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:]

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

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

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

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

The suppressed materials include the following items:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 17, 2010

Beethoven, A Clockwork Orange, and rosy Prometheans

Beethoven, colored as black by an Afrocentrist

My roses are in hectic bloom and vegetable seeds are sprouting in the back yard.  My cousin Victor Rosenbaum, a concert pianist, was practicing at my house for a concert tonight in a Southern California university, and as I listened to his program of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin, and, given the season, I thought once again of the astonishing flowering of Romantic music during the late 18th and early nineteenth centuries in Europe, the repertoire most favored by my cousin and that continues to beguile my own imagination.  I thought too of some hard things I have said about self-styled “traditionalists” who believe that “secularism” is leading us down the path to perdition.

Recall the film A Clockwork Orange, with a script by Anthony Burgess, and based on his novel, but directed (some say misdirected and botched) by Stanley Kubrick. In the film, the thuggish street urchins who killed at random were seemingly inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.* I was frightened and bewildered when I saw the movie long ago, and disappointed that it was considered to be a triumph of vanguard movie-making by a John Cage-influenced composer teaching at California Institute of the Arts (1971). Today I am not so shocked. The Pelagian-Promethean impulse, though essential to the understanding of such ambivalent writers as Goethe or Herman Melville, is now discredited by leading intellectuals and politicians as Jacobin, or Napoleonic, and leading ineluctably to catastrophic mob rule or the debauched tastes of “mass society.” Also, there is a clear track from the Jacobins to Nazism and Communism in the writing of some other figures on the Right, despite an entirely different genealogy described persuasively by Frank E. Manuel in his The Prophets of Paris (1962): Turgot, Condorcet, Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Comte.

I am thinking of some of the traditionalist figures on the Right criticized in prior blogs: Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Newt Gingrich, who claim that our Constitution was God-given and hence not the conscious creation of the Founding Fathers, themselves building upon such prior intellectuals as Spinoza, Montesquieu, or other figures of the European Enlightenment who had theorized a republican form of government. Yet, if one reads the correspondence of John Adams, Abigail Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, it is clear that they viewed their efforts at inventing a republic as experimental.  And like the New England radical Protestants who preceded them, they understood that their efforts would be nil without universal literacy.  Do those influential figures of the Right (mentioned above), while advocating “free will” and “personal responsibility,” diminish the power of human creativity by attributing all of our Constitutional liberties to the will of God? Do our young people even experience European Romanticism and/or the related literary movements described today as realism and naturalism, all of which, with modern technology in the reproduction of great music and literature, had appeal to a larger public than the aristocracy that originally paid for them?

*Since writing this blog, I read the Burgess novel. It is a tour de force in that Burgess invented a special language for Alex the narrator, drawn from Slavic tongues. After a while, one figures out what the neologisms mean. But the main theme is an attack on all Enlightenment projects that are in any way derived from Rousseau. Like Orwell, Burgess was criticizing the statism and optimism of social democracy (I am using the term loosely), for in his medieval Catholic mentality, the notion that man could be made good and peaceful was a utopian illusion.  Burgess himself was a music lover, and Alex’s delight in Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and other classical composers is probably a hint that Alex represents the daemonic side of Burgess’s own character. One must remember that modern artists could view themselves as the Devil’s minions, for they were usurping priestly authority in their manufacture of imaginary worlds. When Alex is subjected to behavior modification, he is outraged that Beethoven’s Ninth is used in the sound track that accompanies pictures of terrible brutality, hence makes him physically ill until he attempts suicide, injuring his brain and removing the vile associations that made him averse to his prior random brutality. He ends up renouncing his romantic adolescence as he enters adulthood and resolves to find a wife.

April 12, 2010

Multiculturalism/ethnopluralism in the mid-20th century

[This is a brief excerpt from Hunting Captain Ahab, chapter two, expanding on the mixed-message of progressive ideology and locating the increased deployment of  ethnopluralism to defeat all forms of materialist analysis in the 1940s: ] 

The concept of ethnopluralism could redirect and absorb the class resentments of the potentially explosive redundantly educated–the “disillusioned” worker or petit bourgeois, overtrained (in technology) and underemployed in the Depression, who had been spotted by other conservative intellectuals as shock troops for fascism between the wars. The famous historian Friedrich Meinecke’s postwar explanation for “the German catastrophe” resonates with the ruminations of earlier organic conservatives:[i]

“It often happens nowdays…that young technicians, engineers, and so forth, who have enjoyed an excellent university training as specialists, will completely devote themselves to their calling for ten or fifteen years and without looking either to the right or to the left will try only to be first-rate specialists. But then, in their middle or late thirties, something they have never felt before awakens in them, something that was never really brought to their attention in their education–something that we would call a suppressed metaphysical desire. Then they rashly seize upon any sort of ideas and activities, anything that is fashionable at the moment and seems to them important for the welfare of individuals–whether it be anti-alcoholism, agricultural reform, eugenics, or the occult sciences. The former first-rate specialist changes into a kind of prophet, into an enthusiast, perhaps even into a fanatic and monomaniac. Thus arises the type of man who wants to reform the world.

