Matthiessen participated in Irving Babbitt’s antibourgeois offensive: American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, a monumental study of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville and Whitman, appeared in 1941; it was the organic synthesis that American literature professors opposed to Marx, Freud, and Parringtonian “economic determinism”[i] had demanded since the mid-1930s (and even earlier). In Professor Merton M. Sealts, Jr.’s view, Matthiessen’s New Criticism [ii] had rescued his generation from the art-erasing politics of Vernon Parrington:

[Sealts letter to me:] In the mid-sixties, shortly after I began teaching at the University of Wisconsin, a graduate student came into my office to tell me, excitedly, that he had discovered a book that would release him from “the tyranny of New Criticism”: Vernon Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought! To his surprise I observed that when I was a graduate student (1937-1941) it was New Criticism that had released me from the tyranny of works like Parrington’s…the “history of ideas” approach to American literature that was current in the 1930s had talked about everything except the literary quality of the texts under discussion–either because “literary quality” was supposedly lacking in those texts or because the commentators themselves were unable to recognize it. It was Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941) that assured many of us that what we planned to teach was worth teaching as literature.[iii]

Professor Sealts was clueless about the real project concealed under the rubric of “New Criticism”: the “aestheticism” professed by most of its advocates was directly connected to the organic society that their notion of good poetry subsumed. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/11/22/on-literariness-and-the-ethical-state/.)

Although he claimed to be fusing history and literature, in practice, the organicist Matthiessen set himself against both disciplines, leaving himself helpless to act either on his own behalf or that of humanity. By removing the study of literature from its “economic, social and religious causes” (but not from “its sources in our life”) and focusing on “what these books are as works of art,” then fulfilling the “double aim…to place these works both in their age and ours,” Matthiessen radically dehistoricized literary texts. One could move forward and backward between T.S. Eliot, Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne, or between Ahab and Hitler because historical specificity and concrete institutional referents had been banished: works of art gave birth to other works of art and yet, though fictions, their characters spoke to us today as if freshly minted. Matthiessen’s understanding of social conflict was expressed in timeless dualisms– Reason v. Passion, Good v. Evil, Civilization v. Savagery, or Heart v. Head: these antagonists made literature and history alike, but religion overwhelmed history and political science.

In his draft Introduction to a selection of Melville’s poetry (1944), a penciled addition mapped the Melville problem in the functionalist style as “Melville’s continual concern with the unending struggle, with the tensions between good and evil: within the heart and in the state, political, social, and religious.”[iv] And Matthiessen’s readings of “literary” qualities could be deficient in formal analysis or even accuracy, because he had appropriated nineteenth-century American literature to support the counter-Enlightenment corporatist goals of twentieth century progressive reform, eliminating textual facts that contradicted the lessons to be drawn from such works as Moby-Dick or Billy Budd, all the while (implicitly) distancing himself from Weaver and Mumford by promising to avoid “the direct reading of an author’s personal life into his works” (AR, xii).

Excerpts from drafts and published versions of two major works, American Renaissance (1941) and From The Heart of Europe (1948) clarify Matthiessen’s positions both before and after the war. They seem motivated by the confluence of objectives: a personal and class need for clear, unambiguous, reliable authority (or its simulacrum) and the ideological requirement of his class to moderate the selfishness of upper-class college students lest an unbalanced society continue its path toward disintegration. So Matthiessen evaluated authors and works of art with these standards: symbols should be clear and unequivocal, for (Christian) democratic artists, like other earthy laborers, were craftsmen relating form to function; “individualism” must be tempered by social responsibility. It was Burke against Paine all over again. I will consider his works chronologically, but mostly postponing discussion of From The Heart Of Europe (1948) so that it may be set in the context of other postwar Melvillean pronouncements.[v]

In a book of more than six hundred pages dealing with five major writers and numerous other cultural luminaries of the antebellum period, Matthiessen devoted long sections to Ahab. No previous writer had lavished so much attention on this character, indeed the book was organized around the mad Captain. The preface had ended with a call for artists to abjure [Ahab-ish] anarchy and take the side of the people against the brutal Übermensch who would be limned throughout, while the very last page traced Melville’s progress from the “murky symbols” of Moby-Dick to the “comprehensive symbols” of Abraham and Isaac, Vere and Billy, as if Isaac’s life had not been spared by the Jewish God. In his early unbalanced writings Melville was really the Head person Ahab, not Ishmael and not yet Vere, the Heart person who understood Necessity. Matthiessen had written “…in spite of Melville’s enthusiasm for discovery and revolt [in Mardi], no depth of feeling has fused his instances with his abstractions” (early draft, 153). Instead of the dispassionate assessment of literary qualities that had been promised, Matthiessen delivered a stern rebuke to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century man: there were distortions of the text to support the hostile characterization of Melville/Ahab and to convince readers (and perhaps himself) that Melville was finally the democratic hero Billy who rightly blessed Captain Vere. I still wonder how Matthiessen, a man still revered by academic radicals as a martyr to McCarthyism, could have believed in his own writing.

For instance, the celebrated Father Edward T. Taylor, Methodist preacher to sailors at the Bethel Church in Boston’s disreputable North End, was the source for Father Mapple and identified as an “ex-seaman,” (AR, 127) but not as a protester of Lemuel Shaw’s positions regarding enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. [vi] Since Mapple and Ahab (if not always Taylor) were both proponents of the higher law and the “inexorable self” standing up to evil earthly powers, Matthiessen had erased a fact that would have suggested Ahab as an anti-racist, as a man leading a revolution against illegitimate authority on behalf of, not against, the common man. For Matthiessen, the “Keel of the Ages” in Mapple’s Sermon was not Ahab’s Keel, the conscience that informed the struggle for universal human rights, but the “equilibrium” between “sense impressions and his reflective mind” that Melville had achieved, for a change, in Moby-Dick (AR, 128). Father Taylor was mentioned throughout the book as a positive figure, perhaps because, as Emerson had noted, he had unified a diverse congregation at Concord in 1845 (127); spiced with the salty vernacular, his sermons had followed Matthiessen’s prescriptions for a rooted democratic intellectual discourse, appealing to “black and white, poet and grocer, contractor and lumberman….”[vii]

Matthiessen transmitted more serious distortions of the text, none of which, to my knowedge, has been noted by Melville scholars. Referring to the confrontation between Ahab and Starbuck on the quarter-deck, after Ahab nails the gold doubloon to the mast, bribing and hypnotizing the crew into joining his hunt for Moby Dick, Matthiessen described Ahab’s heartless and obsessive vengefulness through the eyes of “powerless” Starbuck:

[Matthiessen:] At the moment of the initial announcement of his vengeance, he rises to a staggering hubris as he shouts, “Who’s over me?” Starbuck, powerless before such madness, can only think: “Horrible old man! Who’s over him he cries;–ay, he would be a democrat to all above; look how he lords it over all below!” Yet Starbuck is forced not simply to resent but to pity him, since he reads in the lurid eyes the captain’s desperation (448).

