YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 10, 2010

Herman Melville: Dead White Male


[This short article summarizes my chief arguments in Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. It is slightly revised since publication on HNN: www.hnn.us/articles/665html.]

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

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

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

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

The suppressed materials include the following items:

1. Melville’s annotations to Milton’s Paradise Lost, which strongly suggest that Melville identified with Milton’s Satan in his seduction of Eve (Book IX). Like the radical puritan, Milton himself in Melville’s reading, poked his nose into the affairs of his betters. When the annotations surfaced in the early 1980s, these materials were confined to a very few Melvilleans, and when finally published, leading scholars construed their message as evidence for the construction of a sobered-up moderate Melville (see https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/).

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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