Here one sees how a one-sided training of the intellect in technical work may lead to a violent reaction of the neglected irrational impulses of the spirit, but not to a real harmony of critical self-discipline and inner creativeness–rather to a new one-sidedness that clutches about wildly and intemperately…A technical calling, however, does not necessarily precede the world reformer’s intemperance. Men with hot heads, ambition, and an autodidactic urge for advancement, when forced into the technically normalized working conditions of the present day, may easily lose their inner equilibrium in the conflict of the spirit with the world about them and flare up in a blaze. The petty painter and quarellist Hitler, who once had to earn his scanty bread in construction work and in the course of it whipped up his hatred of the Jews into a general philosophy of world-shaking consequences, is a case of this kind (36-37).”

In the transition from Homo Sapiens to Homo Faber, Meinecke explained, we had lost the integrative powers of religion: “This was no specific spiritual force, but a spiritual need springing from and existing for the totality of the soul, and called upon to preserve the inner community of the life of men and to knit the ties between the simple workingman and the cultured man of developed individuality (38).”

    Martin Dies and James Conant, along with other American progressives, had been similarly alarmed by the rupture in human history, a rupture that had prompted the desire for a complexly developed individuality in previously “simple” workingmen; hotheads and ambitious autodidacts were to be cooled out through incorporation into an organic community; special attention would be paid to suppressed metaphysical desires, unpredictably erupting in misguided attempts to reform the world. With class, the materialist analytic category par excellence, translated into the soulful völkisch discourse, the irrationalism of pseudo-Enlightenment watered the growing field of social psychology, a developing discipline ever alert to the monomaniacal propensities of the one-sidedly educated and upwardly mobile protofascist middle class.

    The Official House Committee for the Investigation of Un-American Activities (chaired by the Texas populist Martin Dies) continued the spiritualizing progressive line in 1939, exalting the toleration of specified differences over equality:  “It is as un-American to hate one’s neighbor because he has more of this world’s material goods as it is to hate him because he was born into another race or worships God according to a different faith…The simplest and at the same time the most correct definition of communism, fascism, and nazi-ism is that they all represent forms of dictatorship which deny the divine origin of the fundamental rights of man…[T]hey assume and exercise the power to abridge or take away any or all of these rights as they see fit. In Germany, Italy, and Russia, the state is everything; the individual nothing. The people are puppets in the hands of the ruling dictators…[Rights] are subject to the whims and caprice of the ruling dictators…While the foundation of Americanism is class, racial, and religious tolerance, and the foundation of nazi-ism and fascism is racial and religious hatred, and the foundation of communism is class hatred. Americanism is a philosophy of government based upon the belief in God as the Supreme Ruler of the Universe; nazi-ism, fascism, and communism are pagan philosophies of government which either deny, as in the case of the communist, or ignore as in the case of the fascist and nazi, the existence and divine authority of God. Since nazi-ism, fascism, and communism are materialistic and pagan, hatred is encouraged. Since Americanism is religious, tolerance is the very essence of its being.[ii]

    Dies was claiming that only Our Founder, Paine’s and Jefferson’s deist God of science, materialism, natural rights, and robust intellectual and religious controversy, should oversee the adaptation of Americanism to the novel conditions of industrial society. Yet it was materialist analysis that was inciting class hatred. What was to be done? Dies’ remarks require further decoding. “The Supreme Ruler of the Universe” wanted the poor to tolerate those with “more of this world’s material goods,” but, as a Jeffersonian, probably not the socially irresponsible nouveaux riches hardening class lines. In his article of 1940, “Education for a Classless Society,” James Bryant Conant, President of Harvard University, looked back with apprehension upon the old Jeffersonian constituency of small farmers and artisans:

“We see throughout the country the development of a hereditary aristocracy of wealth. The coming of modern industrialism and the passing of the frontier with cheap lands mark the change. Ruthless and greedy exploitation of both natural and human resources by a small privileged class founded on recently acquired ownership of property has hardened the social strata and threatens to provide explosive material underneath (46).”

