YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

May 28, 2016

Are Americans wild-eyed radicals and killers?

Daniel Boone, 1779, with red cap

Daniel Boone, 1779, with red cap

These past few weeks, I have been immersing myself in English history as written by two political historians for a popular audience (the brief books were given me by my dissertation advisor, the super-organized and detail-oriented Alexander Saxton): R. W. Harris (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-rw-harris-1103491.html) and John W. Derry. (The latter was the more obviously social democratic).

What fascinated me most was the following: both historians had apparently mastered every intricate detail of English politics from the Glorious Revolution (1688) onward, but it was Derry who was the most obviously social democratic, seemingly welcoming the gradual movement toward greater social participation, but it is Harris’s take on the American Revolution that is relevant this Memorial Day weekend.

I was flummoxed by the Harris account of the separation from the “mother country.” It seems that my prior intuitions about [Tory] versions of U.S. history are correct. Forget the heroism of George Washington and the American patriots who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and suffered through that portentous war. Americans should have moderated their views and stayed with mercantilist [Mom]. The only reasons England lost that war was its weakness regarding France and related conflicts, plus the difficulties in shipping soldiers over the Atlantic.

And Americans (especially frontiersmen and other hoi polloi) were crazy radicals (https://clarespark.com/2014/02/07/herman-melville-on-the-materialist-solitary-backwoodsman/ and https://clarespark.com/2014/01/08/the-frontiersmansettler-as-all-purpose-scapegoat/), none more so than the wandering, irreligious, impudent supporter of the American and French Revolutions, Tom Paine. whereas Edmund Burke, Paine’s Irish-born Whig/Tory antagonist, comes out as the true humanitarian (https://clarespark.com/2014/09/13/melville-edmund-burke-and-literary-cubism/) . Moreover, Harris advances the view that the bankrupting of France caused the French Revolution.

I hadn’t heard that one before, though UCLA’ history, art history, and English departments had a lot to say about the [mob-driven?] French Revolution during its Bicentennial year of 1989, though one leftist English professor waxed eloquent on “the crisis of the sacrificial,” which brings me back to Memorial Day weekend when such as our President bandies the word “sacrifice” about, perhaps indirectly alluding to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while forgetting that the descendants of [wild-eyed radicals plus immigrants] in all classes took an awful beating from Japanese imperialists in the Pacific theater during the second world war.

HD Wallpapers

HD Wallpapers

It took me many years of reading histories to realize that fears of “the Bomb” (i.e., science and technology) were at the heart of the Green movement and other social democratic innovations. (https://clarespark.com/2009/09/20/jungians-on-the-loose-part-one/, especially statements of Jung, Broughton, and Henry A. Murray).


January 13, 2012

Mark Twain’s failed Yankee

Soviet poster

When a writer chooses a name suggesting that two personas occupy one body (as in the nom de plume Mark Twain), the reader should take this self-definition seriously. Years ago, Dr. David James Fisher, psychoanalyst and intellectual historian, wrote a short paper on Twain’s difficulties with writing Huckleberry Finn. As I recall, in the scene where Huck, after determining that he feels as bad doing right (obeying the law) as doing wrong (risking a link to abolitionism), and hence will not turn the escaped slave Jim in to slave-catchers, Twain put down the manuscript and did not pick it up for several years. In any case, in the published version, the paddles of a looming steamboat capsize the raft and both Huck and Jim are in danger of drowning.

The next Twain fiction was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), with pointed illustrations by Dan Beard, the latter said to be even more of a radical democrat than Twain. As for the plot, briefly, a 19th century weapons engineer, an ex-worker risen to foreman of the Colt factory, after a blow to his head, wakes up in 6th century Britain, where he introduces modern science, weapons, factories, modern communication including railroads, education, and newspapers in order to rescue the oppressed masses and to institute a Republic, modeled after the Northern U.S., perhaps New England. This blog reacts to my third reading of the novel, with some thoughts regarding ambivalence in the Missouri-born author, with special reference to the ways some 20th century critics have appropriated the novel, in my view, missing what is most interesting about it. Here comes a brief meditation on my response to the novel.

