The Clare Spark Blog

November 21, 2011

Cormac McCarthy vs. Herman Melville

Premodern Cormac McCarthy

[This is the second of two blogs on Cormac McCarthy: see]

At a bookstore in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a retired English professor friend of mine was offered a signed copy of McCarthy’s The Crossing for $1250. McCarthy does not sign his books any longer and apparently does not give interviews, except for this long piece for the New York Times, authored by Richard B. Woodward, which contains the following passage:

“Blood Meridian” has distinct echoes of “Moby-Dick,” McCarthy’s favorite book. A mad hairless giant named Judge Holden makes florid speeches not unlike Captain Ahab’s. Based on historical events in the Southwest in 1849-50 (McCarthy learned Spanish to research it), the book follows the life of a mythic character called “the kid” as he rides around with John Glanton, who was the leader of a ferocious gang of scalp hunters. The collision between the inflated prose of the 19th-century novel and nasty reality gives “Blood Meridian” its strange, hellish character. It may be the bloodiest book since “The Iliad.”

From the interview, we also learn that McCarthy is a cult figure, that Saul Bellow was on the McArthur Foundation committee that gave CM a “genius” award, financing the writing of Blood Meridian, and that the author is a reclusive “radical conservative”, born of a Catholic well-off family in Tennessee, the son of a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority. (Another source adds that his sisters were high achievers, and that his father was stern.)  Also that he prefers the company of scientists to writers, and that he is no fan of modernity, quotation marks or semicolons. For a more recent interview see, that elaborates on the father-son theme.

I would like to go on with a psychoanalytic meditation on this writer, especially the father-son dyad, but I don’t know him.* Instead, this blog is about the Melville-McCarthy connection, which is tenuous at best.  First, the notion that Judge Holden is a Nietzschean Superman, beyond good and evil, may have been gleaned from David Brion Davis’s Homicide in American Fiction (1957), wherein Captain Ahab was limned as a Nietzschean Superman. That was the year (Fall, 1957) I took Davis’s class in intellectual history at Cornell U., and I well remember his linking Hawthorne and Melville as the authors who brought back the conception of evil into American culture, which, presumably, had been overly optimistic about the possibilities of perfecting human nature, supposedly a core belief in American exceptionalism. Or so I infer, for Davis may have been thinking primarily about racism, or, with students, anti-colonialism: see, and my prior blog

But on the subject of Enlightenment optimism regarding human nature, consider this passage from Benjamin Franklin’s letter to Joseph Priestley (7 June 1782):

“…Men I find to be a Sort of Beings very badly constructed, as they are generally more easily provok’d than reconcil’d, more disposed to do Mischief to each other than to make Reparation, much more easily deceiv’d than undeceiv’d, and having more Pride and even Pleasure in killing than in begetting one another, for without a Blush they assemble in great armies at Noon Day to destroy, and when they have killed as many as they can, they exaggerate the number to augment the fancied Glory; but they creep into Corners or cover themselves with the Darkness of Night, when they mean to beget, as being ashamed of a virtuous Action….”

[Perhaps writing a novel is for the male, a similar generative act to be submerged in darkness– the powerless, demoralizing blackness that envelops today’s popular culture, whether it be gangsta rap, gangster movies, cultish vampire movies, recent movie versions of McCarthy’s books, or science fiction fantasies that end with the bad guys prevailing: see  Joss Whedon’s The Dollhouse, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, preceded by such antimodern classics as 1984 or Brave New World or Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork  Orange). In academe, the same tone is set in Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, that is elaborated in McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic tale The Road (2006).]

Second, return to Captain Ahab’s supposed amorality. He is nothing like Judge Holden, who is a  Nietzschean amoralist, even a Foucaldian, as these lines from Blood Meridian demonstrate:

“Might does not make right, said Irving. The man that wins in some combat is not vindicated morally. [Holden responds:] “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak….” [p.250, quotation marks not in original.]

On the most superficial level, perhaps, it may be said that Blood Meridian is some kind of homage or rereading of Moby-Dick (or even Joyce’s Ulysses). There are compound words, neologisms, and an often nauseating text. It starts with three quotations that correspond only roughly with the “Extracts,” there is an epic journey, in which most of the characters perish, and there is an Epilogue. But in Melville’s allegory, the first edition (published in England) not only lacked any survivors whatsoever, but ended with the Extracts, and these pages of quotations in turn ended with a Whale Song,[i] certainly to be taken ironically: “Oh the rare old Whale, mid storm and gale/ In his ocean home will be/ A giant in might, where might is right,/ And King of the boundless sea.”

Alleging that Ahab’s sin consists in his hubris, with Ahab believing 1. That truth exists; or 2. That he can extirpate evil from the world, has been one theme in scholarly and popular misreadings of the text. Surely, the Ahab as Superman reading by David Brion Davis must have been based in a common postwar belief (initiated by Charles Olson, then F. O. Matthiessen) that Ahab was an anticipation of Hitler and Stalin, and moreover that Hitler was influenced by Nietzsche, is probably the source of Cormac McCarthy’s misconception of Melville’s great book.

I will say this on behalf of a McCarthy-Melville affinity. In his recent novel, The Road, McCarthy uses the word “secular” twice. This suggests to me that CM’s bleak books are laments for the supposed loss of faith in a “secular” world (an argument that some conservatives make in the culture wars). Without religion, humanity is out of control and on its death trip, the road to oblivion. After the Civil War, Melville wrote a long poem, Clarel, and, earlier,  in his journal of the trip to the Mediterranean and environs in 1857-58. But in the poem of 1876, Melville distanced himself from his most pessimistic characters, inter alia, masking himself beneath his Promethean, secularizing Jew, whereas McCarthy is silent, preferring to hide himself and his meanings in “mystery.” One has to wonder about that suicidal sister, a character that haunts McCarthy’s latest novel, still in process.

*From reading interviews and other journalistic materials, I think that McCarthy’s well-received novel, The Road, tells us a lot. CM had two failed marriages as a younger man. He is older than I am now, and in his third marriage, had a son John, who is described by his father as delivering much of the dialogue in the novel. I infer that this last novel expresses his fear of dying before John reaches manhood, hence his father will no longer be there to protect him. Although in Blood Meridian, the Indians are as depraved and bloodthirsty as the whites and Mexicans, Indians and frontiersmen alike know how to survive cold and hunger, and also how to make do with the detritus that “civilization” leaves behind. Hence the Southwestern garb that McCarthy wears in his cover photos, along with the amazing ingenuity of the father figure in The Road.

[Added, 12/12/11: While reading Claude Bowers’s The Tragic Era (1929), it occurred to me that the ruined Southern landscape under the occupation of Northern soldiers may have been part of the cultural memory transmitted by McCarthy’s family or his neighbors. (His family originated in the North, but moved to Tennessee, the home of Andrew Johnson, staunchly defended in the Bowers best-seller.) This would give an added resonance to The Road. For more on Bowers, see]

[i]Moby-Dick was the neglected masterpiece that most excited the 1920s Melville revivers and their successors; it was first published in England as The Whale; unlike the American edition that followed, the title page featured an epigraph connecting Milton’s fallen Satan with Leviathan, and its last words, “Whale Song,” were a final blast at the ancient doctrine that Might makes Right. Readers seeking to understand the dynamics of the Melville Revival should ask whether the Leviathan State was a good or bad thing in the twentieth century, and what entities and social forces made it what it came to be. ….” These are lines taken from my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 2001, rev.ed. 2006)

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

October 5, 2009

Charles Sumner, “moderate conservative,” on lifelong learning

Charles Sumner as sculpted by Anne Whitney

Readers of this website have shown interest in primary source materials, so I am posting my notes on the speeches of a founder of the Republican Party, Charles Sumner, the anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts, and later a “Black Republican” (i.e., an advocate of a far-reaching Reconstruction that would have transformed U.S. history). I took these notes from Sumner’s speeches up through the period that Herman Melville was writing Moby-Dick to demonstrate affinities between the thought of Captain Ahab’s and Sumner’s. (The bold-face headlines are taken from Melville’s own phrases or themes. Some notes from Jonathan Israel’s book on the Radical Enlightenment are also included because J. Israel’s idea of “free thought” is not the same as the empiricism and science that Sumner advocated. )

I ask my readers to compare the value placed on science, lifelong learning, and human brotherhood in Sumner’s speeches, which were also turned into pamphlets and commanded a broad following, at least in the North. What is significant as we contemplate the vacuousness of the current discourse on education (begun in the blogs on Arne Duncan’s statism), is the literacy that Sumner expected from his nineteenth-century audience. What “moderate” intellectuals today would dare to write for a popular audience with the expectation that the audience would read important books or share his passion for an excellent scientific and moral education? Also, note that “local control” in today’s debates over educational policies can signify resistance to Sumner’s conception of liberal nationalism. See my blog The Wikipedia article on Sumner is almost unremittingly hostile, like some of his contemporaries, blaming his moral intransigence for the Civil War.  (For an opportunistic (?) appropriation of Sumner, see, or more recently, Moreover, the cultural history establishment (social democrats all) have defined him as paranoid, as a hater or as harsh in his proposals for Reconstruction, though that may be changing.

[Added, 11/21/09: The roots of the Republican Party are not found in the Reagan administration, but in the pre-Civil War Republican Party, founded by such as Charles Sumner, the great proponent of modernity, and with Thaddeus Stevens after the war, opponent to those who would rehabilitate the Southern rebels, hence injuring the freedmen for decades. Had the “Black Republicans” prevailed, American history would have been transformed. The essay on Robert E. Lee, linked above, lays it out, with Melville’s postwar views on the fate of the freedmen suggesting a departure from his earlier anti-racism.]

MY NOTES:  CHARLES SUMNER, HIS COMPLETE WORKS With Introduction by Hon. George Frisbie Hoar [The bold-faced capitalized prefixes to Sumner’s speeches refer to Melville’s common phrases in his more advanced works.]
[Sumner, from “Fame and Glory.  An Oration Before The Literary Societies of Amherst College At Their Anniversary, August 11, 1847”, Works, Vol.2 (Negro Universities Press, NY, 1969] p.183 (on the cynical promotion of evil characters)
“  …our own English Dryden lent his glowing verse to welcome and commemorate a heartless, unprincipled monarch and a servile court. Others, while refraining from eulogy, unconsciously surrender to sentiments and influences, the public opinion of the age in which they live,—investing barbarous characters and scenes, the struggles of selfishness and ambition, and even the movements of conquering robbers, with colors to apt to fascinate or mislead. Not content with that candor which should guide our judgment alike of the living and the dead, they yield sympathy even to injustice and wrong, when commended by genius or elevated by success, and especially if coupled with the egotism of a vicious patriotism. Not feeling practically the vital truth of Human Brotherhood, and the correlative duties it involves, they are insensible to the true character and the shame of transactions by which it is degraded or assailed, and in their estimate depart from that standard of Absolute Right which must be the only measure of true and permanent Fame. (183)
…Such labors [promoting “the happiness of mankind”] are the natural fruit of obedience to the great commandments. Reason, too, in harmony with these laws, shows that the true dignity of Humanity is in the moral and intellectual nature, and the labors of Justice and Benevolence, directed by intelligence and abasing that part which is in common with beasts, are the highest forms of human conduct. (184)
[on p.185, he quotes Milton, Paradise Regained, Book III, 71-80, condemning war and conquest]


, pp. 211-212, Springfield Mass, Whig State Convention, Sept. 29, 1847. “Necessity Of Political Action Against The Slave Power And The Extension Of Slavery.”

