The Clare Spark Blog

March 31, 2012

Nell Painter’s History of White People

Rather than summarize the scope of Nell Painter’s book, I ask you to read this review by a sympathetic colleague.

As  Linda Gordon’s NYT review makes clear, Nell Irvin Painter, a much honored historian, has written The History of White People (Norton, 2010), directing this synoptic intellectual/cultural history to a popular audience, hence biting off too big a chunk of history. Not so surprisingly, Professor Gordon, a well-known left-feminist, does not launch an ideological critique, for she shares the same social democratic/New Deal belief system. Gordon is a noted historian of the welfare state and feminist issues, but since she is of the same faction as Painter, she could not identify the slant of Painter’s book, which mocks the notion of cultural syncretism and the melting pot in favor of a salad bowl or multiplicity of American identities, defined in terms that rooted cosmopolitans would recognize: see, and

Briefly, Painter reiterates the left-progressive (but not Marxist*) story of American identity, one defined in racial terms: American identity, the echt example of Manifest Destiny masquerading as universal messianic liberator, was in fact racist, imperialist, classist, sexist, etc. Howard Zinn could have written this book, and did. American identity is nowhere related to the revolutionary character of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, or to the uniqueness of the conception of popular sovereignty—a notion of popular participation that would require several centuries and bitterly fought conflicts to be worked out, and even then, thanks to the unhelpful interventions of many progressives like Painter and Gordon, was undermined by boundaries to education established by corporatist liberal elites and their allies and pets, the teachers unions. For a chronology see

The corporatist liberals are a movement of patricians who attached themselves to “intercultural understanding” as a solution to looming class politics from 1900 on, and who were especially threatened in the 1930s, when materialist analyses were prominent and popular. (See my blog Ralph Bunche and other anti-racist blacks—especially Abram L. Harris–writing in the materialist tradition and in opposition to German Idealism, are absent from her book, along with such as white antiracists Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens and many abolitionists, also Anglophiles in the sense that they celebrated libertarian ideals.)

In Painter’s account, New England Puritans were the bad guys whose ancestors framed the Magna Charta (dissed by Painter), and whose descendants were (with the exception of Ruth Benedict) nativists associated with the Republican Party. All other Americans (obviously blacks, but also non-Aryans) were  their victims.  But recent trends in intermarriage have blurred the sharp racial lines that were established by “scientific racism.” The latter is an ideology forged in Germany and England, and then eagerly taken up by American Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and those she associates with him, Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant  [although Zangwill dedicated his The Melting Pot to TR]. Into the brew add a host of American eugenicists and evil statisticians, who not only persecuted Appalachian whites and ethnic groups from Eastern and Southeastern Europe, arbitrarily designating themselves (the WASPS) as the natural elite and true white people, but originated, avant la lettre, some of the most repellent Nazi practices and beliefs.

Along the way, Professor Painter, like other social democrats, presents herself as a sympathizer to the working class and to anarchists and communists absurdly hounded by the proto-Nazi Republicans in the riotous and strike-ridden year of 1919. (Readers of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism will find some of the same miscreants, e.g., Margaret Sanger, only in his widely admired book, it is progressives who are the fascists and Nazis.) And yet, Painter does not recognize or acknowledge the German Romantic predecessors to multiculturalism and Nazism alike. Nor does the term “organic conservative” darken her palette. (See these take shape in the interwar period in numerous venues as I laid out in several blogs:,,  In other words, the progressives and Southern Agrarians were as enamored of “Anglo-Saxon” collectivist/corporatist categories as the uniformly racist Republicans she taunts throughout.

I do not know why Painter wrote this book unless it was meant to lure Reagan Democrats away from the Republican Party, back to the Democratic Party as it has evolved under President Obama. Her work reminds me of a common designation by 1930s Stalinists whereby all Republicans were Fascists, whereas the multicultural Soviet Union was the home to the most amply realized freedom of the individual.

One or two last words: Although Painter is hostile to antisemitism, she is not sympathetic to Israel, or to “Jews” who insist on “having the last word.” I did find her description of Hiram Powers’s “The White Slave” to be a useful key to identifying the erotic appeal of Katherine McPhee’s big number in the last episode of Smash. Dressed in white drapery, country mouse McPhee as Marilyn Monroe, is hounded to death and caged by her [Jewish?] masked promoters/fans, with her allure defined by whiteness and the chains (bars of the cage) that link purity, sex, and submission. But any hip feminist would have seen through that one.

