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

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 and .

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 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

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 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

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.

June 10, 2010

Herman Melville: Dead White Male


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

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

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

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

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

The suppressed materials include the following items:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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