(“Union Among Men Of All Parties Against The Slave Power And The Extension Of Slavery.” Speech Before A Mass Convention At Worcester, June 28, 1848). “[the Slave Power:] Lords of the lash and lords of the loom….” (233) p.234: “This [new coalition of antislavery men] will be the Freedom Power whose single object will be to resist the Slave Power. We will put them face to face, and let them grapple. Who can doubt the result?” [cf. Ahab, chapter 135: “…Towards thee I roll, thou all destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee….”]  Continuity with American Revolution, p.237. pp.238-239. [To our principled leader] we commit the direction of the engine. …Let Massachusetts, nurse of the men and principles that made our earliest revolution, vow herself anew to her early faith. Let her once more elevate the torch which she first held aloft, or, if need be, pluck fresh coals from the living altar of France, proclaiming, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,”–Liberty to the captive, Equality between master and slave, Fraternity with all men, –the whole comprehended in that sublime revelation of Christianity, the Brotherhood of Man. …the great cause of Liberty, to which we now dedicate ourselves, will sweep the heart-strings of the people. It will smite all the chords with a might to draw forth emotions such as no political struggle ever awakened before….”

DESCARTES AND LIFELONG LEARNING (“The Law of Human Progress. An Oration Before The Phi Beta Kappa Society Of Union College, Schenectady, July 25, 1848) quoting Descartes, “Discourse on Method” (1637): “In these new triumphs of knowledge, he says, ‘men may learn to enjoy the fruits of the earth without trouble; their health will be preserved, and they will be able to exempt themselves from an infinitude of ills, as well of body as of mind, and even, perhaps, from the weakness of old age.’ As I repeat these words, uttered long before the steam-engine, the railroad, the electric telegraph, and the use of ether, I seem to hear a prophecy, the prophecy of Science, which each day helps to fulfill. …There is grandeur in the assurance with which the great philosopher announces the Future. (258)


? Quoting Pascal (same essay), a repressed chapter in Les Pensées (first ed. 1669), “Of Authority in Matters of Philosophy”. “Not until the next century was the testimony of Pascal disclosed to the world. ‘By a special prerogative of the human race,’ says he, ‘not only each man advances day by day in the sciences, but all men together make continual progress therein, as the universe grows old; because the same thing happens in the succession of men which takes place in the different ages of an individual. So that the whole succession of men in the course of so many ages may be regarded as one man who lives always and who learns continually…. “(258-259)


“THAT UNIMPEACHED INTERPRETER OF THE PAST…” (p.271) (Post-Civil War, Melville wrote Clarel, distancing himself from his Promethean characters, Taji, Ahab, and Pierre. The geologic Jew Margoth is mocked by the other characters, but it is not clear if Melville shared their views.)


(P.271). “It is true, doubtless, that there are various races of men; but there is but one great Human Family, in which Caucasian, Ethiopian, Chinese, and Indian are all brothers, children of one Father, and heirs to one happiness. Though variously endowed, they are all tending in the same direction; nor can light obtained by one be withheld from any. [Melville agreed with this, though racial difference is hotly disputed today.] The ether discovered in Boston will soothe pain hereafter in Africa and in Asia, in Abyssinia and in China. So are we all knit together, that words of wisdom and truth, which first sway the hearts of the American people, may help to elevate benighted tribes of the most distant regions. The vexed question of modern science, whether these races proceeded originally from one stock, does not interfere with the sublime revelation of Christianity, the Brotherhood of Man. In the light of science and of religion, Humanity is an organism, complex, but still one,–throbbing with one life, animated by one soul, every part sympathizing with every other part, and the whole advancing in one indefinite career of Progress.”


“Thus ever has Truth moved on,–though opposed and reviled [by resistant conservatives, not the moderate ones], still mighty and triumphant. Rejected by the rich and the powerful, by the favorites of fortune and of place, she finds shelter with those who often have no shelter for themselves. It is such as these that most freely welcome moral truth, with its new commandments [i.e. abolition of slavery, C.S.]. Not the dwellers in the glare of the world, but the humble and lowly, most perceive this truth–as watchers placed in the depths of a well observe the stars which are obscured to those who live in the effulgence of noon. Free from egotism and prejudice, whether of self-interest or of class, without cares and temptations, whether of wealth or power, dwelling in the mediocrity and obscurity of common life, they discern the new signal, and surrender unreservedly to its guidance. The Saviour knew this. …[Let everyone embrace this new law (of progress) “It will give to all…a new revelation of their destiny”: Progress] will be as another covenant, witnessed by the bow in the heavens, not only that no honest, earnest effort for the welfare of man can be in vain, but that it shall send a quickening influence through uncounted ages, and contribute to the coming of that Future of Intelligence, Freedom, Peace we would now secure for ourselves, but cannot. (285-287)
OUT ON (caste) PRIVILEGES,” p.81(AHAB). “Equality Before The Law: Unconstitutionality Of Separate Colored Schools In Massachusetts. Argument Before The Supreme Court Of Massachusetts In The Case Of Sarah C. Roberts v. The City of Boston, December 4, 1849.” (vol.3, 51-100)  The term equality before the law is introduced in America for the first time: its precedents are Diderot, Condorcet, Declaration of Independence, and Massachusetts State constitution [Sumner should have included legislation in the Dutch Republic. C.S.]. (Editor’s comment: “…Shaw reduced it to very small proportions, when he said that it meant “only that the rights of all, as they are settled and regulated by law, are equally entitled to the paternal consideration and protection of the law for their maintenance and security.” This made it mean nothing; but such was the decision.” (The legislature repaired the error in 1855) On stigma of separation: (p.88) “The Jews in Rome are confined to a particular district known as the Jewish Quarter. It is possible that their accommodations are as good as they would be able to occupy if left free to choose throughout Rome and Frankfort; but this compulsory segregation from the mass of citizens is of itself an inequality which we condemn. It is a vestige of ancient intolerance directed against a despised people. It is of the same character with the separate schools in Boston.”


, the Faneuil Hall speech against the Fugitive Slave Bill as prompting his election as Senator (April 23, 1851), and the signal for break in the Union; pp.158-159 (editor’s comments, then quotation from London Times, May 24, 1851): “The election of Mr. Sumner to the Senate is everywhere regarded as an emphatic declaration, on the part of his own State, that the law is at least not to remain in its present form unassailed. The South responds to such an election by louder declarations of its resistance to all infractions on its local institutions, even at the sacrifice of the integrity of the Union.” (Sumner has succeeded Daniel Webster as spokesman for Massachusetts principles.)

Sumner’s Faneuil Hall speech: “Our Immediate Antislavery Duties. Speech At A Free-Soil Meeting At Faneuil Hall, November 6, 1850. (122-148, Vol. 3) Links the current struggle with Pilgrims and Revolutionary Fathers, resistance to Stamp Act. Shortly after this, Sumner is made Free-Soil candidate for Senator, and elected. [Lemuel Shaw upholds the Fugitive Slave Law in April, 1851. All these events take place before the completion of Melville’s Moby-Dick. See Michael Rogin, Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville, Chapter 4 “Moby-Dick and the American 1848”. Rogin, aware of the Shaw decision and of the label “monomaniac” applied to abolitionists, plays off the abolitionist Theodore Parker against Leviathan, viewing Ahab as an egotistical merchant capitalist enslaver of the working-class crew and interested only in his own power. There is no reference to Charles Sumner in the book. When Rogin wrote his book (published in 1983), the Melville annotations to Paradise Lost had not yet been revealed.

[Cf. Margoth. The following notes refer to Jonathan I. Israel, The Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001).] God’s decrees are Nature’s order. “Thus when in Genesis 9:13 God tells Noah He will set a rainbow in the clouds, this action is definitely nothing other, contends Spinoza, than the reflection and refraction of the sun’s rays in droplets of water in the sky.” The Bible exists to instill “wonder” and “piety in the minds of the multitude”, not search for truth. (221-222; also 246-47: his preoccupation with the rainbow). [Spinoza’s enemies equate atheists, scientists, and Jews: all are enemies of Christian Scripture.] [J. Israel, deploying Spinoza, is apparently arguing against empiricism and experimentation in favor of “a broadly correct, wider, theoretical and philosophical framework.” (249) Cite chapter 15, “Philosophy, Politics, and the Liberation of Man” for Radical Enlightenment stress on free speech and expression as opposed to freedom of conscience. [I think this is incorrect insofar as Spinoza is concerned. C.S.] References to Spinoza as “Jew”and fanatic, 503, 504, 537.

Samuel Clarke objects to freethinkers like Anthony Collins: “there could be no such thing as liberty or a power of self-determination.” P.616.  (Freethought for Israel means freedom to philosophize and speculate; Vico, a radical, believes that “the truth of the philosophers can never be the truth of the people and must remain segregated, excluded from the sphere of commonly held and publicly approved notions which underpin institutions, laws, and government.” P.668) Incredulous mechanical materialists are worse than the Jews, Mohammedans, or Idolators: (The Venetian scholar Concina, author of Theologia Christiana Dogmatico-Moralis, 1754) “The deists and spiriti forti of our days are incomparably more blind, obstinate, and more malign, that [sic] the Jews themselves.” P. 681 Concina’s hostility to Saint-Evremond, Toland, Collins, and Mandeville, p.682. Also pantheists like Epictetus.

Final words (in Jonathan Israel): (approving of “the general will”) “Spinoza, Diderot, Rousseau: all three ground their conception of individual liberty in man’s obligation to subject himself to the sovereignty of the common good.” (720) Cf. Lippmann, The Phantom Public. At a UC:A conference, I asked Prof. Israel to either declare himself a statist social democrat or to deny it, but he appeared nonplussed at my question. After reading Ayn Rand again, I could have been more confrontational.

September 17, 2009

Moderate Men and “Dirty” Jews, Part Two

dirtyjew[Daniel Macmillan on impudent Scots, 1837:] The discontent of the lower classes is most painful in itself in the form it takes, and the spirit it springs from. How different was the old Covenanter spirit. These Covenanters were most noble. They fought for God’s truth, and wished to rid the earth of whatever was an abomination to the Lord. Duty was the highest thing to them, and they struggled hard to obey its behest. Their boldness was not a brutal, vulgar, ignorant temerity, without reverence, without faith, but solemn and noble. I feel sure of this, notwithstanding Sir Walter’s graphic misrepresentations. I have often talked with some of the remnant of that old stock,–a few who still keep alive the holy flame,–and know what true refinement lies at the bottom of their noble natures. But, alas, that race is becoming quite extinct. The poor men, the mechanics, weavers, and the like in our towns, care not one farthing for the Covenant, or for those deeper matters of which the Covenant was a symbol. They know nothing about duty or faith, or God; they care only about their rights; they talk only about reform, universal suffrage, from which they look for justice and deliverance from oppression. They do not look up to God for help in the old-fashioned way. This may be a ‘progress of humanity,’ and all the rest of that jargon, but I, for one, cannot admire it.

