YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

December 15, 2011

Billy Budd’s ragged edges

Benjamin Britten and friends

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

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

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lengthy poem Clarel, a Poem and a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, some more harmless poems and sketches, and finally the unpublished ms.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scholastic version of Billy Budd

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


June 12, 2011

Call Me Isabel (a reflection on “lying”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 11, 2011

Review excerpts re Hunting Captain Ahab

Eaton portrait of HM, hung in Houghton Library, Harvard

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

Letter to the editor, Journal of Cold War Studies:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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