Hiram Powers' White Slave

*Marx admired the American Civil War as one of the great world revolutions. His communist supporters, writing in The New Masses during the 1930s, admired America for having developed the productive forces that would make the transcendence of capitalism a practical possibility. In those days, one could find radicals who admired the bourgeoisie as a progressive class. The New Left, mesmerized by black nationalist militants and Afro-centrists like Nell Painter, scrubbed away that interpretation of U.S. history. I rather  like her paintings however.

"Plantains 3" Nell Painter

July 4, 2009

Unfinished Revolutions and contested notions of “identity”

Professor Nicholas Boyle

[For a more recent blog on decadence see]

Anyone who has followed recent developments in history and politics should be amazed by the ubiquity of the term “identity”. What is not noted is the drastic transformation in the meaning of that word, and the implications are alarming for those who believe that civil rights (most especially the right of every individual citizen to challenge authority and to question the lines of interpretation handed down by all existing establishments as to “truth” or the causes of conflict) are intrinsic to an advanced democracy, such as the one we celebrate today, July 4, 2009. For as I have argued in all my published work and in various blogs and comments on the internet, the very concept of the free-standing, relatively autonomous individual is being systematically erased by antidemocrats or pseudo-democrats, who imagine themselves to be “anti-imperialists” and “anti-racists.” (I have written about the origins of multiculturalism and its racialist discourse in numerous venues, but here is one that tries to sum it all up:, or see the version I posted here:, or try this more recent blog:

What do I mean by unfinished revolutions? While in graduate school in history, as I learned about “the Age of Revolution” it dawned on me that none of the great transformations from the feudal world to the modern one, mostly in “the West” had been resolved. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation were not simply about whether monarchs in Europe would adhere to Catholicism or Protestantism or Anglicanism (the “Elizabethan compromise”), but the key element–whether or not individual conscience trumped the authority of Churches and Kings–is still a hot topic today. Then came the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, and the warfare between science and religion proceeds apace, often disguised in “the culture wars.” What is at stake here is the universality of observed facts, but the new identity politics relegates such an affront to authority as crypto-fascism or imperialism. For these supposed freedom fighters, there are only group facts, incomprehensible to those not sharing the same (group) identity.  Now recall that the further liberalizing American Revolution, grounded in both the scientific revolution and left-wing Protestantism, established the “levelling” notion of equality before the law, along with meritocracy, as its founding principles (at least for propertied white males).

Hard by that unprecedented blessed event came the French Revolution (inspired in part by the American Revolution)  and its continued transfer of authority to citizens: Power, knowledge, and virtue now fled castles and cathedrals to repose in the breasts and brains of ordinary people, and, affirming the liberties that had been asserted in the preceding upheavals, appeared a Declaration of the Rights of Man and the elevation of the Prometheus myth, even in the principalities of Germany, as early Goethe and Schiller can attest (and before that, Spinoza in the seventeenth century Netherlandish revolt against Spain).

Lest anyone think that the traditional elites took these events, disastrous to their property and privileges, lying down, one need only read the outpouring of conservative Catholic and other organic conservative denunciations of the bloodthirsty Jacobins and their hideous progeny, progeny that includes Stalin, Mao, and Hitler. For the purpose of this essay, their most significant gesture was the erasure of “rights” in favor of “obligation” or “duty” to the ‘revolution, or ‘race’ or ‘nation’ or ‘community.’ Similarly, the individual observer, testing reality with her or his senses, then submitting facts to open-minded and curious others for confirmation, was beheaded or deemed “vile atheist” and mad scientist. Now “identity”, understood in my youth as a coherent sense of self, a sense of self that was antithetical to the fragmented and dissociated sufferer from paranoia or other mental illnesses, that notion of self was drastically transformed into “identity” as “national character”: a set of perceptions shared by all of the inhabitants of a nation-state or “race” –a population that formed a “community” with a specific Zeitgeist. This latter notion came down to us as Lamarckianism or a kind of blood and soil “environmentalism.” The eighteenth-century German theologian J.G. von Herder, the founder of cultural anthropology, got the credit for his “rooted” cosmopolitanism, supposedly an improvement over the atomized, narcissistic, world-destroying individual allegedly promoted by the dread liberals who preceded him in the English, American, and French Enlightenments. (On the perils of the Age of Reason or Utilitarianism, see the interchanges between Coningsby and Sidonia in Benjamin Disraeli’s Coningsby.)