[Henry James, The American Scene, 1907] Who can tell…in any conditions and in the presence of any apparent anomaly, what the genius of Israel may, or may not, really be “up to”?[1]

[Carleton Coon, a Harvard physical anthropologist, cautiously exhorts readers in a textbook published by Macmillan, 1939:]  The subject of racial intelligence has…not progressed far enough to merit inclusion in a general work of racial history; it has furthermore provided too ready a field for political exploitation to be treated or interpreted as a side issue with scientific detachment.  Races, in the present volume, are studied without implication of inferiority or superiority….The people who came to America, from the time of the Pilgrim Fathers to the imposition of the laws restricting immigration, were selected; none were fully representative of the countries from which they came.  In America they were subjected to environmental forces of a new and stimulating nature, so that changes in growth such as their ancestors had not felt for centuries produced strange, gangling creatures of their children.  In America we have before our eyes the rapid action of race-building forces; if we wish to understand the principles which have motivated the racial history of the Old World, it behooves us to pay careful attention to the New. [2]

Willful blindness in literary history?  Melville scholars have rarely seen the Captain Ahab/Cain/Wandering Jew connection.[3]  They are aware, however, that Benito Cereno and Billy Budd were translated into German and published in 1938, that Nazi censors accepted these stories into the House whose visual arts were judenrein–purged of cultural Bolshevist cubism, expressionism and Dada–the House that sponsored heroic vitalism [Grosshans, 1983], and that refused “problematic and unfinished work” [Hinz, 1979, 9]; furthermore Melvilleans have been told by Charlotte Mangold that Frederich Schönemann, an American Studies scholar at the University of Berlin and director of the first Melville dissertation in Germany), was a German patriot hostile to United States democracy.[4]  Nevertheless, Mangold’s disturbing opinions and research, like Melville’s Jewish problem, have generally been evaded, denied, minimized, or misunderstood, perhaps for the very good and simple and obvious reason that “the Melville problem” is “the Jewish problem,” indeed, as Julius Streicher made emphatic, “democracy” (i.e., America) is the Jewish problem.

How can organic conservatives maintain order in the face of “Jewish” skepticism and adherence to scientific method? Was Herman Melville struggling with “religious doubt” or with the problem of destabilizing science and organic conceptions of order? For the conservative narrator of Melville’s lengthy poem Clarel, a Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876),  Hebrew fanaticism was carried in the Judaised Christian Nathan’s Puritan blood; I suspect that Melville identified with all his brainy Jewish characters and Wandering Jews (including Captain Ahab, Isabel, Margoth, Nathan, and Mortmain) but postwar cultural politics must have made it difficult to mention, let alone analyze, Melville’s immoderate Jews and crypto-Jews.  The Melville scholars are not uniquely weak or cowardly; rather, we are dealing with a cultural taboo: making comparisons between the structures and cultures of “the western democracies” with Nazi or Soviet totalitarianism may exude the odor of insubordinate, pushy, meddling, and atypical English radical puritans (see Part One of this blog, epigraph from Edward August Freeman’s biographer, Rev. Stephens). Yet nothing is more American than the lusty empiricism, materialism, and libertarian hankering for democracy, self-knowledge, and self-management that I understand the radical liberals to have been advocating, values that have been transmuted into their opposites by conservative promoters of Anglo-American cultural hegemony, such as Edward Augustus Freeman and his friends the Macmillan brothers, founders of the great publishing house.

Here are the responses from three American scholars (widely respected for their sensitivity to anti-Semitism and other libertarian concerns in literature and politics) to my letter asking them to comment on Melville’s conceptions of his Jewish characters and related matters: with Fiedler (author of an important article in Commentary, “What Shall We Do About Fagin?”) I was concerned with growing anti-Semitism after WWII and the pressure he (and other Jewish radicals) must have been under in the attempt to expose antisemitic stereotypes in English literature; with Kazin, I wondered about Philip Rahv’s switch from Melville quasi-deprecator (1940) to Melville fan (1949). [5]

[Leslie Fiedler:] “Let me begin by saying that I do not consider Herman Melville, finally, an anti-Semite at all. He was as ambivalent on the subject of Jews as on so many others.  But I would finally agree with what Sholem Kahn said way back in 1957. [In Commentary, praising Clarel.]

“What I have been concerned about and writing about–the Partisan Review embrace of Melville, Hawthorne, James, etc.–has little to do with the subject that concerns you, though James was indeed an anti-Semite.  What troubled me was what I felt to be a contradiction between the radical politics and élitist aesthetics of that group.  The problem of “deradicalization” is more complex than you make it.  Not all of the people involved with Partisan Review, did, in fact, become deradicalized.

“In any case, I don’t think a fear of an attack on American Jewish radicals played a part.  The years after World War II were, in fact, a time of philo-Semitism.  As far as my own political development ever since is concerned, it has been too erratic and full of contradictions to be characterized by any conventional label.

“As a final word, let me suggest you try to read Clarel a little harder.  It is a difficult book, more involved with Melville’s relationship to his Christian heritage than to the Jews.” [April 3, 1987].

[Michael Rogin:]  “No doubt as a part of my general effort to rehabilitate Melville, I’ve avoided thinking about his use of Jews, except for some things I say in my book about the pyramids–and a little about Clarel.  But Clarel as a book I mostly avoided–and I see I am sending you this note on the date of your talk.  Wonderful title, wonderful subject.  But I don’t have anything to say on it.  Freud, yes, Marx, yes, Nietzsche yes, Arendt, yes, but not Melville.” [April 23, 1987.  My UCLA talk was entitled “Good Jews, Bad Jews, and Wandering Jews in Herman Melville’s Clarel.”]

[Alfred Kazin:] ” I don’t regard Melville as a ‘radical.’  I think he became more and more of a philosophic Tory–this after being a sort of conventional radical democrat (romantic period) in early works.  Melville’s views of Jews seem to me less interesting and significant in every way than his absorption in the Bible and his conflict with himself about religious questions.  Hawthorne’s portrait of HM in his journal–HM on way to Palestine–is the classic and unforgettable picture of Melville’s religious agonies, doubts, searchings, etc.  Melville, of course, did not know many or any Jews, so I find that question merely theoretical.

‘I never remember any views of Melville’s politics on Rahv’s part.  Rahv was such an intellectual Marxist to the end that he would not have understood the complexities of Melville’s very American views of democracy.” [8 July 87, Graduate Center, CUNY]

Such responses are typical.  Melvilleans seem oblivious to Melville’s fascination with the Wandering Jew; similarly they apparently are bored or repelled by crazy, simple-minded and destructive Isabel;[6] perhaps the Melville scholars have not thought hard enough about the Terror-Gothic style in life and art.  But I don’t think so.  The centenary of Melville’s birth, 1919, the “official” beginning of the Melville revival, is also the year that Hitler entered politics.  No one has wondered (in print) about the ways Melville-ism (the social lesson drawn from “Melville’s” life and art since 1919) has been drawn into the Titanic struggles of our century, in which contending ideologies all claim the soubriquet “progressive” and love the People.  Specifically, (some) Marxists and left-liberals anchored to rationalism, materialism, science, and class conflict as both descriptive and normative, compete with movements which, though not identical, share the conscious or unconscious romantic belief that a natural organicism, a rooted cosmopolitanism, will be restored with the rejection of “modernity”; i.e., the expulsion of (Jewish) hammers, (Jewish) machines, and (Jewish) money interest: [7]  These are corporatist liberalism, Italian Fascism, German National Socialism, and “New Age” or “Green” tendencies in the post 1960s counter-culture.

I am not suggesting that Melville was ever a proto-Nazi; people who resembled the aristocratic “Melville” (the conservative False Self) loathed the Hitler mob as vulgar upstarts and denounced “the Holocaust” just as “Tommo” condemned massacres of unarmed Indians.[8]  But Melville’s bad Jews are not limited to the “Hegelised” German-Jewish geologist Margoth (as Rolfe gathered from his physiognomy), or to the old orthodox Jewish men cursed by Clarel who blocked him from the rescue of the “good” Jewesses, Agar and Ruth, held captive by Nathan’s Zionism, and (perhaps) thwarting their conversion to the (less bigoted) Christianity and (perhaps) causing their untimely deaths.  The Wandering Jew, in his most lethal constructions, inhabits Melville’s imagination and Western culture.  Margoth “the apostate” yet “such a Jew” is no aberration, no inexplicable bout of bad taste.  Rather Margoth (like Banadonna, Daniel Orme and others) is the critical artist/scientist and Lockean materialist, the revolutionary bourgeois-becoming-god-knows-what, the radical puritan whose cultural practice mocks and delegitimizes organicist formulations of society and nature, turning gardens into wastelands, the Bible into a text among other texts. (For more on Margoth as symbol of modernity, desacralizing the Holy Land,  see prior blog “Margoth v. Robert E. Lee:

Afterward. In this two-part blog, I have dealt with mostly modern forms of antisemitism: the association of “the dirty Jews” with an anti-social love of filthy lucre (see the New Testament), the drive of “the Chosen People” toward domination of the entire world, and insolent, sometimes sub rosa, radicalism. In the footnotes, I have also reiterated the arguments of prior blogs, that many of today’s “anti-racists” carry a racialist discourse common to the counter-Enlightenment organic conservatives who have co-opted the term “progressives” and who, while professing their moderation, have evacuated the Enlightenment in a protofascist direction.

But there is a more subtle association of “dirt” with “the Jews,” and it has to do with the most basic precepts of Judaism. The High Holy Days are upon us, and it is the occasion when the Jew is obliged to take an inventory of his conduct during the past year. The harm done to others must be acknowledged, repented, and reparations made to the injured party. But such introspection is not confined to ten days of the year. Rather, it is a cultural pattern of many Jews, secular or religious, that s/he asks herself continually, “what if I am wrong in my opinions?” or “how do I know when my apparently benevolent behavior may have ulterior motives that are self-interested, and not at all generous?” The answers to this ongoing self-questioning are rarely  unambiguous and clear, but rather impure, unclean, and messy. Here is one possible source of the “dirtiness” that many hostile non-Jews, confident in their own moderation, purity and righteousness, ascribe to “the Jews.” And readers of my blogs may recall that Hitler found such dirty ambiguity and uncertainty intolerable. What of the millions who continue to admire him today? How do they intend to clean us up? for Part One of this series, see

Footnotes.  [1] Henry James, Collected Travel Writings: Great Britain and America (Library of America, 1993): 468.  See commentary by Alan Trachtenberg, “Conceivable Aliens,” Yale Review     42-64.

[2] Carleton Stevens Coon, The Races of Europe (New York: Macmillan, 1939): vii-viii, 652.  Cf. Lothrop Stoddard, Harvard Ph.D. urging readers in the early 1920s to stop “the revolt of the under-man”and the destruction of the white race by thinking “racially.”  Stoddard’s environmentalism is a “materialism” intended to displace empiricism: it is of course the same old conservative organicism; key words identify the pseudo-materialist discourse: “milieux,” “climate,” “roots” and “equilibria” used to describe social organization and relationships.

I want to draw a critical distinction between two kinds of merging; corporatists coerce harmony in the interests of ruling groups, while liberals merge the interests of humanity in the attainment of universal human rights. A society whose institutions are characterized by easily discernable class antagonisms, thus riven by multiple conflicts, will be molded by the corporatist leader into “the body politic” possessing consensus, legitimacy, and a “national character.” For the racialist thinker, nationalities or ethnic groups are talked about as if a conglomeration of contradictory institutions, classes, and individuals could become, in fact, one coherent body, The People. Language is deployed to arouse anxiety accordingly.

John Locke and other revolutionary modern thinkers (including the Freud of The Future of an Illusion) had a different model for human interactions, focusing on human resourcefulness and resilience, not weakness and vulnerability. The Radical Enlightenment thinkers, following Locke, stressed the need for insight into man-made political institutions; structures that were not to be confused with natural bodies. A person responds to the conditions of the natural and built environments with a more or less educated understanding, adapting to, or transforming the conditions (or leaving). The fearful isolation and relative helplessness of the individual, so pronounced in the irrationalist Charles Olson, is mitigated by social cooperation, shared knowledge, and social action. For the rationalists, individual or social progress is sometimes incremental, sometimes relatively sudden. But simply modifying the built environment would not instantly remove all forms of illegitimate authority to create a better human being or a better breed of wheat in one generation, as the Lysenkoists and other utopian social engineers imagined. These latter ‘environmentalists’ harkened to a more primitive social theory that supported irrationalist methods of persuasion to protect leaders from the surveillance of their constituencies. The two competing “environmentalisms” must be differentiated.