Matthiessen has erased both content and order: the text states “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” This is Ahab’s response to Starbuck’s accusation of vengeance and blasphemy. Ahab unmistakably announced that the whale hunt was not what it seemed. The text shows Ahab/Melville reproaching Starbuck’s philistinism, telling him to “hark” below the surface of the statement, as Ahab and other modern artists deploy analytic skills to discover the truth and to know themselves: Ahab’s speech is a call to revolution against illegitimate authority, but also a challenge to sincerely Christian readers harkening to Father Mapple’s higher law, in this case conservative New England’s complicity with the slave power. Moreover, Starbuck’s response to Ahab occurs in Chapter 38 (“Dusk”), not immediately after Ahab’s exclamation as Matthiessen implies.[viii] In my view, Starbuck feels invaded, but as a Christian, irresistibly tied to Ahab’s charismatic idea–in Starbuck’s later words, with “soul beat down and held to knowledge,–as wild, untutored things are forced to feed….” Starbuck’s initial response had been anger. Ahab noted that his passion had melted Starbuck’s usual icy incomprehension expressed in “an intolerable…doltish stare.” Ahab says compassionately, “my heart has melted thee to anger-glow,” then he (ambiguously?) apologizes: “I meant not to incense thee.” Perhaps the lurid eyes belonged to Matthiessen reading a double-message and had to be disowned. Similarly, “the queenly personality” who feels her royal rights, Ahab’s self-description and challenge to an indifferent and cruel deity in “Candles,” is negatively interpreted. Without quoting the source in the text, Matthiessen described what Ahab means by “queenly”: “The resources of the isolated man, his courage and his staggering indifference to anything outside himself, had seldom been exalted so high.” Matthiessen’s obliteration of the Milton-Melville connection in favor of Shakespeare-Melville made the task easier.[ix]

The Ahab-Starbuck interchange sums up the Melville Revival: a possibly ambivalent representation of radical Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions has been caricatured by conservatives. In their readings, the antagonists are bad Jews (the Hebrew prophets, Melville, narcissists, monomaniacs, abolitionists, modern women, materialists as either classical liberals or socialists) and overpowered bad Christians (Melvillains, as Merton Sealts Jr. calls himself and his colleagues), bad because they are seduced where they should struggle to resist. In all fairness, Starbuck should not pity Ahab: Matthiessen says Starbuck’s pity was forced. This shocking recognition of Ahab’s comprehensive cunning could lead to suicide to smother the bad Jew within gentlefolk like Matthiessen, or in the less gentle, the image of the “switching” Jew could rationalize social violence. Note that Matthiessen’s example of “the great artist” was T. S. Eliot, not Melville/Ahab, though he quoted Melville’s approbation of Hawthorne’s “usable truth” before this tribute to Eliot:

[Matthiessen:] Such steady inspection of life, which does not flinch from probing sinister recesses and is determined to make articulate the whole range of what it finds, is indispensable for the great artist. Only thus can he cut through conventional appearances and come into possession of what Eliot has called “a sense of his own age” (AR, 192-193).

Eliot is praised for the qualities Matthiessen lacked in himself, and that are abundantly demonstrated in the materialist Ahab, but here have been misapplied to the corporatist Eliot, enemy to freethinking Jews whose corrosive intellects dissolve natural ethnic, today, communitarian, bonds. The English Tories with whom Eliot bonded were paternalistic agrarians, relentless opponents to the rising industrial bourgeoisie that threatened to displace them. Their counterparts in 1930s America were Southern Agrarians, champions of the New Criticism and, like Harvard professors of American literature, supporters of Roosevelt. In a revealingly erroneous reading of Clarel (AR, 495), Matthiessen, like Willard Thorp before him, confused the merchant Rolfe with the ex-Southerner Ungar, the expatriate mercenary for the Turks, even though Melville had not blurred their identities in his text.[x] To be sure, Ungar had earlier expressed passionate criticisms of “Anglo-Saxon” imperialism, Mammon, and the brutal factory system (AR, 401), but so did the Tories of Young England. Expressing the concerns of other Jeffersonians, Melville had written:

The vast reserves–the untried fields;

These long shall keep off and delay

The class war, rich-and-poor-man fray

Of history. From that alone

Can serious trouble spring. Even that

Itself, this good result may own–

The first firm founding of the state.’ (4.21, 91-96)

Matthiessen had, in effect, made the reactionary Ungar (bearer of “a strain of Indian blood” and “the Catholic mind” or, in Poems, “the Latin mind though no longer in the Church”) a proto-socialist. This is an interesting ideological point since Melville’s character Rolfe was a well-traveled and thoughtful autodidact; his antidemocratic and antisemitic views link him to the organic conservatism of Christian Socialists like Melville’s contemporary Charles Kingsley, author of Alton Locke (1850). Rolfe muses whether or not the outcome of class conflict would be a more stable, legitimate, social order, paternalistically concerned with the condition of labor.[xi] Perhaps reflecting his own state of mind, Matthiessen continued his discussion of “Ungar’s” prediction of the coming socialism with the pessimistic judgment that the lower orders are uncontrollable and overly susceptible to false promises and flattery:

[Matthiessen:] Although Ungar glimpses that possible synthesis, he has little confidence in it. In his view popular ignorance often increases as society ‘progresses,’ and masterless men who have foregone all recognition of evil within themselves, are easy prey for demagogues. He holds that only an awareness of Original Sin can give significance to man’s struggle; and the last that is seen of him by Clarel, he is riding off with “that strange look/ Of one enlisted for sad fight/ Upon some desperate dark shore”(495).

Matthiessen’s apotheosis of Billy Budd’s sacrifice is the elixir soothing Ungar’s despair. The converted Melville “has come to respect necessity,” a fact proven by Melville’s check of a passage from “Peter Schlemihl”: “Afterwards I became reconciled to myself. I learnt, in the first place, to respect necessity” (note, 510). Such a mark, taken by itself, proves nothing. Although moody, Melville did not rest in Ungar’s pessimism. He did understand that history forces certain problems and constraints upon us; moreover, as any moralist would, he grappled throughout life with the ambiguous connection between freedom and necessity, structure and agency. But Matthiessen wants to convince the reader that Melville approves of Vere’s action in hanging Billy. Following earlier conservative readings, Matthiessen praised the Plinlimmonish balance achieved at the end of Melville’s life: he had grown out of the “angry defiance” of Pierre and The Confidence-Man (AR, 511); he cites Vere’s death without “accents of remorse” as proof that “Melville could now face incongruity; he could accept the existence of both good and evil with a serenity impossible to him in Moby-Dick” (draft, 819, AR, 512, “serenity” changed to “calm”). This judgment is further strengthened, pressing the unrighteous moralist Mapple’s inexorable self into Ahab’s materialist savagery:

[Matthiessen:] Vere is the wise father, terribly severe but righteous. No longer does Melville feel the fear and dislike of Jehovah that were oppressing him throughout Moby-Dick and Pierre. He is no longer protesting against the determined laws as being savagely inexorable. He has come to respect necessity (AR, 510). [xii]

Matthiessen had suppressed Melville’s delegitimating remark upon the occasion of Vere’s death from the musket ball shot from the Athée. In Melville’s text, Vere “dropped to the deck” just like Claggart, then the narrator comments, “The spirit that ’spite its philosophic austerity may yet have indulged in the most secret of all passions, ambition, never attained to the fulness of fame.” For Melville, Vere’s lack of remorse stemming from secret ambition was the black mark linking him to the ambitious, lying Claggart, but this evil character is connected to Ahab, not Vere, in Matthiessen’s reading (AR, 505). Captain Vere’s “rectitude” as he announces the verdict that Billy must hang reminded Matthiessen of the eighteenth-century Protestant minister Jonathan Edwards (whose name Melville had written in the margin to pinpoint “the Calvinistic text” preached to a dumb “congregation of believers in hell”):

[Matthiessen:] …the deepest need for rapaciously individualistic America [embodied throughout in Ahab] was a radical affirmation of the heart. He knew that his conception of the young sailor’s “essential innocence” was in accord with no orthodoxy; but he found it ‘an irruption of heretic thought hard to suppress.’…After all he had suffered Melville could endure to the end in the belief that though good goes down to defeat and death, its radiance can redeem life. His career did not fall into what has been too often assumed to be the pattern for the lives of our artists: brilliant beginnings without staying power, truncated and broken by our hostile environment. Melville’s endurance is a reinvigorating challenge for a later America (“reinvigorating” only in final draft, 819, AR, 513-14).