    The Jeffersonian ideal of a universal quality education would require a poetic metamorphosis: the Icarian hubris of the young republic with its “belligerent belief in individual freedom” must be corrected. Conant had reinterpreted the Jeffersonian heritage for the liberal readership of Atlantic Monthly with a palette of earth colors: “As a recent biographer has said, Jefferson believed that any boy or girl was capable of benefiting from the rudiments of education and would be made a better citizen by acquiring them. He believed in keeping open the door of further opportunity to the extent that a poor boy of ability should not be debarred from continuing his education. “To have gone farther and made a higher education compulsory on all,” suggests this biographer,” would have seemed as absurd to him as to have decreed that every crop on his farm, whether tobacco, potatoes, rye, corn, or what not, must be treated and cultivated precisely as every other…. In terms of the citizen, he believed in the maximum equality of opportunity. In terms of the state, he believed in the minimum of compulsion and interference compatible with the training of all its citizens to the maximum capacity of each (45).” [iii]

     Notwithstanding New Deal reformism, the minimalist Jeffersonian State was still here and would not absurdly impose higher education upon the poor boy with different and unequal mental capacities.

    The grand mixed-message of progressive ideology stands revealed again: on the one hand, class mobility should remain fluid; the lower orders must not be repressed and made desperate by exploitative, inflexible capitalists. On the other hand, Conant was aware that higher education in the twentieth century entailed instruction in science and technology, and materialist tools tended to vitiate the authority of conservative religion that progressives believed had hitherto kept the lid on upsurges from below, i.e., “extreme” demands for structural adjustments in institutions self-evidently pitting class against class. As Conant reasoned (turning Jefferson on his head), the State would hamper the development of the less able future citizen by asking that he acquire more than “the rudiments of education”; for Conant the contrast between the “poor boy of ability” and the less generously endowed of his class would be as rooted in biology as the truly self-evident difference between crops of “tobacco, potatoes, rye, corn or what not.” The stage was set for the postwar triumph of ethnopluralism and this ideology’s valorization of group identity and precapitalist traditional culture over common sense and the search for truth. Lest liberal nationalists worry about fragmentation, hostile “ethnic” competition, and the demise of popular sovereignty, the progressive could argue: as a rooted cosmopolitan each hyphenated American would be tolerant of the Others’ (biologically determined) differences.[iv] Dewily refreshed and spiritualized by sleeping minds, races and ethnicities would peacefully co-exist in a setting of inequality and continued upper-class management: the poor would tolerate the rich, while the progressive educator would honor the individuality of groups, having overcome belligerently individualistic mechanical materialists–troublesome gobbet-girls and other leftovers from the eighteenth century teaching the masses how to read the institutions that controlled their lives. American society would remain classless because race or ethnicity or IQ, not class power in the service of individuality, mastery, and the pursuit of happiness, would fertilize the poor boy’s sense of self and his possibilities for creative development.


              [i] 83. Friedrich Meinecke, The German Catastrophe, trans. Sidney Fay ( Boston: Beacon Press, 1950), 36-38. Though he is writing after World War II, Meinecke’s analysis is typical of other organic conservatives. Similar identifications of the class base of fascism were made by Harold Lasswell before the war, and CIA-affiliated social scientists during the 1940s and 50s. George Mosse built an entire academic career on the claim. Cf. the mid-nineteenth century views of Radical Republican Charles Sumner, who vigorously advocated an excellent popular education for all Americans.

                [ii]  84. Martin Dies, “Un-American Activities and Propaganda,” House Reports, misc. 1939, 10-11. By 1939, Stalinists had given Dies lots of ammunition to support the accusation of fomenting class hatred. However, even if Rosa Luxemburg had been at the helm, Dies would not have placed a dispassionate materialist analysis in the American tradition. Cf. Glenn Beck’s and Jonah Goldberg’s criticism of progressivism with the argument of Martin Dies.

                [iii]  85. James Bryant Conant, “Education for a Classless Society: The Jeffersonian Tradition,” in Gail Kennedy editor, Education for Democracy: The Debate Over the Report of the President’s Commission on Higher Education (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1952), 46, 45. Originally published in Atlantic Monthly, May 1940 and included in one of the Heath series Problems in American Civilization, Allan Nevins, General Editor. Cf. The Presidential Address of Dr. George S. Counts, American Federation of Teachers convention, August 19-22, 1940. Rejecting messianic ideas that would end exploitation, democratic education was “designed to discipline the young, through knowledge and understanding, in the ways of democracy, in the temperate and responsible use of political processes, in the subordination of individual to social welfare, in the sacrifice of the present to the long-time interests of individual and society. It is an education designed to prepare the young to live by, to labor for, and, if need be, to die for the democratic faith.” Jefferson and Lincoln were cited as exemplars.