In his conception of the tabula rasa Locke had drastically modified the ancient Greek or Roman conception of environmentalism, which held that individuals and peoples were stamped or inscribed by climate, geography (“soil”) and culture–molded like a bit of clay. In the racialist discourse of today, such inscriptions are transmitted in “the blood” no matter where peoples or their progeny might travel. Necessarily opposing the Lockean model, which implied a fresh start for every newborn child and awesome responsibilities for its parents and other educators, the racial theorist could employ this older time-tested vocabulary of “blood and soil” to manipulate emotions, thus inducing physical responses in the audience. The unwary reader or listener would respond to dirty words, bad blood, environmental “molding” or any other evocation of “fallen flesh” with visceral revulsion or panic as if these words were germs or toxins: real threats to health and wholeness from the environment that had slyly infiltrated the body.

The radically Enlightened theorists, whether they were Marxists or classical liberals, saw class conflict and its multiple manifestations in institutions and social movements as an engine of history; their arguments for amelioration were based on ethical universalism, specifically the right of all individuals to development. The conservatively enlightened ethnopluralists counter-attacked with scientific racism: for the Social Darwinists, world history was determined solely by racial competition. Nations became individuals with a national character and a will to power; the fittest survived. At the behest of Progressive anthropologists in the 1930s, the concept of ‘race’ was shifted to ‘ethnicity’. The Leninist policy of tactical alliances with national liberation movements in Asia, Africa, or Latin America, no matter how antidemocratic, reinforced the acceptance of the organicist discourse for twentieth-century Leftists: there was no longer a universalist concept of socialism (i.e., the movement toward ever more democratic societies as understood by seventeenth- or eighteenth-century political theorists, then the Second International), but many Marxisms, each one filtered through the traditional culture of the oppressed “ethnic” group. So authoritarian, militaristic Third World cultural nationalists could reject “the West,”also conceived as an organic unity, without objections from Leninist intellectuals.

Upper-class eugenicists fretted over race suicide and the rising tide of color. Today’s anti-imperialists, some of them ‘Marxists’, decry “white supremacy” as the source of Third World underdevelopment. It is wrong, in my view, to confuse individuals with groups or to impute racial group character to classes. The multiculturalists (ethnopluralists) urge their followers to be strong and unified, as if personal or ethnic group strength and the power of the will alone could remove the sources of exploitation. Reading their unfounded optimism backward into history, the ethnopluralists resort to myth in order to strengthen and unify their racial or ethnic group against the taunts of the dominant culture. But see Julian Huxley and A.C. Haddon, We Europeans (London: Harper, 1936), 16-18. Huxley noted that scholars lacking training in science had mistranslated “ethnos” as race (17). This book was appropriated by Ashley Montagu who, while denouncing the concept of race, subtly attributed to the ostensibly non-racist concept of “ethnicity” the Lamarckian qualities of blood and soil, citing the Huxley book as support: Montagu wrote that the internationalist Huxley had advocated “ethnicity” as an organizing concept for anthropologists. But for Huxley ethnicity was a term of convenience referring solely to any population under discussion with no connotation of uniformity or kinship, while for ethnopluralists, the substitution of ethnicity for race generally did not remove the implication of group character.

The Trotskyist writers of Partisan Review were acutely aware of these issues made urgent by Popular Front literary policies that had demagogically substituted the war between “fascism and democracy” for the conflict between capital and labor in the Depression; see Philip Rahv, “Two Years of Progress–From Waldo Frank to Donald Ogden Stewart,” PR 4 (Feb. 1938): 22-30.

[3] See for instance, Wyn Kelly, “Melville’s Cain,” American Literature (March 1983): 24-40, who attempts to classify  variants of the Cain legend, 31, but there is no mention of the Wandering Jew in her text or references (nor in Susan Sontag’s work, although she knows that Jews were blamed for cholera and other plagues).

[4] See Berthold Hinz, Art in the Third Reich (N.Y.: Pantheon, 1979);  Henry Grosshans, Hitler and the Artists (N.Y.: Holmes and Meier, 1983); Charlotte Weiss Mangold, Herman Melville in German Criticism From 1900 to 1955 (University of Maryland diss., 1959): 109, fn 2.  Mangold (and other Melvilleans) should have more fully identified Schönemann. Max Weinrich’s index in Hitler’s Professors, op.cit. (282) identifies him as an important Nazi scholar in the following entry: “[b.] May 30, 1886. Instructor, Harvard U., 1913-1920. Professor of North American Civilization, U. of Berlin. Author: “Der Anglo-Amerikaner und das Judentum,” Wk II (1942); “Das geistige Geschichte Amerikas,” NSMon, October, 1942, 657-666; “Hintergrunde und Tendenzen des USA-Imperialismus,” Völk und Reich, 1942, 697-706; Die Veinigten Staaten von Nordamerika (Berlin, Junker und Dunnhaupt, 1943, 160).”

[5] See Philip Rahv, “The Cult of Experience,” Partisan Review (Nov.-Dec.1940), 412-424, then his review of Newton Arvin’s 1949 Melville study.

[6] For instance, Lewis Mumford and Henry A. Murray, but recently Ann Douglas in The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977).

[7] George Mosse, Germans and Jews: The Right, The Left and the Search for a Third Force in Pre-Nazi Germany (New York: Howard Fertig, 1970).  There is an instructive (and still current) debate in Partisan Review (Fall 1938) between Edmund Wilson and William Phillips, regarding Marx’s relations to Hegelianism and organicism generally, 66-90 with Wilson taking the Hegelian position, Phillips the more materialist one.  Wilson’s views might be compared to those of E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, as applied, for instance in Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1984). There has been some interest in Wilson on Melville on the internet Melville discussion group.  Wilson published an anthology in 1943, The Shock of Recognition, including Melville’s admiring essay of the anti-materialist Hawthorne, “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” Interestingly, Wilson was not part of the Melville Revival.

[8] Uriel Tal in Christians and Jews in Germany feels that Christian anti-Semitism eschews rabble-rousing massacres, but would exclude Jews from positions of authority in education and government, 232.

May 3, 2008

Herman Melville goes for Robert E. Lee

Son of the South: Robert E. Lee

Clare Spark, “Margoth v. Robert E. Lee: Melville’s Poetry and Rival Conceptions of National Unity,”

paper for panel “The Nineteenth-Century Artist,” American Literature Association Meeting, June 1, 2002, Long Beach, California.

Dramatis personae. Two contending ideologies are limned in an unresolved civil war. Radical liberal combatants include John Milton and his character Mammon (Paradise Lost), Charles Sumner, antislavery Senator from Massachusetts (1851-1874), and Melville’s rootless cosmopolitans: Captain Ahab (Moby-Dick, 1851), and Margoth (Clarel, 1876). The organic conservative adversaries include Melville’s Robert E. Lee (“Lee in the Capitol,” Melville himself as author of the Supplement to Battle-Pieces, Aspects of the War (1866), Robert E. Lee, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., Henry Cabot Lodge, and Woodrow Wilson.  [The term “organic” is affixed to the moderate men because they asserted the organic, spiritualized community against the depredations of mechanical materialism, the imputed weapon of the empiricist enemy, bearers of degeneration.]

I. Railroads and the liberal nation

The nineteenth-century American artist was situated on either side of the most difficult and unprecedented political conflict in the history of the human race: at bottom was a particular reading of the Constitution. Both the American and French Revolutions had advanced the theory and practice of popular sovereignty; moreover these human events were ruptures with the past that no Burkean gradualism could heal. The Civil War and its aftermath had pressed the novel question of equality to its logical conclusion: After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, were Americans finally prepared, as Senator Charles Sumner had urged, to act upon the premises of the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution? Where were our most accomplished artists moving? Would they follow Sumner’s road to equality before the law and the supremacy of the liberal nation, the overarching commonwealth that protected the human rights of every citizen without distinction of color? Note that Sumner referred to the equal rights of individuals, not of communities or states. Did not the Constitution, he asked in his speech “Are We A Nation?” (1867)[1], empower the national government to create States as Republics that would similarly protect the rights of individuals? Or would former rebels reorganize state governments in their own interest?

      Would nineteenth-century artists adhere to the feudal relic of States rights, that excuse for Secession; that doctrine that permitted Southern patricians to retain control of the freedmen until the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 60s, in yet another chapter of an unconcluded Civil War, hearkening back to the English Civil War of the seventeenth century? There could be no equivocation in this decision: conciliation and compromise with unrepentant cavaliers would lead only to Southern victory and the reinstatement of slavery by other means. What was Sumner’s vision for the South (and North)? Was this program vindictive and punitive as Northern Democrats and Andrew Johnson supporters in the Republican Party (and some contemporary Melville scholars, praising the moderation of Melville’s “Supplement” to Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War[2]) have insisted? As opposed to Johnson’s plan of executive restoration (begun without participation of Congress), Sumner’s proposals for Congressional reconstruction demanded exclusion of rebels from government (for the time being[3]), unrestricted black male suffrage, free public schools (to accompany suffrage[4]), land for freedmen (for each head of household), removal of all discrimination and segregation, and the rights of blacks to sit on juries, and to serve as witnesses. The perfected Republic advocated by the Radical Republicans, with its emphasis on an excellent popular education for all, is still unrealized; its defeat by organic conservatives was one of the turning points in the history of our democracy. Perhaps had Sumner and his allies prevailed, had the liberal nation triumphed, we would not be reading diagnoses of his character as delivered by his (“pragmatic”) political enemies: “Hebraic” Sumner the neo-Jacobin, moral terrorist, fanatic, destroyer of the Union, stubbornly independent and individualistic, prolix, crazy, demagogic, tactless, Sumner the “nigger-lover”. Why, the man sounds like Melville’s Captain Ahab, as described by Ishmael and numerous literary scholars, taking railroading Ahab to be the essential American type, spawned by self-fashioning Puritan New Englanders (the Chosen People), and mowing down everything “spiritual” in its path.[5]

      Supporting the Iowa Railroad Bill of 1852, the fledgling Senator from Massachusetts had looked upon ever-enlarging democratic vistas: “It would be difficult to exaggerate the influence of roads as means of civilization¼where roads are not, civilization cannot be¼Under God, the road and the schoolmaster are two chief agents of human improvement. The education begun by the schoolmaster is expanded, liberalized, and completed by intercourse with the world; and this intercourse finds new opportunities and inducements in every road that is built.”[6] Now, twenty-four years later, comes Melville’s most unbeloved character, the “geologic Jew” Margoth of Clarel, a hammer-swinging little man, and, like Sumner, another liberal avatar of capital, expanding markets, and common sense.[7] Margoth, like Ahab or Sumner, recalls Milton’s rebel angel Mammon, “the least erected spirit”; declining the reverential glance upward,[8] Margoth is “¼earthward bent, [who] would pry and pore.” Addressing pilgrims touring the environs of Jerusalem, he obnoxiously desecrates the Holy Land:

               The bread of wisdom here to break,

            Margoth holds forth: the gossip tells

            Of things the prophets left unsaid—

            With master-key unlocks the spells

            And mysteries of the world unmade;

            Then mentions Salem: “Stale is she!

            Lay flat the walls, let in the air,

            That folk no more may sicken there!