Mark Twain was heavily promoted in the Soviet Union, for more reasons than his objection to the Spanish-American War. Reading CYKAC, one can see why. The narrator of the tale, Hank Morgan states that, regarding the French Revolution, though he started out as a Girondin (a moderate bourgeois, like Condorcet), he ended up as a sans-culotte! Moreover, both Twain and his fictional persona believe that armed struggle is the only route to revolution. When you tote up the casualties of the Terror, they are as nothing compared to the crimes against humanity inflicted by the heartless aristocracy. Soviets elevated Robespierre and other Jacobins, while many conservatives and centrists alike have drawn a straight line between Jacobins and 20th century Fascists and Nazis.

Moreover, Marx was a great admirer of the American Civil War, as are his followers among left-liberals. It was one of the great world revolutions and the most radical moment in U.S. history, they aver. And Hank Morgan’s modernizing animus against the medieval Catholic Church, allied as it was with the vicious, predatory aristocracy, would sit well with Soviets and their supporters. Morgan’s graphic descriptions of medieval barbarism, which many communists associate with the equally savage Gilded Age bourgeoisie, surely endeared Twain to those Soviet propagandists who associated late capitalism with fascism and imperialism. (See my notes on Henry Nash Smith, below in bibliography.)

Mark Twain ca. 1889

One wonders what communist readers would make of the following passage from Twain’s fantasy. I wonder if he was not disclosing one aspect of his own white-suited psyche as he complains that the common people buy into caste position, without a murmur of dissent or complaint: Twain suddenly returns to the present, in my view, defending his manhood, called into question by his youthful folly in briefly joining a Confederate militia, which he then deserted. But recall that Hank Morgan admires the manly gait and elegance of King Arthur. Part of Twain may admire the aristocracy he so vehemently rejects:

“[Referring to ‘the alacrity with which this oppressed community had turned their cruel hands against their own class in the interest of the common oppressor’] This was depressing—to a man with the dream of a republic in his head. It reminded me of a time thirteen centuries away, when the ‘poor whites’ of our South who were always despised, and frequently insulted, by the slave lords around them, and who owed their base condition simply to the presence of slavery in their midst, were pusillanimously ready to side with the slave lords in all political moves for the upholding and perpetuating of slavery, and did also finally shoulder their muskets and pour out their lives in an effort to prevent the destruction of the very institution that degraded them. And there was only one redeeming feature connected with that pitiful piece of history, and that was, that secretly the “poor white” did detest the slave lord and did feel his own shame.  That feeling was not brought to the surface, but the fact that it was there and could have been brought out under favoring circumstances, was something—in fact it was enough, for it showed that a man is at bottom a man, after all, even if it doesn’t show on the outside.’” (UC Press, Mark Twain Project edition, 1984, p.297)

One can almost hear Gyorg Lukás applauding Twain’s/Morgan’s reference to false consciousness, a failing that could be rectified by re-education by a communist vanguard or the “cultural Marxism” of the Frankfurt School critical theorists.

In the brief time that I have looked into recent appropriations of Twain’s text, I have seen only these two points brought out: First, the novel created a sub-genre of science fiction: the time traveling narrative; and second, that Twain was primarily objecting to the medieval revival of his period, and blaming the Southern rebellion as the consequence of besotted readers of Sir Walter Scott’s medieval romances. (Marx also read Scott, incidentally.)

But, such a (culturalist) reading misses one of the most obvious themes of the novel: that modern technology, especially modern weaponry, has changed the nature of warfare; that such innovations as the Gatling gun (mentioned many times in the text, and occasionally deployed in the Civil War), plus the shocking and unprecedented casualties of that conflict, had led, combined with the passivity and herd-behavior of the masses, turned Twain against the very optimism with which “the [Nietschean?] Boss” had begun his innovations. By the end, the would-be republican Twain has killed off his protagonist; he is no radical, but a bohemian who been fantasizing freedom, but finally bows to the all-powerful masters. Hank Morgan’s modernizing efforts cannot stave off the all-powerful Church and its befuddled masses. He has assumed the tragic, nihilistic demeanor of the author of The Mysterious Stranger. No Soviet commissar would have approved such disillusion and cultural pessimism, although Henry Nash Smith, remarked that Morgan’s top-down modernization plan was Soviet in conception.