This was the conversion narrative, pure and simple. The later Americans should flee from wayward Prometheans like Hawthorne’s Roger Chillingworth and Ethan Brand, criminal precursors to Ahab, catastrophically possessed by their “proud lonely will[s]” (AR, 449-50, FHE, 30), to the open arms of Captain Vere, i.e., to the reinvigorating submission that Melville had mocked as ignoble servility in White-Jacket, a book Matthiessen rated as “running close to a tract of protest”(285).[xiii] Matthiessen’s final comments on Vere (and Coleridge) had linked the text to the America of the late 1930s and early 1940s, the years of the Hitler-Stalin Pact when the Anglo-American libertarianism of the radical bourgeoisie was once again off-limits to the Stalinist Left.

During the early and mid-1940s, the post-Weaver separation of Melville from Ahab energized by Mumford, Thorp and Matthiessen continued. An ominously antimodern, somewhat anti-Jewish article in College English (1943) moved Henry W. Wells of Columbia into his colleague Weaver’s territory, promoting Clarel at the expense of Moby-Dick. The following year, Wells, like Thorp, presented Melville as a moderate democrat, not the aristocratic rebel of Weaver’s biography.[xiv] Charles Olson, writing Call Me Ishmael after these judgments, again modified his reading of Ahab. In his earlier essay, “Lear and Moby-Dick” (1938) Ahab was condemned for the “solipsism which brings down a world,” while the crew participates in the “citizenship of human suffering”: this is Melville’s (Lear’s and Job’s) “meaning” (186, 189).[xv] Olson seemed to be pessimistically criticizing democratic leadership, but with respect for the crew. Call Me Ishmael (1947) more explicitly took on (protofascist) mass politics, linking Ahab’s “Conjur Man” destructiveness to heartless, Ethan Brand-style Enlightenment Reason:

[Charles Olson:] Melville was no naive democrat. He recognized the persistence of the “great man” and faced, in 1850, what we have faced in the twentieth century. At the time of the rise of the common man Melville wrote a tragedy out of the rise and fall, of uncommon Ahab…[T]he common man, however free, leans on a leader, the leader, however dedicated, leans on a straw [reason, the brain, C.S.]. (64)…In exactly what way Ahab, furious and without fear, retained the instrument of his reason as a lance to fight the White Whale is a central concern of Melville’s in Moby-Dick. In his Captain there was a diminution in his heart (72).

Similarly, Willard Thorp’s contribution to The Literary History of the United States (1948) abandoned Pierre: no longer a flawed but “fascinating book” (1938, lxxvii), it is “not a perfect book. It is not even a good one, judged by any standards” (458). Thorp’s other assessments returned with a new emphasis on the importance of Clarel and Billy Budd. Melville’s dangerous sympathies with the wantonly self-directed Ahab’s untrammeled curiosity and materialism had been averted; “private hurts” had been “healed” by the Civil War. The Epilogue to Clarel proved that Melville had chosen broad-minded Rolfe (468) over the antidemocrats, Mortmain and Ungar. In fact, the regenerated writer had come to a serene and manful end in all his Epilogues: the Epilogue to Moby-Dick proved that “young Ishmael” had seen through and rejected Ahab (461); from the Civil War poems onward, Melville had “worked his way to the solid ground on which he finally stood when he wrote Billy Budd” (404). For many liberal critics, the story has been either ambiguous or a thinly-veiled ironic antiwar protest written from the Left; as Hayford and Sealts have shown in their genetic reconstruction of the text (1962), Melville himself increased the polarity between Claggart and Billy. (In the earliest version, Billy is a sexually experienced older man, a guilty mutineer. Gradually he becomes the child-like naif. The poem “Billy in the Darbies” was written first, resulting in some disjuncture between the poem and the final version of the narrative.) For Thorp, however, the sharp division between the naturally depraved, monomaniacal, and subversive Claggart and naturally innocent Billy had shattered the “fetters” of ambiguity, as perhaps it had done for Melville-in-retreat. The brainy mixture of good and evil, “the strange union under the eaves” (457) that had chained Pierre to immobility (470), was finally unmuddied.[xvi]

[Harrison Hayford to Tyrus Hillway, co-founder of The Melville Society, 25 Jan. 1945:] I met [Merton Sealts] wandering in a daze one day just outside the Toasty, and he said “Either Melville is crazy or I am, or someone is.”

In the process of conflating corporatism with democracy, Thorp had, like Matthiessen, cleanly separated the good, questing, submissive adolescent (the redeemed Ishmael-Billy) and the bad father (Ahab-Claggart). The rhetoric Thorp applied to Billy and Claggart implied that their genetic inheritance was dissimilar: the difference between Aryan Billy and the black-hearted monster Claggart was perceived in virtually racial terms. The connection Melville had drawn between the two quasi-lunatics Claggart and Vere, however, was invisible. And Billy was good in Thorp’s reading because he understood the necessity for heroic self-sacrifice when Vere (Order, not Truth) demanded it. Thorp had consistently assimilated Melville’s career to the conversion narrative. The same gesture had bolstered the hegemonic humanities line contrasting Western democracy with German autocracy or Bolshevism, following the ideology of the Columbia University “War Issues” course devised to build support for American participation in World War I and continued in the plans for the Jefferson Memorial, 1939.[xvii] This might have been an honest contrast had not the corporatists been as intent as Nazi and Stalinist bureaucrats in treating the contagious Lockean and Jeffersonian ideas of the American Revolution, turning these radical thinkers upside down to invert slavery and freedom, reinstating the Great Chain of Being to heal wasted liberals.[xviii] By bringing ethnopluralism into the discussion of psychological warfare in the Melville Revival, I am saying that the core conflict between the wars was not democracy versus totalitarianism or autocracy; rather, the forces of modernity were arrayed against those of reaction, even inside “democratic” countries and often inside individuals. Reactionaries might or might not represent themselves as progressives. I have tried to clarify the dispute by deploying the distinction between “rootless cosmopolitans” (exponents of urbanized industrial, scientific society) and rooted cosmopolitans (exponents of small town life with pre-capitalist social relations). English and American Fascist writers of the 1930s made this distinction explicit.[xix]

After the war, Matthiessen and Alfred Kazin taught American literature in Austria and Czechoslovakia, describing their topic as the age of Whitman and Melville. Since both men wanted to teach Moby-Dick and Billy Budd, they divided their groups, Matthiessen discussing Melville followed by Henry James, while Kazin’s Melville was followed by Henry Adams. Matthiessen turned the journal of his fascinating and informative European experiences into a book, From The Heart of Europe (1948), with the published version forced to deal with the recent Soviet actions that had destroyed the independent democratic socialist state of Czechoslovakia, actions that were pending while Matthiessen was still there and for which he became an apologist. Matthiessen (whose father and grandfather had become wealthy through the applied sciences) felt he should explain why he never became a Marxist:

[Matthiessen:] I am a Christian, not through my haphazard upbringing but by conversion conviction while at Yale, and I find an[y] materialism inadequate. I make no pretense to being a theologian, but I have been influenced by the same Protestant revival that has been voiced most forcefully in America by Reinhold Niebuhr. That is to say, I have rejected the nineteenth-century belief in every man as his own Messiah, along with the other aberrations of that century’s individualism; and have accepted again the doctrine of Original Sin, in the sense that man is fallible and limited, no matter what his social system, and capable of finding completion only through humility before the love of God.[xx]

The cross-outs suggest that Matthiessen had no religion before he attended Yale, and that he was searching for the security of a clear, consistent set of rules. The rest of the statement is a grotesque Hume-style caricature of seventeenth-century left-wing Protestantism that is conflated with the most buccaneering irreligious capitalism and then made symbol for the entire nineteenth century. But he was “a radical democrat,” an admirer of Walt Whitman and Lenin (draft, p.10). In spite of its flaws, we should accept the Russian Revolution because “…the Russians have not been deflected from the right of all to share in the common wealth.” As for the disappointed libertarian Czechs, they really were moving toward socialism, despite apparent reverses. They should understand that

[Matthiessen:] Freedom can be gained and protected only by groups functioning together, with their sense of social responsibility as highly developed as their sense of individual privilege. That is what I understand by the definition of freedom as the recognition of necessity (FHE, 142).