Not too long ago, I discovered that some of Herman Melville’s markings in one of his Bibles came straight out of Goethe’s two Wilhelm Meister novels (the first wild one, written before the French Revolution, the second “reverential” one, written late in life in reaction to the Terror and Napoleon), so I have been reading Goethe and Goethe biography and criticism. It turns out that one Nicholas Boyle, a most prestigious professor of German intellectual history and literature at Cambridge University in the U.K. had published two mammoth volumes on Goethe’s life and art, with a third volume promised. Boyle was so outraged by the French Revolution (an event that seems to have dampened the ardor of the Sturm und Drang German writers), that I suspected a conservative Catholic or Tory reading of that revolution. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered that Boyle had denounced the unforgiving Captain Ahab in another of his books (quoted below), and also admonished Ishmael too for homosexuality! Melville had written a gay and blasphemous book! My notes from Boyle follow, and I have included them here because he gives us a clue as to the real content of “identity” today as understood by its multicultural advocates. As I have proposed above, we are still fighting for the most basic of human rights as promised in the Declaration of Independence.

[my notes:] Nicholas Boyle, “A Catholic Approach to Literature,” Secular and Sacred Scriptures: A Catholic Approach To Literature, 2004, p.140 [IDENTITY]: Boyle writes, “Both sacred and secular literature involve the noninstrumental, nonpurposive use of words, and in different ways assert our freedom from the tyranny of functional, goal-directed thought and language: secular literature by using words to give pleasure and so enabling us to enjoy what is: sacred literature by using words to utter obligation, and so to give us our identity, not as beings who perform a function, but as creatures who know what ought to be.” P.141: “Even the wisdom books of sacred literature are expressions, however refined and derived, of the original obligation. Even Ecclesiastes, in which first-person utterance and the appeal to the author’s experience are so prominent, enjoins us ‘Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth’ (12:1)”

In other chapters (e.g. on Moby-Dick): for Boyle, “having and risking” is modern (false) identity. In this chapter, Boyle deplores the transition starting in 1200 A.D.  from a “feudal” world ordained by God to one ruled by money ( capitalism and imperialism). Boyle asserts that we have forgotten that wealth has its origins in work; we have forgotten our origins in God. A capitalist identity is therefore antithetical to the true Christ-infused identity. Hence, Boyle rejects the very notion of a “feudal” world, for the true world is not characterized by such (utilitarian?) categories. So political theory or structural analysis of economic institutions are off the charts!!! But wait, artists are good: Christ redeemed sinful man, and therefore artists can represent the world, conditioned though they may be by historical and linguistic context (cf. the New Historicism!), but (he implies) their work should participate in the ongoing work of redemption (of suffering?), for we are all in Christ and Christ is in us.

How does Boyle deal with antisemitic representations in literature then?  In his Goethe biography he passes over without judgment Goethe’s several nasty comments about Jews. In the book quoted above, Boyle finds pleasure in Dickens’ Fagin, a monster-victim who is, however, forgiven: pp.133-34: “Fagin is saved from being a stereotypical instrument of anti-Semitism and is raised into literature by our enjoyment of his monstrosity, and that is made possible as much by Oliver’s final prayer for him—Oh! God forgive this wretched man!” (in which a direct vocative can be heard behind the gasp of sentiment)—as by the relish in the caricature when we first meet him, stirring the coffee in an iron pot and serving hot rolls and, of all things, ham to his ‘dears,’ while he inspects their pickings.”
Now, dear reader, if you have followed me thus far, you will understand that Captain Ahab’s unpardonable sin, for Boyle and for others who share his ideology, is Ahab’s/Melville’s (Jewish?) predilection for revenge. We may infer that Ahab doesn’t enjoy the Monster, or the idea that Might Makes Right, or that obligation sans “rights” is a source of pleasure. That Captain Ahab’s quest might be a symbol for all the unfinished revolutions of Melville’s time, revolutions that allowed a cat to look at a king, or ordinary people to educate themselves through study and reflection upon their experience, and who, moreover, might indulge themselves in the analysis of the institutions that controlled their lives, thence to participate meaningfully in government and self-government–such a reading cannot be allowed in an academy that called a halt to the Age of Revolution as it was once understood.  Happy Fourth of July. (For a recent blog on this  subject see

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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