Many a historian has studied the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Few, if any, would disagree with the notion that it is impossible to modernize without movement toward  mass literacy and numeracy, competitive markets and the scientific world-view that markets encourage, except those Leninists, perhaps, who believe that the dread bourgeois phase of development can be leaped over straight into heaven on earth. To them, I recommend Twain’s famously ‘failed’ tragedy, with the proviso that the author, in Life on the Mississippi (1883) had hard things to say about soul-less machines and even mentioned Frankenstein. Henry Nash Smith erred in identifying Twain with Hank Morgan (ostensibly a laissez-faire capitalist), although there is something of Hank in Twain’s character.


Smith, Henry Nash. Mark Twain’s Fable of Progress: Political and Economic Ideas in “A Connecticut Yankee” (Rutgers UP, 1964). While the quasi-socialistic William Dean Howells and Melville-admirer Edwin Stedman thought that the novel was Twain’s masterpiece,  Smith makes the book an evasion of the true nature of class struggle in the laissez-faire Gilded Age; a product of “Promethean” Twain’s regrettable Anglo-phobic “jingoistic nationalism”; and finds philistine folk humor too weak a reed to carry the immense project of the novel. Twain was simply not up to the challenge, and problems with his own finances explain the unconvincing and depressing finish. He does not note a possible reference to Civil War casualties, nor does he associate the knightly class with Southern slaveholders, but he does see Twain as sympathetic to some noble aristocrats. He is also put off by Dan Beard’s naughtily [Jacobin] illustrations, that had no basis, Nash says, in the text. I disagree with that judgment. Beard’s affinity with Tom Paine was obviously shared by Twain throughout.



http://www.twainquotes.com/19600306.html. Joseph Wood Krutch on how the Soviets got Twain wrong.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Takaki, author of Iron Cages: Race and Culture and 19th Century America (Knopf, 1987). Takaki associates  Hank Morgan with Melville’s Captain Ahab.

http://tinyurl.com/7y8usec. Richard Nielsen quoting Max Weber. Teaches at Boston College.

http://tinyurl.com/7wxxnnf. E-Book version of Connecticut Yankee with introduction, including social views


http://tinyurl.com/7kw4n77 Daniel Aaron on Mark Twain’s Civil War politics

[Tom Nichols translation of the illustrated Soviet Poster:] “And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one–our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.” (http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/twain.html)

The Soviet poster says:  “We can set up a special flag, just the same flag with the white stripes black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones. — Mark Twain”  Then at the bottom: AMERICA – THE NATION OF TRAMPLED RIGHTS.

October 4, 2011

Coulter’s demons, Melville, John Adams on the late 18th C.

Ann Coulter. Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America. New York: Crown Forum, 2011. 354 pages. $28.99.

Best-selling author Ann Coulter, with 19th century ultra-conservative French writer Gustave Le Bon for backup, has determined that the liberals of the US today are a hysterical mob, given to group-think and heinous atrocities, depicted here in detail as she pivots from the enraged French scum to such favorite targets as MSNBC, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, the better for our sick delectation. Upon reflection as I look at her repeated examples, it seems to me that her pages depicting mob-driven mayhem (600,000 French casualties!) are to be compared to 53 million unborn babies massacred by her arch-enemies, pro-choice feminists. She has just as little love for The Declaration of the Rights of Man,* gays, androgynes, liberal Jews (all Jews?), and other women, the latter the objects of Le Bon’s contempt as well.

This is most ironic, for whereas Le Bon was an irrationalist, but a secularist pondering how to control the lower orders since revealed religion (allied with arbitrary authority), had lost its gleam, Coulter, flying his counter-Enlightenment flag, allies herself with the divinely-inspired rationalism she imputes to Anglo-Saxons, the American Revolution, and the Federalist Papers. Such “harmonious order,” delivered by rules-regulated, mob-smashing, yet calm leadership, is invidiously compared to the “Latin” nations’ proclivity for cannibalism, blood lust, tumult and mindless, i.e., womanish, violence. Coulter may be one of the last respectable nativists.

As a book claiming “political science” status, Demonic is so wild and undisciplined that it hardly bears further discussion. Some of her more egregious howlers: 1. The most romantic radicals of the 1960s are conflated with their liberal opponents. Think of the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968, where liberals were the target of the Weathermen and other radicals. 2. Coulter is a conservative, who uses Republicans mostly to suit her argument. Hence, they are useful as anti-racists during the Civil War and Reconstruction, but she does not distinguish between Conservative and Radical Republicans, who had divergent agendas; it was such as Sumner and Stevens who put civil and economic rights for the freedmen at the top of their must-do lists, and before that, Alexander Hamilton’s antislavery position got him labeled as an abolitionist by the Jeffersonians who sought to tear him down from his own lifetime to ours. (See Stephen F. Knott’s book for the juicy details.)