            Wake up the dead; and let there be

            Rails, wires, from Olivet to the sea,

            With station in Gethsemane.” (Clarel, 2.21, 84-94)

       Margoth goes off to “explore a rift”–a worrisome idea for Melville as conciliator of unhappily riven natural families of upper-class white people, persons who were, as Margoth’s parting glance would imply, “in decline.” (2.21, 105-111) In his unfinished tome, “The Philosophy of Politics”, Woodrow Wilson too would be fretting over deracinating modern inventions: “What effect may railroads (all the instrumentalities which make populations movable and detach from local connections and attachments) be expected to have on local self-govt., and in producing nationality?” In the same projected work, he defined “Political Liberty” as “Obedience to the laws of the social organism.” As his biographer explained, the Whole, not rule of the many, constituted the Nation. (Quoting Wilson) “It is for this that we love democracy: for the emphasis it puts on character; for its tendencies to exalt the purposes of the average man to some high level of endeavor; for its principle of common assent in matters in which all are interested; for its ideals of duty and its sense of brotherhood.”

        Deploying biological metaphors in his description of “industrial development,” Wilson invigorated his prose and his wilting class with the concept of an inexorable life process tending onward and upward; but liberty (including the right to dissent) as a human right had disappeared, along with the concept of the liberal nation: in its place, consensus instructed by the empathic leader, attuned to different points of view. [9]  It is my argument here that Herman Melville, though his pre-Civil War texts are dotted with dark characters arguing the radical democratic side of the debate, and though he had strongly affirmed American chosen people as the vanguard of political liberty in White-Jacket (1850); in 1866 he unambiguously emerged as the moderate man, exponent of the “virtuous expediency” previously mocked in such works as Moby-Dick, Pierre and The Confidence-Man, often in blackface. It is disquieting for a Melville admirer to admit the possibility that his antebellum defense of non-whites had been motivated primarily by romantic primitivism, or that he had tuned out the “Declaration of Independence” that “makes a difference.”[10] Though, as a good Christian he had constantly proclaimed the brotherhood of the human race, when faced with the actual possibility of black civic, political, and economic equality, of merging the interests of white and black in the People, that is, as discrete, individual citizens with equal rights, he ignominiously retreated to the poetic discourse of the racial community, going so far as to write

                        The blacks, in their infant pupilage to freedom, appeal to the sympathies of every humane mind. The paternal guardianship which for the interval Government exercises over them was prompted equally by duty and benevolence. Yet such kindliness should not be allowed to exclude kindliness to communities who stand nearer to us in nature. For the future of the freed slaves we may well be concerned; but the future of the whole country, involving the future of the blacks, urges a paramount claim upon our anxiety.[11]

For Sumner and others, those estimable qualities of Christian character: benevolence and kindliness, had nothing to do with postwar measures to be taken, for these were the terms of slaveholders justifying their property in humans; “benevolence,” etc. were qualities imputed to slaveholders in their positive defense of the “peculiar institution” after 1830. Would Americans follow the duties imposed by the founding principles of the liberal nation, also “the whole country,” or not? Would they talk in the empirical and concrete language of political science, or in the poetic terms deployed by pseudo-democratic organic conservatives, Woodrow Wilson, for instance, that obscure the real (albeit sometimes shifting) structures and relationships of and within political and economic institutions?

          Though he had begun his Supplement by denouncing “a war whose implied end was the erecting in our advanced century of an Anglo-American empire based upon the systematic degradation of man,” and though he had not objected to the test-oath requiring loyalty to the Union for elected officials, he quickly hoped that “the oath is alterable.” These and other pro-Southern sentiments (“From reason who can urge the plea–/ Freemen conquerors of the free?”)  explicitly aligned Melville, not only with his relatives and patrons, but with Andrew Johnson’s base of Northern Copperheads, Southern secessionists, and conservative Republicans, who were determined to rule the nation, reversing the Union victory; it was a coalition that would, over time, vastly enlarge the power of the executive branch over the People’s representatives in the legislative arm of government, rehabilitating the medieval notion of the good king, an older version of the people’s friend.[12]

        A few other scholars have protested this apparent turnabout in Melville’s political sympathies;[13] the originality of my paper consists primarily in locating the currently dominant pedagogy of multiculturalism and ethnopluralism (sometimes known as “identity politics”) in the neo-feudal ideology of Southern agrarianism and localism; a progressive ideology that while not abjuring science and technology, kept scientific method’s implications for unbounded critical thought safely circumscribed, much as the Burkean T. S. Eliot would attempt in his proposal for limiting the number of “freethinking Jews” to protect community cohesion, or “equilibrium” as Southerners addicted to Gemeinschaft over Gesellschaft  would understand the term.[14] I will show that Melville’s character Margoth, the can-do apostate Jew and geologist of Clarel, stands in contrast to Melville’s fatalistic Robert E. Lee; that Margoth would prefer to build the railroad not yet taken.  The epistemology of Margothian mechanical materialism, explicit in the thought of Charles Sumner,[15] is countered by the organic conservative discourse of such other Lee admirers as Charles Francis Adams and Woodrow Wilson. By contrast with Melville’s Robert E. Lee or future organic conservatives, Sumner does not look to Providence or to a change of heart or to inter-racial or inter-sectional sympathy and understanding to effect the nation’s purposes; rather he would reconstruct Federal law, returning to the bedrock constitutional principles of the Republic and its most enlightened, most liberating ideals.

II. A Horse Named Traveler

In his testimony to the Joint Congressional Committee on Reconstruction (Feb.17, 1866), Lee delivered a barely concealed threat that if the South was not quickly restored to equal rights with the North, that it might well resume hostilities in alliance with a foreign power; moreover, although he did not repudiate either the Federal or Confederate debts, his willingness to pay both would have alarmed many Republicans. (He also wished that Virginia could “get rid of” its Negroes, who should be replaced with an immigrant white labor force.) [16]

 Melville had carefully read Lee’s “discreet” responses, which are “Briefly straightforward, coldly clear.” But in the notes to the poem, “Lee in the Capitol” (dated April 1866), Melville explained that he had taken the “poetic liberty” of imagining Lee’s hidden thoughts as he rides to and from the Capitol. The artist will uncloak Lee’s habitual “cold reserve” to reveal “feelings more or less poignant.” The specified emotions regard matters not disclosed to the Committee: the role of Fate in causing the war, and “Nature’s strong fidelity;/True to the home and to the heart”¼to “kith and kin.” Such “natural” feelings, perhaps Melville’s own as he writes the poem, should override all other considerations, whether they be legal or religious. Melville’s rectified Lee “waives” the notion that “vain intermeddlers” (a bumbling generation) caused the war; that both sides are equally to blame in “every civil strife.” Rather, Lee’s (unmuffled) voice declares, “But this I feel, that North and South were driven/ By Fate to arms.” Actually, when asked by the Committee whether he had ever thought that politicians had caused the war, Lee, the cool moderate, had answered “¼I did believe at the time that it was an unnecessary condition of affairs, and might have been avoided if forbearance and wisdom had been practiced on both sides.” Melville seemingly takes these and other words to heart as advice to guide future policy, for he has Lee warn the Committee, “Push not your triumph; do not urge/ Submissiveness beyond the verge.”

      Assuming his own voice in the Supplement, and instructed not only by Lee’s warnings but by such events as the Memphis and New Orleans massacres of loyal whites and blacks,[17] and numerous other instances of white rebel rage, Melville hopefully avers that the South is not required to be penitent: “It is enough, for all practical purposes, if the South have [sic] been taught by the terrors of civil war to feel that Secession, like Slavery, is against Destiny; that both lie buried in one grave; that her fate is linked with ours; and that together we comprise the Nation.” Melville’s concept of the reunited Nation is embedded in an irrational religious discourse grafted onto a political practice. A rational political practice is one in which facts are unflinchingly sought and examined; in which human political will and invention, not Providence, will solve problems and make history. In his essay, enthusiastically quoted at length in the Democratic New York Herald, Melville has lost himself in the real, not the imagined, Lee, applying the latter’s values and suggested tactics to conciliate a Southern planter class that does not consider itself to have committed treason, and that, if not appeased, might once again be taking arms against the tyrannical North, destroyers of the rule of law. Melville-turning-into-Lee has discarded the black mask; the Christian gentleman puts the all-white, (“temple-white”?) family first over abstract principles of natural right; now the true patriot speaks: Melville was no blind adherent, no zealot claiming that the rebel states are conquered provinces, subject to the founding principles of the liberal nation should they wish to return. Melville is no Charles Sumner or Thaddeus Stevens, insisting that emancipation was meaningless until freedmen possessed the full rights of citizens, and that the reconstructed South could not deviate from this crucial republican principle.[18] For Melville, as a “practical” matter, the burden is on the patient, wise, and forbearing North to exercise Christian charity (with malice toward none), to bring the rebel states back into the Union. After all, the State’s rights argument was “plausibly urged.” Hence, there are no pending constitutional issues to be hammered out, since the South was “plausibly” within its rights to exercise the reserved rights of the states, including secession; anyway, slavery (a bad institution) was foisted upon the South; they too have great soldiers,[19] many a mother is mourning her young rebel son’s untimely death, and “exterminating hatred of race toward race”[20] might be aroused if “measures of dubious constitutional rightfulness” are invoked “to confirm the benefit of liberty to the blacks.” In the natural course of things, “our institutions have a potent digestion, and may in time convert and assimilate to good all elements thrown in, however originally alien.”[21] (All this while the Fourteenth Amendment was on the table, reported to Congress by the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, April 30, 1866, and passed in mid-June.[22] Melville’s essay implicitly aligns him with its opponents, who had insisted that it was a reserved right of the states to determine who was qualified for the franchise.) Again, more poetry than truth; more Machiavellian “reasons of state” than either Christianity or the rule of law. And for such a nation to cohere, its bonds had better be described through metaphor.[23]

       Melville’s advice to merciless Northerners in 1866 brings him into congruence with the Robert E. Lee as praised by Charles Francis Adams in 1902, a General Lee reconstructed as a national, not merely a sectional, hero.[24] Melville’s poem had already begun that process of nationalizing Lee: “Our cause I followed, stood in field and gate–/All’s over now, and now I follow Fate./ But this is naught.  A People call–/ A desolated land¼.” And, “Faith in America never dies¼.” Lee as Christian knight reversed fin de siècle decadence, for the prospect of an internationalized and militant proletariat loomed, the tools of science and rationalism in sometimes swarthy hands. To Adams (who had been a junior officer in the Civil War, and briefly commanded a Negro regiment, deficient, he said, as cavalry[25]) Lee “represented, individualized, all that was highest and best in the Southern mind and the Confederate cause,–the loyalty to State, the keen sense of honor and personal obligation, the slightly archaic, the almost patriarchal, love of dependent, family and home¼a type which is gone,-hardly less extinct than that of the great English nobleman of the feudal times, or the ideal head of the Scotch clan of a later period.”[26] In his Memorial Address (Nov. 15, 1915), delivered to the Massachusetts Historical Society, Henry Cabot Lodge rejoiced that the third and fourth generation of Adamses had thrown off the perilous Puritan “independence of thought” that had “developed in John Quincy Adams both mental solitude and minute introspection,” impeding decisive action.[27]

        Adams, like Melville, had tried to please everybody. Describing his family’s break with Charles Sumner, Adams cited Sumner’s abusive speech, “the Barbarism of Slavery”: “¼he should have said that which would have offended no man, and yet would have touched and appealed to all.” (Adams, p.53) An identical organic conservative discourse would be followed to the letter in Woodrow Wilson’s theory of the positive state. Unlike Sumner’s scientifically constructed liberal nation, Wilson’s mystical State expressed “an abiding natural relationship”; it was “a higher form of life”, and the source of spirituality for the lower, selfish, that is, overly self-directed, individual. Disavowing Jeffersonian notions of limited government and “scientific anarchy” (the consequence of epistemological materialism, abstract theories of rights, and ruptures with tradition), Wilson had explained in his notes for a Philosophy of Politics: “LIBERTY is to be found only where there is the best order. The machine free that runs with perfect adjustment; the skein free that is without tangle; the man free whose powers are without impediment to their best development.” (Bragdon, 261)

    Wilson’s railroads were running on time. What would his renovated concept of Liberty mean to the labor movement? Just as the ideal ascetic Lee had nobly sacrificed his own antislavery and antisecessionist sentiments, indeed even his proffered career as leader of the Union armies, to bow to the laws of Virginia, President Wilson proclaimed in a folksy speech to the AFof L in Buffalo (1917) that workers and other protesters must remain “in harness”: “I want to express my admiration of [Gompers’] patriotic courage, his large vision, and his statesmanlike sense of what has to be done. I like to lay my mind alongside of a mind that knows how to pull in harness. The horses that kick over the traces will have to be put in corral.” Workers, like their socially responsible employers, would sacrifice some of their demands to travel with other adjustable classes for the sake of the commonweal, eschewing the mob spirit to “release the spirits of the world from bondage.”[28] [The author breaks into song, “Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls: “I’ve got the horse right here/ his name is Paul Revere/, and there’s a guy who says if the weather’s clear, can do, can do, this guy says the horse can do/ if he says the horse can do, can do, can do¼.”]