In a passage that reiterated the primary thesis of American Renaissance (and derived from the aesthetic theories of Herder, Wordsworth and Coleridge), Matthiessen nostalgically described the role of art in primitive societies. Art best functioned as release:

[Matthiessen:] This knowledge is common in primitive societies where the role both of the medicine man and of the ritualistic priest or poet is to exorcise the evil spirit and to invoke the good spirit by naming them. The naming must be exact, and it requires all the magical skills of the artist, all his control over words to make them become one with the thing…the primitive exorcism by naming life even as it is in its worst moments, and thus releasing us from fear of the unnamed and unknown (FHE, 49).

Melville is not listed among the dark modern figures that provide a similar salutary catharsis: Hamlet, Schopenhauer, Leopardi, and Kafka. Matthiessen also distanced himself from fellow lecturer Lyman Bryson, who had criticized “mechanical Stalinists” and the “Hollywood mass producer” [sic] alike, both of whom were committed to “official versions of life” (draft, 66, FHE, 51-53). These statements, taken together and in tandem with American Renaissance, strongly suggest that Matthiessen was always frightened by the introspection and social inspection that discloses contradictions between signifiers and the signified, the critical process represented by Ahab’s leaps into the unknown, from light into darkness, into disillusion with father figures, thence into Pierre’s ambiguous choice to merge with Isabel, ambiguous not because of elusive or necessarily contaminated “truth,” but only with regard to the writer’s self-interest. Where would it all lead? Would the innocent be sacrificed in the effluent of righteous action? So Matthiessen preferred to melt into the mass and worship necessity.

He had been re-reading Moby-Dick: it was the book he most wanted to talk about in his trip to Europe; the emphasis on racial equality (that he had almost forgotten) had deeply moved him, but the auspicious beginning had been undermined by Melville’s submission to Ahab:

[Matthiessen:]…his ejaculation of the ‘divine equality’ among men was not borne out by what happened. Even the friendship between Queequeg and Ishmael was dwarfed and lost sight of in the portrayal of Captain Ahab’s indomitable will. The single individual, a law only to himself, treats his entire crew as mere appendages to his own ruthless purpose, and sweeps them all finally to destruction. No more challenging counter-statement to Emerson’s self-reliance had yet been written. No more penetrating scrutiny could have been made of the defects of individualism, of the tragedy that ensues when man conceives proudly of himself as pitted against the mass, instead of finding the fulfillment of his nature through interdependence with his fellow-men (FHE 36-37).

This characterization may not jibe with the text: Was Ahab pitted against the mass, or was that Ishmael’s and Starbuck’s reading? Melville’s long-suppressed annotations to Paradise Lost (along with remarks in his published letters and the not-so-muffled protest that he telegraphs throughout) indicated that he was writing under censorship; moreover he had no use for demagogues and mobs or frontier rowdiness and brutality. Melville’s marginalia strongly suggest that Ahab was the necessarily masked modern artist, the Promethean who would, however abandoned and mutilated by God and his fellows, stand alone if necessary, to speak truth to power; he was also speaking to posterity so that his less perceptive and more deferential fellows might one day be emancipated from illegitimate authority. Matthiessen’s Ishmaelite/Anglo-Catholic interpretation of Ahab’s motives rhymed exactly with the picture of the cynical demagogue Hitler disseminated by his colleagues Henry Murray and Gordon Allport in their worksheets on morale (1941). In 1948, Matthiessen praised the student with Heart and buried the [Head] whose views of Ahab diverged from the official story:

[Matthiessen:] In the final session of our discussion group [in Czechoslovakia] Vladimir Kosina raised the topic, “What is there in Moby Dick that would not have been written by anyone except an American?’ Several ideas were picked up from our earlier sessions: the author’s immersion in everyday experience, the union of work and intellect that we had found in Thoreau, Whitman’s kind of belief in the common man. One girl felt that Ahab was a thoroughly American hero in his determination, no matter what the obstacles, to do what he set out to do…. Some sentences from these students’ final essays were very impressive. Bohumil Seidl, after analyzing the basis for Ahab’s tragedy and finding it in the absolute ruthlessness of will that mistook its own desires for divine command, concluded: “The central moral problem in Moby Dick, the relation between will and feeling, particularly appeals to us who, not long ago, had opportunity to experience the disastrous consequences of a strong will in Germany, the will to power, surrounded by mythology and absolutely shorn of human feeling”[xxi] (my emph.).

The one unnamed girl who read Ahab as a positive figure is barely visible because Matthiessen preferred corporatist formulations of the causes of World War II, in Bohumil Seidl’s “very impressive” instance blatantly identifying a nation of American Ahabs with Nazi Head people. For Heart people, triumphant fascism as the outcome of class conflict, economic crisis, Stalinist tactics, and appalling sectarianism in the German Left is invisible.[xxii]

Such confusion is consistent with the counter-Enlightenment views of T.S. Eliot, Matthiessen’s ideal of positive intellectuality (though he later disavowed Eliot’s refusal of social action, FHE, 82). Matthiessen, like Mumford, Olson, and Thorp before him, was supporting the Tory “Melville” they inferred from the later texts. Ersatz critical tools left them helpless in the face of preventable disasters. “Starbuck” was periodically depressed. The conclusion to the life of Matthiessen was a leap from the twelfth floor of a Boston hotel room in 1950.[xxiii] Harvard English professor Kenneth Murdock wrote to Perry Miller after Matthiessen’s suicide:

[Murdock:] Matty’s nervous depression had been growing steadily more intense all winter, and he seemed to have lost any ability to conquer it by will. His friends urged him to see doctors, but he could not bring himself to do so, and I’m afraid his last months were spent in great anguish and loneliness. His friends did everything they could to help him, but he found it more and more difficult to see people and, I suppose, contributed to his final collapse by keeping steadily at work on his writing and sparing himself nothing. [xxiv]

[Added 12-29-10: Matthiessen’s lover Russell Cheney died after the war, exacerbating the depression “Matty” had experienced during the late 1930s.]   The Harvard community of humanists, with all their erudition and accumulated wisdom, could neither help their friend nor in any rational manner explain the horrendous conflicts of this century. In the war between passion and reason, passion won out; Matty lacked the self-control that would moderate his austerity. His colleague William Ellery Sedgwick (1899-42) had earlier (probably) committed suicide; his unfinished study Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind, edited by Sedgwick’s widow Sarah Cabot Sedgwick and Theodore Spencer, was published by Harvard in 1944. Henry Murray reported that Mrs. Sedgwick blamed Melville’s Pierre for her husband’s death. But an unpublished poem by Sedgwick, “The Dark House,” suggests that Tory anti-intellectualism was the symptom of excessive self-denial in the service of class rule. It bred despair, isolation and emptiness, not the camaraderie and sane amelioration that the Heart people had professed. This is the poem as written in Sedgwick’s hand: [xxv]

Scribners 1932-36

Stands in the darkness

on the stairs

of the dark house

a life so young–he stands there

tiptoe to question;

stands in the darkness on a stair

makes tentative the silence there.

and near him there

(no where)

chipped by a clock

bright moments fly


are there only dark hours

and he waits for me.