       In 1945, Ann Westerfield, a student in the Harvard Graduate School of Education working under the direction of Howard E. Wilson, explained the need to revise the social studies curriculum: “I am desirous of finding out how the courses which include the study of the Negro contribute to the improvement of intergroup relations. A program of instruction which includes the study of intergroups relations should fulfill these criteria. 1. It should aim to develop mutual understanding among the children and youth of the various culture groups as a basis for their cooperation. 2. It should foster an appreciation of the part each has played and can continue to play in making America. 3. It should seek to awaken a sense of comman [sic] adventure among Americans of many antecedents to promote American unity through loyalty to American ideals…Prejudice, I feel, is distinctly a problem for education. In most cases it depends on historical misconceptions or social misunderstandings. People should be brought to analyze their prejudice under the light of historical fact and investigate scientifically the background of these irrationalities. In the future, the foundation of the social community must be cooperation. It is evident to men in this country and all over the world that any attempt at prolonged peace will depend on the renunciation of racial and social prejudice by all the people in the world. Since our country has led the way toward the realization of democratic ideals it is imperative that our conduct be a good example for all…” In Ralph Bunche Papers, UCLA Special Collections, Box 1, Folder 23. Bunche was appalled by such formulations, for he viewed “prejudice” as built into the economic system that pitted black and white workers against each other; bigotry could not be erased without structural transformation.

[iv] 86. By biological determinism, I do not mean that the followers of Herder had a materialist understanding of the natural sciences. As John Crowe Ransom or Eric Voegelin understood the völkisch idea of a national culture, there would be a spiritual uniformity in a people who had interacted for a lengthy period with their specific material environment, evolving into a balanced relationship with nature and each other.

November 18, 2009

The radicalism of the Founders and Herman Melville

New York Times, 8/26/86, I.23

Bookes into Dragon’s Teeth

How was it possible for Henry A. Murray or Charles Olson or Jay Leyda (all father-figures to many New Left intellectuals) to have read Melville as Hitler, as Jew, as White-Jacket, or Ahab, or Margoth?  How could this organic conservative be anathematized by other organic conservatives?  Melville was accused of exaggerating the suffering of sailors and other workers, hence lending the prestige of an upper-class witness to their grievances; and moreover he refused to turn ruthlessness into Christian charity: though Might was forced by circumstances to be harsh, that didn’t make it Right; authority was demented if it thought otherwise.  Anyway, the more alert members of the lower orders  saw through their double-talking; obscurantist “doctors” and philanthropy were too weak as remedies to correct the inhuman character and the violence of early industrialism and the newspaper-reading “mobocracy.”  It was Melville’s insistence that Christian morality be lived out in everyday life along with his refusal to idealize either leaders or the led, that made him a Jew to “pragmatists” patrolling the perimeters of dissent, spotting possible defectors to another class, escapees who had the self-assurance to lead meaningful reforms.  His darts at confidence-men pierced the very heart of the corporatist liberal project and its attempts to turn the stony prisons of class into sunny meadows (See Bartleby: “I know where I am.”)

Melville’s reservations about democracy as it existed during his lifetime (1819-1891) did not deviate from those of Thomas Paine or of Thomas Jefferson, Abigail and John Adams in their correspondence during the early national period:  There could be no informed political choice without universal training in critical thought; the press would be a negative influence insofar as it spread rumors and libels with no equally accessible corrective institutions to challenge them; Catholic immigrants, they feared, inured to obedience to the reactionary church, would undermine rational political processes; similarly Americans should not impose their system of democratic republican government upon foreign peoples (e.g. Spanish-speaking America) still in thrall to autocratic rule; the love of money would doubtless undermine the civil liberties they had fought so hard to establish; it would take hundreds of years for democracy to take hold and there would be periods of regression, but literacy and the presence of mass-produced books would prevent a thoroughgoing return to the Middle Ages.  Such were the fulminations of Hume’s “fanatics”: Lockean radical puritans and deists assessing the obstacles to a fully realized popular sovereignty; with Melville, neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but realistic.[1]

[1] See The Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed. Lester J. Cappon (Chapel Hill: U. North Carolina  Press, 1959). As I have argued above, Jeffersonian agrarian principles could also undermine democratic reforms insofar as they were coopted by Southern apologists for slavery and white supremacy. But in this instance I am referring solely to the question of free thought and popular education.

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