I prefer to compare her pornographic rant to some leaves from Herman Melville’s manuscript, “Billy Budd, Sailor: an inside narrative” for his last composition (unpublished in his lifetime) also pondered the contested legacy of the French Revolution, clearly the subject of his [always controversial and enigmatic] novella:

[Melville, as published in Weaver’s Constable edition, vol.13, not available on the internet:] “The year 1797, the year of this narrative, belongs to a period which as every thinker now feels, involved a crisis for Christendom not exceeded in its undetermined momentousness at the time by any other era whereof there is record. The opening proposition made by the Spirit of that Age, involved the rectification of the Old World’s hereditary wrongs. In France, to some extent this was bloodily effected. But what then? Straightway the Revolution itself became a wrongdoer, one more oppressive than the Kings, and initiated that prolonged agony of general war that ended in Waterloo. During those years not the wisest could have foreseen that the outcome of all would be what in some thinkers apparently it has since turned out to be, a political advance along nearly the whole line for Europeans.”

In the first part of this statement, Melville takes the same dim view of the French Revolution as Coulter and the most ultraconservative thinkers of the period. But he leaves the question open, asking the reader to think very hard and for him/herself, given the more positive views of significant philosophers (e.g. John Stuart Mill) who wrote during his lifetime. Melville was an American patriot and a great admirer of the Declaration of Independence, “that makes a difference” as he wrote to a friend. But for Coulter, Thomas Jefferson is too Frenchified, even a “flake,” and she much prefers the godly [Anglophile] John Adams. But what should she have made of this much reproduced and discussed quote from Adams, clearly aligning the Constitution with the Enlightenment, and with the intonations of Prometheus?

Tom Paine Press image for Billy Budd opera

[Adams:] “The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”

*At a book talk in Los Angeles, Coulter stated that the French have no conception of individual rights. The Rousseau-maddened Jacobin mob leads directly to Hitler and Mussolini. This is the same line advanced by Jonah Goldberg in his Liberal Fascism. See my discussion of the latter here: https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/.

September 17, 2011

Edmund Burke’s tantrum

Marie-Antoinette in Muslin dress

Today, Constitution Day in the United States, brings back the chief ideas of the American Revolution, an exceptional event that partly inspired the French Revolution, the latter upheaval said by its critics to be the blueprint for 20th century totalitarian states. On my Facebook page yesterday, I quoted Burke’s line “…the age of chivalry is gone.” Readers took it to mean chivalrous behavior by men toward women today, and generally did not recognize the quote, nor did all but one show concrete knowledge of the nature of feudalism and its knightly practices, made hollow by the Inquisitions and constant war/anarchy. Most did, however, distance themselves from 1970s feminism. So I quote the context of Burke’s lament, and note that Burke saw a written constitution based on universal human rights as an offense against Nature herself. Note the inversion of deference to established authority and “exalted freedom.” Orwell, anyone?

Before reading the Burke quote, here are two links that fill in some history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Antoinettehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_the_Rights_of_Man.

[Burke, writing about Marie Antoinette* after the natural rights/natural law doctrine embodied in the  Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), and four years before her execution by guillotine]:

“ It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in—glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendor and joy. Oh! What a revolution! And what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream, when she added titles and veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace in her bosom! Little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more [Poe’s “The Raven”?CS] , shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness!….” [footnote: The quoted paragraph “has been called a landmark in the beginning of English literary romanticism.”][i]

Is there any doubt that Disraeli was writing about the Austrian noblewoman in his first novel? See https://clarespark.com/2011/05/04/disraelis-captive-queens/?

Declaration of the Rights of Man

Edmund Burke, “Impractical Zealots,” The French Revolution: Conflicting Interpretations, ed. Frank A. Kafker, James M. Laux, Darline Gay Levy (Malabar, Florida: Krieger, Fifth Edition, 2002), 87-88. This was an excerpt from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), famously answered by Thomas Paine in a controversy that remains timely today.

June 10, 2010

Herman Melville: Dead White Male


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

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

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

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

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

The suppressed materials include the following items:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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