III. The country-club pedagogy of American literature

       Twenty-one years earlier, Wilson the professor had assumed a less populist tone in his advice to the classes, but his fears of degeneration in the body politic were already intense: science-sniffing horses were breaking out of the corral. Representing the American Whig Society at the Sesquicentennial Celebration at Princeton University, a quaking Wilson addressed his magnificently dressed international audience, October 21, 1896; his topic “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” “The Old World trembles to see its proletariat in the saddle¼.” “The literature of your own race and country” would instruct the masses, and neutralize “the work of the noxious, intoxicating gas which has somehow got into the lungs of the rest of us, from out the crevices of [the scientist’s] workshop…I should tremble to see social reform led by men who have breathed it; I should fear nothing better than utter destruction from a revolution conceived and led in the scientific spirit¼.Do you wonder, then, that I ask for the old drill, the old memory of times gone by, the old schooling in precedent and tradition, the old keeping of faith with the past, as a preparation for leadership in the days of social change?” Closing his remarks, a calmer Wilson elaborated his pacific model of the perfected university, breeding ground for democratic leaders to be trained in the ascetic ideal, hence liberated from Sumner’s ruptures, Margoth’s foul wind[s],[29] and the example of Europe’s runaway horsy proles. Serving “the nation,” it would be

            the home of sagacious men, hard-headed and with a will to know, debaters of the world’s questions every day and used to the rough ways of democracy: and yet a place removed–calm Science seated there, recluse, ascetic, like a nun, not knowing that the world passes, not caring, if the truth but come in answer to her prayer; and Literature, walking within her open doors, in quiet chambers, with men of olden times, storied walls about her, and calm voices infinitely sweet; here ‘magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn,’ to which you may withdraw and use your youth for pleasure; there windows open straight upon the street, where many stand and talk, intent upon the world of men and affairs. A place for men, and all that concerns them; but unlike the world in its self-possession, its thorough[30] way of talk, its care to know more than the moment brings to light; slow to take excitement; its air pure and wholesome with a breath of faith; every eye within it bright in the clear day and quick to look toward heaven for the confirmation of its hope. Who shall show us the way to that place?”

With science safely closeted and purified, the South would rise again. Wilson’s home was a typically Southern one: quieted, for a time, but not subdued. In the late 1930s, one writer stated flatly that the South had justifiably hated the North, and without remission:

            The late war had seemed to them a test between the strength of men and the strength of things, between a spiritual philosophy and a materialistic philosophy; and they were convinced that the result of it would be the extinction of everything they valued. They felt that more-and-more and not better-and-better was the inevitable motto of the new order; and they believed that such a premise was comfortable only with the standardized and the un-polite; the essentially un-human. [31]

The genteel South, like much of the anti-consumerist, anti-commercial 1960s counter-culture and New Left, would not be railroaded by Yankee Puritans; would not be uplifted by “geologic Jew[s]” into the modern age.


[1] Sumner’s speech, delivered to the New York Young Men’s Republican Union, Nov. 19, 1867, can be read on the internet: The same principles are enunciated in Sumner’s speech, Feb. 1869, advocating a much stronger Fifteenth Amendment than the one adopted; in Harold M. Hyman, The Radical Republicans and Reconstruction, 1861-1870 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967): 484-491. See David Herbert Donald, Charles Sumner (N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1996): 219-237, for the events leading up to Sumner’s famous speech of 1852, “Freedom National, Slavery Sectional,” that  argued that the Constitution did not condone or allow slavery, citing the Sommersett Case of 1772 in England, which ruled that slavery, to be legal, must be affirmed by positive law. Sumner was attempting to declare the Fugitive Slave Law (upheld by Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of Massachusetts and Melville’s father-in-law) unconstitutional. Sumner had been making the same constitutional argument constantly prior to his entry into the Senate (1851), beginning in the Fall of 1845, setting Massachusetts on fire with antislavery fervor, according to one biographer, Archibald Grimke (1892).


[2] Stanton Garner cites Howard P. Vincent’s praise of Melville’s Supplement: it belongs among the “American Scriptures.” See The Civil War World of Herman Melville (Lawrence: U. of Kansas P., 1993): 436. By contrast to the nation-preserving Melville, who would have preferred “gradual manumission” to the divisive strategies of Northern radicals in the 1850s (27), Thaddeus Stevens (out to destroy “Southern culture”) is described as “an intemperate and acrimonious fanatic” (427). See also Hershel Parker, Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 2, 1851-1891 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2002): 615. “Hoadley [HM’s brother-in-law] was now in an intensely Radical phase, identified with Charles Sumner’s determination to punish white Southerners. Melville was much closer to the complicated, ambivalent feelings of Lemuel Shaw, Richard Lathers, John A. Dix, and their 1860 associates.” See also Robin Grey, “Annotations On Civil War: Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Milton’s War in Heaven,” Leviathan vol.4, nos. 1 and 2 (March and October 2002): 51-70; Grey treats both Milton and Melville as moderates.

     Compare Lamar of Mississippi, explaining his eulogy of Sumner after his death: “It is true he still advocated the civil Rights Bill which, in my opinion, is a measure of wrong & injustice & grievous injury to our people. I do not believe, however, that he meant it as a humiliation to us. It was, in his eye, a consummation of his life-long struggle for equal rights. Intensely opposed as I am to that measure I must say that if Mr. S. had not supported it he would not have been in harmony with himself.” (Letter in Hyman, pp. 515-519, but Hyman did not mention that Lamar had refused to sit next to a Negro representative before delivering his tribute.)


[3] See Sumner to Carl Schurz, Oct. 20, 1865: “The rebel states must not be allowed at once to participate in our government. This privilege must be postponed. ¼The President might have given peace to the country and made it a mighty example of justice to mankind. Instead of this consummation, he revives the old Slave Oligarchy, envenomed by war, and gives it a new lease of terrible power.” In Hyman, p.292. See Schurz’s lengthy response, on the exceptional nature of the moment, pp. 292-298.


[4] Charles Sumner, speech March 16, 1867, in Hyman, pp. 388-391.

[5] The identification of Ahab with railroads occurs at the close of the chapter 37, “Sunset”: “Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!” That Ahab’s railroad image is tied to the civilizing process is borne out in Starbuck’s soliloquy in the following chapter, “Dusk.” “[Complaining about Ahab’s tyranny:] Oh, life! ‘tis an hour like this, with soul beat down and held to knowledge,–as wild, untutored things are forced to feed—“

       Compare to Donald Davidson, “Expedients Versus Principles–Cross Purposes in the South,” Southern Review Vol.2 (1936-37), 651. Decrying the habit of South-bashing in Northern newspapers, Davidson complained, “Denunciations of the older Klan disguised the working alliance of Radical Republicans and the Robber Barons. ¼”Urban-industrialized society” demolishes “whatever stands in its path.” The claim of collusion between the radicals and crooked capitalists is challenged in Stanley Coben, “Northeastern Business and Radical Reconstruction: a Re-examination,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, XLVI (June 1959).

      See also David Herbert Donald, Charles Sumner (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), for epithets directed against Sumner, e.g. footnote, pp.4-5. Based on the belief that Sumner’s mother, Relief Jacob “’was probably of Jewish descent,’” Frank Preston Stearns (1905) attacked “’the Hebrew element in Sumner’s nature; the inflexibility of purpose, the absolute self-devotion, and even the prophetic forecast.’ Such a theory of inherited racial traits is, of course, highly unscientific. But in any case, the Jewish strain in Sumner’s ancestry is dubious. At no point in his career, when virtually every other possible weapon was used against him, were anti-Semitic charges raised.” On the same page, Donald reports that Esther Holmes, the mother of Sumner’s father (who had been born out of wedlock) was rumored to have had some “Indian or negro blood.” Donald presents Sumner as having covered up his genealogy. Having denied that antisemitic charges were made, on p. 239 (second volume), Donald, while comparing Sumner (who wished to bar all ex-Confederates from government) to the more flexible Thaddeus Stevens, states “He announced principles, as from on Mount Sinai, and deplored the compromises needed to transform ideals into legislative reality.” Opposite p.228 (second volume), in a chapter entitled “Very Like Robespierre,” a cartoon “Free Soil Her” (1864) is shown in which Sumner is kissing an ape-like black woman, with the rhyme: “In vain you’ve preached your precepts round,/ Throughout this whole great Yankee nation;/ I think that you should prove them first,/ And early try amalgamation.” See also caricature opposite p.197, “I’m Not to Blame for Being White, Sir!” Sumner gives alms to a black child, while turning away from a white urchin.

    David Donald’s antipathy to Sumner is well known, but his criticisms were preceded, almost to the letter, in Anna Laurens Dawes, Charles Sumner (N.Y.: Dodd, Mead, 1892); Dawes viewed Sumner as archetypal Puritan/American, a prophet and our greatest orator, but not a statesman. Harold M. Hyman countered Donald’s statement that Sumner was “a man inflexibly committed to a set of moral ideas as basic principles,” observing that “in wartime matters Sumner was an immensely effective and intensely practical politician. As a combination, zeal and expertness are hard to beat.” In The Radical Republicans and Reconstruction, 1861-1870 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967): 103.

    Also, on “bloody Jacobins,” see Patrick Riddleberger, 1866: The Critical Year Revisited (Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois UP, 1979): 225, for the Herald’s characterization of the Radical’s campaign in the elections of 1866. They were provoking another “reign of terror” in which Northerners would be fighting each other, were they to win.

    The sub-text of the animus against Sumner is two-fold; first, as part of a historiographic trend claiming that extremists provoked the Civil War [see Hyman, “Introduction,” Radical Republicans]; and second, as an attack on laissez-faire by the progressive movement. The latter is summed up by Hardin Craig, Woodrow Wilson at Princeton (Norman, OK: U. of Oklahoma P., 1960): 14. “[Wilson believed] that universities should devote themselves always, regardless of other obligations, to the wise and proper service of the state, a belief that runs all through his university career.” Or, “’The chief end of life” is “to discipline men to serve the state, religiously, loyally.’” (10). “Order” for Wilson means “a sense of unity in human existence and in the universe itself.” (11) Leadership should make it clear that “Democracy is not a natural instinct of men–quite the contrary–and the doctrine of laissez-faire is its ruin.” (19). But the national government is not the chief focus of loyalty. Referring to Wilson’s article, “The Study of Administration,” (1887), Craig comments: “This article seems to suggest in education, as in all great social undertakings, a confederation of parts rather than a centralization of power, and a wide union of tolerated divisions of prerogatives in pursuit of common purposes ‘in honorable equality and honorable subordination.’ In other words, educational institutions should assume a form and operation not unlike his idea of the American system of government.” (22-23). Contrast this deified state and its “confederation of parts” to Sumner’s concept of the supreme central government as protector of individual development, and enforcer of “absolute equality before the law” in the states.