Across the obscure accumulation of my days

and undecided ways

he waits.

And I’ll not come;

out of the emptiness I’d bring

I should not answer anything.

P.C.  Where I have been he is;

Where I shall be, he is before

and where he asks no more.

The questing Enlightenment mind lives with ambiguity and uncertainty: formulations of moral action in a secular world are necessarily experimental and provisional; we adjust received notions of morality to things as they really are, and the things might be strange indeed, nutty enough to merit structural transformations. While Melville found this lively habit of mind excitingly adventuresome (though it also gave him pause), these were exactly the “tragic” qualities that made Sedgwick and Matthiessen nervous. Similarly, “uncertainty” was the deadly enemy to social coherence in the worksheets devised by Murray and Allport to boost civilian morale before and after the war, even as they affixed the word “provisional” to their specific recommendations. Hitler felt the same way, and devised his theory of propaganda to forestall ambiguity, for this greyness made it impossible to mobilize support for wars to save the planet from Jewish or German Objektivitätsfimmel, the brain-buzz or craze for objectivity that made it hard to establish the harmonious “people’s community,” reunited because rescued from vertiginous, Jewishly instigated, internal contradictions. In his own words, Hitler explained that he was simplifying but not falsifying his messages; the masses were too irrational to cope with the finer points of such pivotal issues as German responsibility for the Great War. This congruence between Nazi and American propaganda was not concealed by Murray and Allport. Indeed, they imitated (almost) the totalizing propaganda of the Nazis:

[Worksheets, Murray and Allport:] The propaganda campaign must be based on a total view of the situation, expressed in an ideological language almost as inclusive as that of the Communists or the Nazis themselves. From the perspective of this ideology, all specific news items should be interpreted, so that they acquire significance beyond themselves and are seen as part of a coherent drama of dynamic forces. Radio programs of propaganda and propaganda leaflets should not be showered off hit or miss; perhaps at cross-purposes, and probably without effect, but should converge upon the master interpretation of the forces involved in the war. Only with a definite rationale, adhered to over a long period of time, can our propaganda have a cumulative effect and thus finally play an important role in the defeat of the enemy (p.2, worksheet on Psychological Warfare).

Harvard professors of American history and literature were joined to American, Nazi, and Communist social pathologists in their pedagogy of the paranoid sublime, the good fight between godly faith and demonic disbelief. But theirs was the destructive method they consistently attributed to wicked Ahab and the equally adolescent Pierre whose universalist ethics the corporatists had transmuted to absolutist domination while disseminating their own, preferred, “master interpretation.” By contrast with Ahab and Pierre, Matthiessen and his counterparts were pluralists of the blood and soil variety. Like Murray and Allport, Matthiessen wished for a modicum of diversity-with-integration, not fusion; we should rewrite our history. Concurring in the important revision of American nationality advanced by Randolph Bourne (1916) and Horace Kallen (1924), Matthiessen urged that the cultural domination of the old Anglo-Saxon elites be repudiated, and moreover:

[Matthiessen:] By making Americans more aware of the diversified strains from which we have come, it would enable us to know more about the rest of the world, and it could help to provide us with the international understanding we so much need now in fulfilling our unaccustomed but unavoidable role as a world power (FHE, 125-126, my emph.).


[i]               104. “Economic determinism” as used by the moderates studied here does not refer to an economic model that neglects the force of religion or other ideas in history. Rather, it signifies the ideas of the “mechanical materialists”:  the philosophes who spawned the mob-driven French Revolution. See Harry Hayden Clark, Thomas Paine, 1944. Clark’s consensus-building project is clearly directed toward separating Paine from the radical Enlightenment and from radical puritanism, while making him the standard bearer of American idealism and cultural freedom. Clark asks the reader to scrutinize Paine’s writing where he will discover Paine’s belief in science as revelation of natural order and harmony, rhyming exactly with the goals of progressive New Dealers (though the analogy is never exactly drawn). Readers could substitute the Axis powers for Paine’s Tory Britain or ancient Hebrew royalists.

[ii]               105. See the admiring essay by New Leftist George Abbott White, “Ideology and Literature: American Renaissance and F.O.Matthiessen,” Literature in Revolution, eds. George Abbott White and Charles Newman (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1972), 430-500, in a volume dedicated to Matthiessen; White attempts to separate him from other New Critics (considered today to be conservative).

[iii]              106. Merton M. Sealts to me, 20 June 1987. Sealts, a Stanley Williams student, is one of the leading Melvilleans and the scholar who completed the Olson project to reconstitute Melville’s library. Sealts, however, denies that he was a New Critic, but eclectic: “…my approach to…”I and My Chimney” combined the biographical orientation then current among Melvilleans with the new discipline of close reading (picked up from New Criticism) and an interest in symbolism deriving from such critics as Eliot and Wilson Knight.” Cf. Robert Spiller’s review of  Matthiessen’s book in American Literature 13 ( Mar.-Jan.1941-42): 432-435. Spiller commended his critical method which reconciled aestheticism and historicism through organic form (“a modern functionalism”). While advocating an extreme determinism (“masterworks” are entirely caused by (great?) “social and philosophical forces”), Matthiessen had rescued artists and literary history from the economic determinists: “those historians who evaluate literature in terms of its content of communism, agrarian democracy, Puritanism, materialistic determinism, or other borrowed ism. The central pole of reference is esthetic significance.” But see H. Lark Hall, V.L. Parrington: Through the Avenue of Art (Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press, 1994) where Parrington’s views are linked to those of Henry Adams, Randolph Bourne and other native born radicals (i.e. the corporatists described in my study).

[iv]              107. F.O. Matthiessen Papers, Box 6, Houghton Library, Harvard University. These sentences ended his Introduction to Herman Melville Selected Poems (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1944), a work dedicated to the late William Ellery Sedgwick. The published version changed the word “heart” to “mind.” Cf. the NEH project proposal for a Documentary Film on the Life and Work of Herman Melville, authored by George H. Wolfe. In a letter of 12 Feb. 1979 Wolfe (of the University of Alabama) asked Jay Leyda to join consultants Richard H. Fogle, Harrison Hayford, and Howard Vincent. The NEH application states that the film will treat “Melville’s relentless search to unravel the meaning of meaning and the nature of good and evil…his brilliant examination of the human condition…For Melville is concerned with nothing if not with the way men make ethical choices (and live with the results), engage life fully (or fail to), and deal with the ambiguous possibilities of good and evil in human affairs…his cosmic debates with himself about the nature of man. These interior battles bisect his life and work until finding some sort of odd solace in the final brilliance of Billy Budd.” That social cohesion was on Wolfe’s mind is indicated by his definition of Melville’s context: formation, dissolution, reformation of union. The proposal also mentions a third narrative voice, Lizzie, who will provide information about “Herman’s black moods, his monomaniacal writing habits, the state of his health, the progress of his literary works, his finances, and so forth.” Nathaniel Hawthorne is the most important single influence on Melville’s art; the Bible and Milton are not mentioned. See Leyda Papers, NYU.

[v]               108. Cf. The Harvard Report, General Education in a Free Society, 1945, 110-115. Matthiessen is mentioned in the acknowledgments as having either aided the Harvard Report or served on a sub-committee. Their recommendations for methods in high school teaching of English (“language and literature”) include these vague yet balanced strictures meant to emancipate students from both ignorance and faction-making critical habits: “Among prevailing trends to be discouraged in the study of literature, it would list: Stress on factual content as divorced from design. Emphasis on literary history, on generalizations as to periods, tendencies and ready-made valuations–in place of deeper familiarity with the texts. Strained correlations with civics, social studies. Overambitious technical analysis of structure, plot, figurative language, prosody, genre. Use of critical terms (Romanticism, Realism, Classical, Sentimental) as tags coming between the reader and the work. Didacticism: lessons in behavior too closely sought. These dangers are familiar to reflective teachers, as are their opposite extremes: Superficial reading of too much, with no close knowledge of either the content or its import. Lack of any aids to the understanding of what is being read. Indifference to or ignorance of techniques of literature. Avoidance of critical terms and appraisals when the student is ready for them. Irresponsible attitude to the implications of what is being read.” The authors then recommend “abridgement and selective editing” to make great works accessible to general readers. Imagine the “moderate” reader of this report, asked to determine what is too much or too little in her interventions.

[vi]              109. See Charles H. Foster, “Something In Emblems”: Citing Gilbert Haven and Hon. Thomas Russell, Father Taylor, The Sailor Preacher (Boston: H.B. Russell, 1872), especially Chapter XV, “In Reforms,” Foster argued that Taylor (originally a Virginian brought up among slaves) went back and forth on the abolition question and was an unlikely model for the ultra-abolitionist Mapple. But as the nineteenth-century authors (one a minister, the other Collector of the Port of Boston) more precisely put it, “…he shot back and forward between the contending hosts and ideas, faithful alike to his two central forces,–love of ideal truth, love of organic form. Truth must not shatter form: organism must not stifle truth” (250). Here is the double-bind constantly encountered and identified by Melville as I have argued throughout. Yet Taylor could not stomach the Fugitive Slave Act. His biographers report this conversation: “…just after the passage of the “Fugitive Slave Law,” he was standing at the door of the Methodist Bookstore, No.5 Cornhill, and Rev. Thomas Whittemore, the leading Universalist preacher, who was a very strong abolitionist, was passing. “Well,” said Father Taylor,” Brother Whittemore, are you and I going to turn slave-catchers and do the dirty work of these miserable man-thieves?” “No, said Mr. Whittemore, very indignantly. “No, no!” “No, no!” said Father Taylor, with greater emphasis, clapping him warmly on his back: “we’ll see them all in hell first; won’t we, Brother Whittemore?” (253-254).

Melville’s conservative narrators fit comfortably into the popular evangelical protestant culture of his day. The Bethel Church was funded by members of the Unitarian merchant class of Boston, and its purpose was conversion and moral uplift, not the politicizing of the sailor congregation. Taylor, a former sailor and circuit-rider, ardently defended Church and State (laws were inevitably imperfect, being the creation of devil-infested man, 175). With the example of successful mutinies before them (192), captains were asked to sacrifice their natural propensities to tyrannize sailors; while sailors were asked by Taylor, ever the temperance crusader, to give up drink and promiscuity (that were not only impoverishing their wives and children, but infecting and debauching heathen populations that missionaries sought to Christianize), to adhere strictly to duty, with a blissful heavenly reward in sight. One observer, John Ross Dix, described the one painting in the Bethel that transmits the message: “[The Church] is small and neat,–the only ornament being a large painting at the back of the pulpit, representing a ship in a stiff breeze off a lee shore, we believe; for we are not seaman enough to be certain on this point. High over the mast-head are dark storm-clouds, from one of which a remarkably small angel is seen, with outstretched arms, –the celestial individual having just flung down a golden anchor bigger than itself, to aid the ship in its extremity, we presume, although there is attached to the said anchor but a few inches of California cable, which for any practical purpose would not be of the slightest use. However, we must not be critical on allegories; and perhaps many a sailor now on the great deep has pleasant recollections of the picture: if so, a thousand such anachronisms might well be pardoned” (357-358). Another sailor-preacher, Enoch Mudge, was suggested by Jay Leyda as the source for Father Mapple (see below). The Historical Note to the N/N Moby-Dick, discussing the paucity of real-life models for Melville’s characters, names a sailor, Backus, as the source for Pip, then states “(The only convincing exception is Father Mapple, for whom Father Edward Taylor of Boston supplied more than a hint)” (636). We are not told why the editors are convinced. In his Melville biography, Hershel Parker mentions both Mudge and Taylor, but does not specify their politics.

[vii]             110. Matthiessen was quoting Emerson.  Haven and Russell, Father Taylor, are unclear on the integration question. One observer, pro-abolitionist Harriet Martineau, saw segregation at Bethel: “There is one great drawback in the religious services of his chapel. There is a gallery just under the roof for persons of color; and ‘the seed-carriers of the world’ are thus countenanced by Father Taylor in making a root of bitterness spring up beside their homes, which, under his care, a better spirit should sanctify. I think there can be no doubt that an influence so strong as his would avail to abolish this unchristian distinction of races within the walls of his own church; and it would elevate the character of his influence if the attempt were made” (348-49). However, Stevens, historian of the Methodist Episcopal Church, describes the perfect missionary with a different scene: “In a spacious and substantial chapel, crowded about by the worst habitations of the city, he delivered every sabbath, for years, discourses the most extraordinary, to assemblies also as extraordinary perhaps as could be found in the Christian world. In the centre column of seats, guarded sacredly against all other intrusion, sat a dense mass of mariners,–a strange medley of white, black, and olive,–Protestant, Catholic, and sometimes pagan, representing many languages, unable probably to comprehend each other’s vocal speech, but speaking there the same language of intense looks and flowing tears. On the other seats, in the galleries, the aisles, and the altar, and on the pulpit stairs, crowded, week after week, and year after year (among the families of sailors, and the poor who had no other temple), the élite of the city, the learned professor, the student, the popular writer, the actor, groups of clergymen, and the votaries of fashion, listening with throbbing hearts and wet eyes to the man whose chief training had been in the forecastle, whose only endowments were those of grace and nature, but whose discourses presented the strangest, the most brilliant exhibition of sense, epigrammatic thought, pathos, and humor, expressed in a style of singular pertinency, spangled over by an exhaustless variety of the finest images, and pervaded by a spiritual earnestness that subdued all listeners; a man who could scarcely speak three sentences, in the pulpit or out of it, without presenting a striking poetical image, a phrase of rare beauty, or a sententious sarcasm, and the living examples of whose usefulness are scattered over the seas” (367). Significantly, the authors compare Father Taylor to Wordsworth’s Peter Bell (437). I am reminded of Melville in his conservative mood, situated as a stylist in the culture of popular evangelical religion.

[viii]             111. Matthiessen had already set this up earlier on page 426, following a portion of Ahab’s quarter-deck speech rendered in blank verse with the statement, “Starbuck’s meditation opens the next chapter: “My soul is overmanned…” He has excised the chapter “Sunset.”

[ix]              112. See my discussion of Melville’s Milton annotations above and their relevance for Ahab’s probable allusion to Eve, addressed by Satan as “Queen of this Universe.” Matthiessen is contradicting his response to Olson’s draft essay, that Melville could not have lacked the tragic sense.