[6] Quoted in Jeremiah Chaplin and J.D. Chaplin, Life of Charles Sumner (Boston, 1874), 183-184.

[7] Herman Melville, Clarel, 2.22, 14; 1.24, 27-48. All references from Northwestern/Newberry edition.

[8] See Woodrow Wilson, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” below, p.  . For the explicit linking of Margoth to the rebel angels, see Clarel, 2.28, 9-10, 30-32. Margoth plucks a “fetid” fruit: “Pippins of Sodom? They’ve declined!” Then Margoth is viewed disapprovingly by the other pilgrims “raking their the land./ Some minerals of noisome kind/ He found and straight to the pouch consigned.”

[9] Henry Wilkinson Bragdon, Woodrow Wilson: The Academic Years (Cambridge: Harvard Belknap Press, 1967), 257, 258, 259. The idealist intellectual tradition defended by relativists in cultural studies, etc. is plainly illustrated in the communitarian thought of Woodrow Wilson. Note the pseudo-materialism of his approach to history and the Burkean foundation of his approach to authority. See Mere Literature and other Essays, 1896, and republished in the Houghton, Mifflin Riverside Press edition of 1924. Except for his new piece on Edmund Burke, they had previously appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Century Magazine, and Forum. The Wilson essays follow to the letter the frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner, and illustrate the post-Civil War blood-and-soil organic conservatives co-option of the idea of progress. Organic conservatives were now democrats; they contrasted the ostensibly atomized, hence selfish, individual (the “mad scientist,” a synecdoche for Jacobins, in the tory discourse) with the individual-in-community. [for mad scientist, read Margoth]

      In “The Course of American History,” 213-247, Wilson adjusts the prior materialist formulation of American history as a (sectional) battle between [Hebraic] Puritans and Southern slaveholders to control the labor system in the Western territories. This domineering (i.e., Whiggish) narrative, Wilson claims, was a creation of New Englanders who dominate the writing of history. Following his former student, Fredrick Jackson Turner, he shifts the axis from North versus South to East versus West, with the ever- receding frontier shaping American character. And East and West are not in conflict, but interact upon each other, staving off both decadence and overly Jacksonian political styles and objectives (i.e., the negative State).

     Wilson emphasizes the importance of the middle states, ostensibly neglected by the New Englanders (aka “the chosen people”). What makes Lincoln the greatest American President and “supreme American” is 1. his ability to synthesize the conservative East and vigorous West; and 2. to understand and appreciate the point of view of all Americans, including most importantly, the South; moreover Lincoln is the great autodidact, bringing harmony instead of endless conflict into his (unfinished) life (206-208). (Autodidacts had been the object of horrified scrutiny since the invention of the printing press, and as materialists had been characterized as archetypal assassins.) Lincoln is contrasted to Thomas Jefferson, an example of “mixed breed” (187) because he had imbibed the French revolutionary spirit, and was hence, in Wilson’s words, “un-American.” (198) Jefferson, like other troublemakers, was impractical and given to abstractions. (196-199). What was at stake here? Supporting Burke, Wilson eschewed “government by contract” in favor of “government by habit.” (155)

      “The history of a nation is only the history of its villages writ large.” (214). Wilson’s advocacy of local history (the “vital” kind) is of a piece with his progressivism, also localist, in contrast to the big Leviathan state that increasingly characterized the New Deal in the late 1930s. Literary historians as well as historians of science should read the Wilson essays in tandem with the pro-fascist writers of American Review, edited by Seward Collins in the mid-1930s that attempted to unite the English Distributists, New Humanists, Southern Agrarians, and Neo-Thomists in a revolutionary conservative synthesis. The empiricism of St. Thomas Aquinas was constantly praised, along with the classical notion of the rooted individual as it had existed in the High Middle Ages. It is out of this intellectual tradition, I believe, that the cultural approach to history (to use Carolyn Ware’s phrase) was derived, setting itself against the dangers of “scientific” history that could lead the investigator, Ahabishly, god-knows-where. Such are the wondrous ways of the moderate men, and it seems to me to be the way of those who aspire to activism as historians; that is, their reforms entail non-structural adjustments (ethnopluralism and inter-racial understanding, for instance) that presume harmony as the outcome.



[10] During the question period following delivery of this paper, I was asked if I did not think that Melville returned to a more “dialogic” relationship to his themes and readers after Battle-Pieces. Upon reflection, I do not think that this characterization accurately reflects how Melville actually experienced the inner civil war described here. Although he often has characters arguing a wide range of religious and political issues, I believe that Freud’s concept of the return of the repressed more accurately describes his oscillations between radical liberalism and organic conservatism. That is, new, more accurate knowledge, particularly that which delegitimates established authority, is experienced as an “irruption,” hence as an invasion that assaults his body with destructive force; or sometimes it is an “eruption” of anger that comes from within, and must be suppressed to protect his family’s idealizations. Hence, his conservatism is a defense, but one which drives him into an equally frightening state of insensibility, of being buried alive within the walls, prompting another (self-inflicted) “irruption of heretic thought, hard to repress”; i.e., he is not calmly appraising different arguments, as the “dialogic” formulation would suggest. These points are already made in my book as I analyze Melville’s own rhetoric, and will be elaborated in future publications.

[11] Herman Melville, “Supplement” to Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866). Stanton Garner comments on this passage, “When he said that in nature the Southerners stood closer to the Northerners than did the freedmen, he was not necessarily referring to race. He was referring to the bond of nationality that had originated when Northerner and Southerner together had created the nation and given it form, and that bond probably extended to those black men who had already been assimilated into free society. To use the excuse of rebellion to substitute, in political terms, the freedmen for the former Confederates would be to disable a portion of the body politic in order to give immediate suffrage to men were of necessity ignorant, both in terms of education and in terms of the truncated experience of civil life permitted them by their servitude. That would impoverish the land, he thought. Citizenship and full political investiture were due the former slave, but they had to be given so as to produce the best future for men of both colors.” See Garner, 438. Hershel Parker quotes the passage without his own editorial comment, p.614.


[12] See Bragdon, pp.264-65. Bragdon notes that Wilson had earlier believed that the President was subordinate to Congress, but that after the Cleveland administration, changed his views. An important influence was Henry Jones Ford, author of The Rise and Growth of American Politics (1898), who saw “the increase in presidential power was both an inevitable process and a return to the ancient Teutonic tradition of elective monarchs.” Wilson brought him to Princeton as professor of politics in 1908.

   By the time that Melville wrote the Supplement, Johnson had asserted an imperial power in the presidency in his Message to Congress, vetoed the Civil Rights Bill and Freedmen’s Bureau Bill (the latter move subverted his own precedent in readmitting Tennessee). Both bills were passed by Congress over his veto. See Riddleberger, 79, 96-97, 125.

   Also, compare Wilson’s view of executive leadership with Anna Laurens Dawes, Charles Sumner, p. 160-161: discussing Sumner’s conflicted relations with other Republicans during the first phase of the war, she writes, “Now more than ever Sumner showed what some one has called his “capacity for loving the absolute right abstracted from its practical use.” The old Puritan blood in him asserted itself, and with power in our own hands, he deemed it criminal as well as weak not to compel the end desired. He did not stop to consider whether we possessed anything more than the semblance of power, and he would not take into account the conservative necessities of responsibility. The process of educating and representing a whole people, and so ruling them, was abhorrent to him. He believed, as all his ancestors had done, that only his own faction could be right, and he followed that most specious of false maxims in national morals,— that the right was always the shortest line between the two points. These sentiments he did not hesitate to express in public and private.” [Sumner, along with a few others, had wanted immediate emancipation of all slaves, both as “a war measure” and as “a constitutional duty.” (184-185)]


[13] These scholars include Michael Rogin, George Fredrickson, Alfred Kazin, and Carolyn Karcher.


[14] See discussion in my Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and The Melville Revival, Chapter 2. In Clarel, the demystifier Margoth is linked by Rolfe to other “bold freethinking Jew[s], who “with vigor shook/ Faith’s leaning tower.” (2.22, 55-57). In comparing multiculturalism to neo-feudal agrarianism, I do not mean to criticize those practitioners who study the historically-specific experience and cultural expression of specific groups, but only those who claim that their cultures are incomprehensible to non-members, and who contest the objectivity of “facts”, asserting that all facts are “group facts” and are embedded in “values.” This is the radical subjectivist position as I understand it, and I reject it as counter-Enlightenment.


[15] See, for instance, Hyman, 191-192, 484-491. Presenting his own version of the Fourteenth Amendment (stronger than the one adopted), Sumner spoke, “Mr. President,–In the construction of a machine the good mechanic seeks the simplest process, producing the desired result with the greatest economy of time and force. I know no better rule for Congress on the present occasion. We are mechanics, and the machine we are constructing has for its object the conservation of Equal Rights¼How widely Senators are departing from this rule will appear before I have done.” (486-487)


[16] See summary in the Daily National Intelligencer, “The South in the Witness-Box”, March 28, 1866: “In regard to the Federal debt, the people of Virginia are represented as in favor of its repudiation, or, at least, of combining with it the Confederate debt. The witnesses who have been connected with the Confederacy, however, deny this, and represent the people as willing to pay their share of the Federal debt by taxation. On this subject, General Lee’s opinion is that they are willing to pay both, and opposed to a repudiation of either.” The Fourteenth Amendment, Sec.4, repudiates the Confederate debt. On this crucial question, see Riddleberger, 170-172. John C. Underwood had testified that if “the rebel debt could placed upon an equality with the National debt¼the leading spirits would claim compensation for their negroes.” (170)

   Lee’s comment on removing “the colored population” referred also to his prewar support for “gradual emancipation.” Cf. Garner, attributing this belief to Melville, p.27. On Lee’s postwar white supremacist racial attitudes, see Michael Fellman, The Making of Robert E. Lee (N.Y.: Random House, 2000): 271-273.


[17] See Riddleberger, 199, 225-26.

[18] See Sumner’s speech, February 5 and 6, 1866, “Equal Rights For All.” “It is not enough that you have given liberty. By the same title that we claim liberty do we claim equality also.” Quoted Riddleberger, p.114.


[19] See Riddleberger, 211-212, for a description of the Johnson-supporting National Union movement convention in Philadelphia, begun Aug.14, 1866, opposing the “conquered provinces” theory of the Radicals, in which the “law of nations” legitimated Congressional reconstruction of the rebel states before they could be reunited with the North. Riddleberger describes objections to the seventh clause of the Declaration of Principles: “’That it is with proud and unfeigned satisfaction that we recur to the conduct of the American soldier all through the recent conflict–his courage, his endurance merit our highest encomiums.’ Senator Hendricks felt that his clause was ambiguous. “What soldier does it mean?” he asked. Senator Cowan said the intention was ‘to include the soldiers of both armies.’ Southerners concurred in this, but some Northerners vehemently opposed it. A Michigan delegate said that he ‘had sacrificed his political position at home by consulting the sensitiveness of the South. He would do this no longer. It was that had prepared the way for the rebellion, and he did not mean to repeat the mistakes of former years¼he could never consent to extend equal applause to the men who had been in arms against the Government.’ To preserve harmony, the committee omitted the resolution altogether, but inserted another one simply stating to be the ‘duty of the National Government to recognize the rights of Federal soldiers and sailors¼by meeting promptly and fully their just and rightful claims.” (211)

[20] There is much evidence to support the notion that Melville was terrified of black rage. His poem, “The Swamp Angel” (“the great Parrott gun” used by the Union to bombard Charleston) is prefigured in the mayhem of the rebel slaves in “Benito Cereno” (1855).” The poem (one of Battle-Pieces) begins, “There is a coal-black Angel/ With a thick Afric lip,/ and he dwells (like the hunted and the harried)/ In a swamp where the green frogs dip./ But his face is against a City/ Which is over a bay of the sea,/ And he breathes with a breath that is /blastment,/ And dooms by a far decree.” The last line asks for a change of heart in “our guilty kind¼Christ, the Forgiver, convert his mind.”