[x]               113. Willard Thorp, Representative Selections, xci,cxviii.

[xi]              114. Rolfe has been taken by corporatist Melvilleans to be Melville’s true voice in Clarel.

[xii]             115. Matthiessen uses the word “inexorable” to sting Mapple’s and Ahab’s “inexorable self” that stands up to illegitimate authority.

[xiii]             116. Cf. Olson, M.A. Thesis, quoted above; also the chapter on Dana in D.H. Lawrence, Studies In Classic American Literature (New York: Seltzer, 1923). Matthiessen flunks White-Jacket as art: of all Melville’s early too-concrete works, it is “[the] most heavy and diffuse through its number of surface details.” When the right-wing modernists looked for equilibrium between matter and spirit, the lurking model giving specifity to their abstraction was the “dynamic equilibrium” between master and man, characterized by “reciprocity” before the rule of capital destroyed such bonds.

[xiv]             117. Henry W. Wells, “Herman Melville’s Clarel,” College English 4 (May 1943): 478-483; “An Unobtrusive Democrat: Herman Melville,” South Atlantic Quarterly 43 (Jan. 1944): 46-51.

[xv]             118. But see H.M. Bossard to Olson, 26 Mar. 1938, giving him the reference he requested on Jung’s analysis of Hitler, “Wotan: a psychologist explores the forces behind German fascism.”

[xvi]             119. Page references are to Thorp, Literary History of the U.S. (New York: Macmillan, rev. ed.,1974). Melville tried to reform the missionaries in his first works; by the late 1850s, in his lecture “The South Seas,”he advised Americans to leave primitives alone until the “civilized” had reformed themselves. Thorp’s Christian Socialist account would support the aims of the internationalism of the postwar upper-class peace movement by rebuking Pierre’s excessive idealism and rejection of pragmatism. See Thorp Representative Selections, xxxviii; Thorp, Literary History, 470. The strange union refers to the living arrangements of Pierre and Isabel (later joined by Lucy) in the city.

[xvii]            120. See Carol Gruber, Mars and Minerva; also The Report of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission to the Senate and House of Representatives, June 1939 which stated “For more than 50 years, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the US, has been recognized by our citizens not only for the outstanding part which he took in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, itself, not only for his authorship of the Virginia Statute for religious freedom, but also for the services he rendered in establishing the practical operation of the American Government as a democracy, and not an autocracy.”

[xviii]           121. I am not claiming a moral equivalency between the New Deal and fascism or Soviet communism; state murder is not the same as marginalization or unemployment or amnesia. As I have argued throughout, while diffuse anxiety and self-censorship characterizes postwar American culture, libraries remain open, though access to state secrets is still limited, with the result that conspiracy theories further pathologize our political culture.

[xix]             122. See Donald Davidson, “Where Are The Laymen? A Study in Policy-Making,” American Review 9 (Sept. 1937): 456-481. Davidson was protesting against mushrooming independent citizen policy groups in the South, loosely allied with, but also critical of, the Roosevelt administration. Davidson derisively typed these fact-finders as either neo-abolitionists or as top-down social planners. Scientific industrial society had destroyed the capacity of Jeffersonian democrats to participate in the major decisions of their lives. The New Left phrase “participatory democracy” may be indebted to such 1930s agrarian thought, proudly professed by Davidson as “fascist.”

[xx]             123. “From the Heart of Europe,” “revised early draft 2,” p. 10, Box 6, Matthiessen Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University. See From The Heart of Europe (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1948), 82. In 1937, Reinhold Niebuhr had written “…religion is forced to tell many little lies in the interest of a great truth, while science inclines to tell many little truths in the interest of a great lie. The great truth in the interest of which many little lies are told is that life and history have meaning and the source and the fulfillment of that meaning lie beyond history. The great lie in the interest of which science tells many little truths is that spatio-temporal realities are self-contained and self-explanatory and that a scientific description of sequences is an adequate analysis of causes.” “The Truth in Myths” is reprinted in Gail Kennedy, ed., Evolution and Religion: The Conflict Between Science and Theology in Modern America (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1957): 94.

[xxi]             124. Matthiessen, From The Heart of Europe, 182-183. Sidney Kaplan, a liberal Melville critic and Leyda admirer, criticized  Eleanor Metcalf’s politics but commended Matthiessen’s “wonderfully eloquent and (last) words on Melville” in a letter to Leyda 21 July 1950. Commenting on the difficulties of Benito Cereno, Kaplan wrote,I do intend to examine the whole Melville canon, including the Civil War writings. Warren, Hettinger and Arvin leave much to be said. Some time ago Mrs. Metcalf wrote me that the only thing of interest she had was a presentation copy of Battle Pieces from Melville to his wife…and a brick from Malvern Hill. “If what you write,” she added, “gives a wider circulation to the prose appendix to Battle Pieces, that in itself would be a great service to his memory and fine contribution to the thinking and feeling of these torn days.” I fear I shall disappoint her there; I am not sure that the appendix was or is worth much as a moral-political document. It has the alarming odor of Bennett’s Herald. As you suggest, however, I shall try to see Mrs. Metcalf and talk with her.”

[xxii]            125. But see Leo Marx, “Double Consciousness and the Cultural Politics of F.O. Matthiessen,”Monthly Review 34 (Feb. 1983): 34-56. Marx believes that his teacher’s critical achievement (the recognition of contradictions) helped overcome the regnant organicism: “It signalled the virtual disappearance of the older complacent idea of our national culture as an essentially homogeneous, unified whole” (40). In my research, I have found no such complacency or sense of unity.  Marx discusses the context of Matthiessen’s suicide: personal loss (his lover Russell Cheney had died in 1945), and political persecution exacerbating a history of depression. By contrast, one prominent New Americanist critic sees Matthiessen as a consensus builder, papering over social conflict. See Donald Pease, Moby Dick and the Cold War,” The American Renaissance Reconsidered, ed. Walter Benn Michaels and Donald E. Pease (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985): 113-155.

[xxiii]           126. Cf., Henry W. Wells, The American Way of Poetry (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1943): 86; Wells (a founding member of the Melville Society) discusses Clarel as a revelation of America: “The section of Book One devoted to [the judaizing Nathan’s] past gives a vivid and circumstantial picture of many aspects of American life. Nathan’s pioneering family after migrating from Maine settled at last on the Illinois prairie. Here Nathan came into imaginative touch with the land on which he worked and with the Indian aborigines who preceded him. As a thinker he felt the force, in turn, of Tom Paine’s rationalism, of a narrow and fanatical sectarianism, of a transcendental nature-worship, and of the puritanical variety of Hebraism. This section of only ten pages constitutes a really remarkable epitome of no small part of America’s social and intellectual history.”

[xxiv]           127. Kenneth Murdock to Perry Miller, 12 Apr. 1950, Perry Miller Papers, Harvard University Archives.

[xxv]            128. W. Ellery Sedgwick Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University. There is another version, typed by Sedgwick’s colleague Theodore Spencer. I do not know the meaning of the line “Scribners 1932-36,” or the prefix P.C. which precedes the last verse which is written on the reverse of the page. Neither of these appears in the Spencer version.

November 15, 2009

“…and was this little boy YOU?” (2)

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Image (91)I. Here is an excerpt from chapter two of my book/collage, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001, 2006). Gordon Allport collaborated with Harvard colleague Henry A. Murray to create programs of “civilian morale” that were nationally disseminated to progressive organizations. I presented these quotes to illustrate the double-binds that Melville exposed in such works as Pierre, or The Ambiguities (1852).

[Richard Evans to Gordon Allport:] Since most of our students [at Harvard] begin the study of psychology by reading Freud, it might be profitable to begin by hearing your reaction to some of Freud’s ideas and work. I understand you actually met Freud on one occasion, and I wonder if you would tell about this meeting.

[Gordon Allport:] My one encounter with Freud did not turn out to be very significant for my professional development, but I’ll tell the story briefly. Not long after I finished college, I found myself in Vienna where Freud was not as renowned as he became later. At any rate, I wrote him a note announcing that I was in Vienna, and that he no doubt would be very glad to know it. He was very courteous and sent me a hand-written note inviting me to his office at a stated time. So I went to the famous Burggasser office which was papered in red burlap and decorated with pictures of dreams. At exactly the appointed time, Freud opened the door of his inner office, invited me in smilingly, sat down, and said nothing. It suddenly occurred to me that it was up to me to have a reason for calling on him, but I actually didn’t have any. I was just curious.[i] I fished around in my mind and came up with an event which occurred on the tramcar on the way to his office that I thought would interest him. There had been a little boy about four years old who obviously had already developed a dirt phobia. His mother was a Hausfrau, well starched and very prim, and the little boy would say he didn’t want to sit there; it was dirty. He didn’t want that man to sit next to him; he was dirty. And so it went throughout the whole trip. I thought this might interest Freud since the phobia seemed to be set so early in this case. He listened till I finished; then he fixed his very therapeutic eyes on me and said, “and was this little boy you?” It honestly was not, but I felt guilty. At any rate, I managed to change the conversation. In thinking over the experience, it impressed me that Freud’s tendency was to see pathological trends, and since most of the people who came to see him were patients, it was natural that he’d think I was a patient and break down my defenses in order to get on with the business. Actually, he mistook my motives in this case. Had he said to himself that I was a brassy American youth imposing on his good nature and time, he would have been fairly correct. But to ascribe my motivation to unconscious motives as he did in this case was definitely wrong. As I thought over the experience in subsequent years, it occurred to me that there might be a place for another type of theory to account for personality and motivation. (my emph.)

[Allport reflecting upon the 1950s concerns with conformity:] I’m inclined to think that the challenge to the healthy person is to learn to play the game where necessary, to meet the requirements of the culture, and still to have integrity, to maintain some self-objectification, and not to lose his personal values and commitments. It becomes more and more difficult to do, but I believe it can be done. It implies that the personality of the future will operate under more of a strain, but we don’t know yet what the actual potentiality of human development can be. We may be able to eat our cake and have it too by playing the organization game while remaining the individual of integrity and personal commitment.[ii]

Gordon Allport


I have attempted to create a political context for the controversies surrounding the life and art of Herman Melville. Ahab became “Melville” in institutions held to be implicitly critical and self-critical, but where the perimeters of dissent were not always explicitly delineated, or where “individuality” was flaunted in one breath, taunted in the next. The consequence was the construction of a crumbling national monument to American literature, unable to withstand the delegitimating gaze of its radical critics suspicious of claims to unbounded cultural freedom in the playgrounds of the new social sciences. [end book excerpt]

II. Anyone who has survived childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood knows that all professionals claiming the mantle of “science” are not equally competent and are never infallible. Still, they may cover up each other’s errors to protect themselves from the wrath of clients when and if they do mess up. I am saying this because of the furor over the Nidal Hasan jihad, and the blame being assigned to “psychiatry” and related fields in mental health as somehow culpable on account of an innately flawed methodology.

As I showed in my blog on the 1920s pseudo-Freudians, the unconscious mind, held to be the invention of Papa Freud himself, was probably the realm of the lower orders, whose success in American was dependent on accepting the definitions of harmony and conflict handed down by the Platonic Guardians of immigrant youth. Upon reflecting upon the gallons of wrathful ink spilled to discredit the founder of psychoanalysis, I believe his greatest sin was not his atheism (though that was a major crime for critics whose religion had purified themselves of original sin, death, and a future in hell), but his view of conflict. As I have shown on this website, the “progressives” either imposed harmony from above (a habit sometimes denounced by the pre-Freudian Herman Melville), or in the case of Freud, they objected to his notion that self-control was a constant struggle, and that childhood traumas and difficult relationships with the family of origin could leave permanent scars, manifesting themselves as neurotic anxiety (add to this depression), or a tendency to idealize objects (lovers and leaders, for instance). [This is a very crude and compressed summary of what I think Freud’s main argument was.]

Here are two currently relevant and useful examples from Freud’s contributions, and for those followers who have corrected his errors of emphasis and contributed to our understanding of such crucial matters as separation-anxiety for instance. (See my blog on Panic Attacks.)

1. Separating objective anxiety from neurotic anxiety. Anxiety is a common-sense approach to objective dangers in the world. When an opponent declares intentions to destroy oneself or one’s country, it is not neurotic to take steps in self-defense. But if one misreads those who make us anxious because some aspect of their appearance or conduct reminds us of hurtful parents or other intimates, we have to separate fantasy from reality. As long as the hurtful parent or mate or sibling remains “perfect” and always benevolent in memory, we cannot make the necessary separation from fantasy. Demagogues play upon this desire for the return of the perfectly protective parent and rescue us from enemies who may or may not be real antagonists. Hitler’s first speech as Chancellor  (Feb.10, 1933) with its introduction by Goebbels is an example of this technique: Goebbels and Hitler promised to millions the restoration of the conflict-free family, in his case understood to be “the people’s community” that was free of lying Jews and their lying press and their decadent Weimar Republic, the spawn of November 1918.

In chapter 7 of my Melville book, I show how powerful this longing for the perfectly happy “pluralist” family has been in the psyches of Melville’s revivers. Melville himself would vacillate between the explorer of “rifts” and the proponent of family harmony, sacrificing his own “mutinous” sensory perceptions and sense of individuality for their sake: see “Billy Budd” as an example.

2. Recognizing conflict that is susceptible to mediation or arbitration and not assuming that all conflict is reconcilable. In the case of irreconcilable conflict, one must either slug it out with hostile enemies, or tolerate real differences grounded in the material world of classes and genders, meanwhile scrutinizing one’s own contribution to conflict, for instance, in inconsistent or negligent parenting, or inattention to the rights and feelings of others. Where Allport or Talcott Parsons and the other functionalists went wrong was in assuming that “the system” could be manipulated by them and other experts so that “natural harmony” prevailed, and all conflict therefore, must emanate from outsiders, for instance the troublemaking (destabilizing) Jewish capitalist or communist. Freud would suffer from the same stigma—he became the outsider who created ruptures between past and present, who encouraged one to reconfigure the past, and to constantly revise one’s own view of personal and national histories with appropriate curiosity, then to take responsibility for misperceptions and to attempt to correct them in the future. What he did not advocate was excusing miscreants as the products of evil parents, but as moralist, he most certainly held “authority” responsible for abusing those in its care.  (to be continued)

[i] 101. I.e., for Allport, curiosity is a passion, not an aspect or component of reason. Cf. Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651, Part One, Chapter 6.

[ii] 102. Richard I. Evans, Gordon Allport: The Man and His Ideas (New York: Dutton, 1970), 4-5, 104. The interviews with Allport are undated. Nothing is mentioned about his work on civilian morale, though the role of the academic psychologist in society is briefly explored. The interviewer never asks Allport to reflect upon the possible influence of his intense (German) Protestant religious commitments upon his social ideas. That he was indeed religious was stated by a former student speaking from the floor in a memorial symposium (1969) two years after Allport’s death.

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