    Similarly, Woodrow Wilson in his Division and Reunion, 1829-1889 (1893) constantly invokes the threatening character of a black multitude, suddenly freed, and susceptible to demagoguery and crime; giving this as one reason to explain why Southerners maintained slavery (111,114). For instance, slaves were a small part of the Northern population, but in the South: “¼the sentiment which had once existed in favor of emancipation had given way before grave doubts as to the safety of setting free a body of men so large, so ignorant, so unskilled in the moderate use of freedom.” (114). In his description of Reconstruction, he takes the point to poetic heights: Referring to the consequences of the “Thorough” policy of the Republican Congress: “[Thorough’s] practical operation was of course revolutionary in its effects upon the southern governments. The most influential white men were excluded from voting for the delegates who were to compose the constitutional conventions, while the negroes were all admitted to enrollment. Unscrupulous adventurers appeared, to act as leaders of the inexperienced blacks in taking possession, first of the conventions, and afterwards of the state governments; and in the States where the negroes were most numerous, or their leaders most shrewd and unprincipled, and extraordinary carnival of public crime set in under the forms of law. Negro majorities gained complete control of the state governments, or, rather, negroes constituted the legislative majorities and submitted to the unrestrained authority of small and masterful groups of white men whom the instinct of plunder had drawn from the North.” (223). Page numbers are from the Collier edition, 1961.


[21] This Burkean moment reminds me of a question Eleanor Melville Metcalf put to her mother, Frances Thomas, in her letter of 28 September 1919, and quoted in Hunting Captain Ahab, p.214: “Did you ever hear the story told Mr. Weaver by Dr. Coan, who had it from some old admiral, that at the beginning of the war when feeling ran high against England, because of her sympathy with the South, that Grandpa went up the Hudson, got a schooner and went sailing with a British flag waving on her. W. wants to know if it has any foundation.” FT wrote on the page, “absolutely no truth in this: I never heard of it.”


[22] The exact date of composition is uncertain, but Stanton Garner believes that the completed essay would have been delivered to Harper’s a week and a half before the date of publication, August 17, 1866. See Garner, p.439. Parker hints at an earlier date of completion, p. 613. For a detailed history of the Fourteenth Amendment, see Riddleberger, chapters 5-7. With the exception of Tennessee, the secessionist states all rejected the amendment when submitted to them.


[23] Hershel Parker writes, “In the next weeks of 1866 [after the poem was written] the fury of Radical Republicans intent on punishing the South led Melville to add the Supplement” (613). Thaddeus Stevens had countered similar sentiments among his Congressional colleagues: “The forgiveness of the gospel refers to private offenses, where men can forgive their enemies and smother their feeling of revenge without injury to anybody. But that has nothing to do with municipal punishment, with political sanction of political crimes. When nations pass sentence and decree confiscation for crimes unrepented there is no question of malignity. When the judge sentences the convict he has no animosity. When the hangman executes the culprit he rather pities than hates him. Cruelty does not belong to their vocabulary. Gentlemen mistake, therefore, when they make these appeals to us in the name of humanity. They, sir, who while preaching this doctrine of hugging and caressing those whose hands are red with the blood of our and their murdered kinsmen, are covering themselves with indelible stains which all the waters of the Nile cannot wash out.” Quoted in Benjamin B. Kendrick, The Journal of the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction, 39th Congress, 1865-1867 (N.Y.: Columbia UP, 1914): 404-405.

     Compare Melville’s sentiments in the Supplement to Henry Grady, “The New South” (1886), addressing Tammany Hall in New York City. Lincoln is the Son, the embodiment of sectional harmony:“…the first typical American, the first who comprehended within himself all the strength and gentleness, all the majesty and grace of this Republic—Abraham Lincoln. He was the sum of Puritan and Cavalier, for in his ardent nature were fused the virtues of both, and in the depths of his great soul the faults of both were lost. He was greater than Puritan, greater than Cavalier, in that he was American, and that in his honest form were first gathered the vast and thrilling forces of his ideal government, charging it with such tremendous meaning and elevating it above human suffering, that martyrdom, though infamously aimed, came as a fitting crown to a life consecrated from the cradle to human liberty. Let us each cherishing the traditions and honoring his fathers, build with reverent hands to the type of this simple but sublime life, in which all types are honored, and in our common glory as Americans there will be plenty to spare for your forefathers and for mine.” (my italics) See also Melville’s poem “The Martyr”: …He lieth in his blood–/ The father in his face;/ They have killed him, the Forgiver—/ The Avenger takes his place….”


[24] See Wilson, “A Calendar of Great Americans,” Mere Literature, 209-210: “[Like Lincoln, Lee was also “national in spirit”: He fought on the opposite side, but fought in the same spirit, and for a principle which is in a sense scarcely less American than the principle of Union. He represented the idea of the inherent–the essential–separateness of self-government. This was not the principle of secession: that principle involved the separate right of the several self-governing units of the federal system to judge of national questions independently, and as a check upon the federal government,–and to adjudge the very objects of the Union. Lee did not believe in secession, but he did believe in the local rootage of all government. This is at the bottom, no doubt, an English idea; but it has had a characteristically American development. It is the reverse side of the shield which bears upon its obverse the devices of the Union, a side too much overlooked and obscured since the war. It conceives the individual State a community united by the most intimate associations, the first home and foster-mother of every man born into the citizenship of the nation. Lee considered himself a member of one of these great families; he could not conceive of the nation apart from the State: above all, he could not live in the nation divorced from his neighbors. His own community should decide his political destiny and duty.”

[25] Adams, p.166. Reflecting upon his “many mistakes”, Adams described his bad decision to mount his negro regiment. “The regiment was doing very good service, dismounted, as a garrison and on guard over the prisoner’s camp at Point Lookout. To mount it, meant only the waste of twelve hundred much-needed horses. Then, having got it mounted, through the same channels [his influence at Headquarters] I worked it into active service. Mistake number two; as the only result of so doing was to afford myself convincing proof that the negro was wholly unfit for cavalry service, lacking absolutely the essential qualities of alertness, individuality, reliability, and self-reliance.” This assessment from an officer who had nodded off at “the height of battle” at both Antietam and Gettysburg (152-54).


[26] Quoted in Gary Gallagher, Civil War History 1999      . Adams’s subsequent address “Lee’s Centennial,” delivered at Washington and Lee University, 19 Jan. 1907, is described as one of the happiest experiences of his life (Autobiography, 206-208). For more on the Lee myth see Thomas L. Connelly, The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society (N.Y.: Knopf, 1977). 


[27] Lodge quoted Hamlet. See “Memorial Address,” Charles Francis Adams 1835-1915: An Autobiography (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1916): xvi-xvii.

[28] Woodrow Wilson in his folksiest mode, speaking to the American Federation of Labor at Buffalo, New York, November 12, 1917. The talk is entitled “Labor and the War” (the title perhaps conceived by The Committee on Public Information which published this and other speeches in 1918, as no.9 in a series “War, Labor, and Peace”). Wilson starts off with the rhetoric of equality and community and sublimity:

       “I am introduced to you as the President of the United States, and yet I would be pleased if you would put the thought of the office into the background and regard me as one of your fellow citizens who has come here to speak, not the words of authority, but the words of counsel; the words which men should speak to one another who wish to be frank in a moment more critical perhaps than the history of the world has ever yet known; a moment when it is every man’s duty to forget himself, to forget his own interests, to fill himself with the nobility of a great national and world conception, and act upon a new platform elevated above the ordinary affairs of life and lifted to where men have views of the long destiny of mankind.”

  Wilson goes on to describe the sneaky ways of German industry that, through government subsidy, has been able to beat out the competition and dominate the markets of the world. He then puts down the fatuous dreamers of Russia who have been “compounding” with Germany. We must stand together against the German menace. Then:

    “While we are fighting for freedom, we must see, among other things, that labor is free, and that means a number of interesting things. It means not only that we must do what we have declared our purpose to do, see that the conditions of labor are not rendered more onerous by the war, but also that we shall see to it that the instrumentalities by which the conditions of labor are improved are not blocked or checked. That we must do. That has been the matter about which I have taken pleasure in conferring from time to time with your president, Mr. Gompers; and if I may be permitted to do so, I want to express my admiration of his patriotic courage, his large vision, and his statesmanlike sense of what has to be done. I like to lay my mind alongside of a mind that knows how to pull in harness. The horses that kick over the traces will have to be put in corral.

…Nobody has a right to stop the processes of labor until all the methods of conciliation and settlement have been exhausted….[He will tell the capitalists the same thing at some future date; meanwhile] Everybody on both sides has now got to transact business, and a settlement is never impossible when both sides want to do the square and right thing.

  [We must negotiate face to face, for that makes hatred impossible.] So it is all along the line, in serious matters and things less serious. We are all of the same clay and spirit, and we can get together if we desire to get together. Therefore, my counsel to you is this: Let us show ourselves Americans by showing that we do not want to go off in separate camps or groups by ourselves, but that we want to co-operate with all other classes and all other groups in the common enterprise which is to release the spirits of the world from bondage. I would be willing to set that up as the final test of an American. That is the meaning of democracy. I have been very much distressed, my fellow citizens, by some of the things that have happened recently. The mob spirit is displaying itself here and there in this country. …There are some organizations in this country whose object is anarchy and the destruction of law, but I would not meet their efforts by making myself partner in destroying the law. I despise and hate their purposes as much as any man, but I respect the ancient processes of justice; and I would be too proud not to see them done justice, however wrong they are.

….the fundamental lesson of the whole situation is that we must not only take common counsel, but that we must yield to and obey common counsel….”


[29] Clarel, 2.26, 1-24. Margoth has insulted the Roman Catholic Church, declaring that “All, all’s geology, I trow.” Margoth is first introduced in the text at the dung-gate. The narrator explains that it marked where “By torch the tipstaves Jesus led,/ And so through back-street hustling sped/ To Pilate./ Odor bad it has/ This gate in story¼.” (1.24, 16-20).


[30] Compare to Wilson’s description of the Radical Reconstruction program: “Thorough” in Division and Reunion.


[31] From Southern Review Vol.3 (July-April 1937-38), “What The South Figured 1865-1914,” by John Donald Wade. See also Frank L. Owsley, “Jefferson Davis,” Southern Review, Vol.3, 762-768. Affirming the State’s rights position, Owsley points out that, despite modernization, differing sectional interests remain. The majority may not tyrannize minorities. Cf. Geographer Sumner’s survey of the American continent in “Are We A Nation?” Our rivers and mountains confer natural unity on the nation. In the same volume of Soutern Review see also Donald Davidson, “Regionalism as Social Science,” 209-224, for his preference for Turner over Beard. The essay may be read as supportive of multiculturalism and postmodernism. For a repudiation of Robert E. Lee’s too passive stance, see Andrew Nelson Lytle, “Robert E. Lee,” SR Vol.1 (1935-36): 411-422. “[It was not Lee, who submitted, and trusted in God’s mercy, but rather] those who led the Ku Klux Klan, that society which made survival possible.”

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