The Clare Spark Blog

April 10, 2011

“Who ain’t a slave?”

Rockwell Kent drawing, 1927

The deeper meaning of Ishmael’s query to the reader, “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that,” was raised in my prior blog. I took this up in my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, chapter 3. Here is an excerpt with its footnotes. I relied upon a published typescript written by two leftist professors who were making a case for working-class abolitionism. I likened the utopian socialism of Brook Farm, with its patrician deviation from American industrialization (Hawthorne had been there briefly, and parodied it in The Blithedale Romance) to “Ishmael” and his upper-class rebellion.

[Book excerpt:] Had Melville switched from radical to conservative, or was his fiction of the 1850s, situated in its full historical context, always acceptable to conservative readers and publishers, especially those sympathetic to the Jeffersonian agrarian critique of industrial capitalism, a belief-system agreeable to Southern planters who had claimed that “wage slavery” was worse than chattel slavery and that African savages were benefited by the civilizing influence of their Christian owners? Utopian socialists and land reformers alike possessed an organic, communitarian view of the ideal society and gradualist schemes for how to get there; they generally were not based in the working class,[i] and their spleen was directed against abolitionists like Charles Sumner or the Garrisonians whom they relentlessly slandered as bourgeois individualists indifferent to the welfare of Northern workers. “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that,” says an (apparently) resigned and passive Ishmael in “Loomings,” the first chapter of Moby-Dick, where the narrator identifies the “story of Narcissus” as “the key to it all.”[ii]

Only land ownership, it was believed by patrician radical reformers, could preserve independence and republican virtue. I have inferred from Melville’s writing that he shared their fantasy that the process of proletarianization would inevitably cause massacres perpetrated by landless, hence impoverished and demoralized masterless men (and yet he sneeringly calls one conformist in White Jacket “Landless”: hence “the Melville problem”).  Of course the abolition movement was not monolithic: the modernizers who controlled the new Republican Party were eager to rid the country of Southern domination of both parties (Whig and Democratic) that had hampered expansion and industrial development with free labor; the more progressive among them (writing in The National Era or The National Antislavery Standard) expected future adjustments in the relations between capital and labor, but certainly not drastic structural transformation. There was, however, a substantial and vocal working-class abolitionist constituency with international moral and intellectual support, and for them abolition was the immediate objective that made more equitable class relations possible; they denounced the “Associationists” (Fourierists) and land reformers as knowingly or unknowingly complicit with Southern interests and proslavery apologetics. [iii]

Melville did not publish in The Voice of Industry or The Liberator orother periodicals that presented dialogue between the various factions of the antislavery movement; instead such confrontations found their way into his fiction. Most disturbingly, he transformed successful slave revolts (for instance, the episodes of the Creole and Amistad) into the disaster of Benito Cereno that brought everyone down. The question remains: during the decade of accelerating national crisis and dramatic political realignment was his political stance that of a neutral party? Was he a subtly reactionary amanuensis of Southern agrarian interests? [Since I wrote this, I have reread George Fitzhugh’s Cannibals All! (1857): I believe now that Melville was indeed the organic conservative that many  have suspected, and that his proletarian years convinced him that free labor was hardly free.] Or could he have been a covert partisan of the most advanced materialists (at least on those occasions when he was not overwhelmed with feelings of responsibility for the decline of his family)? [Some believe that such romantic radicalism as he frequently displayed was probably owing to his outsider status as either a closet or practicing homosexual.]

[i] 40. See William Lloyd  Garrison’s critique of the non-threatening character of Fourierism as compared to the antislavery movement, June 14, 1850, while debating William Ellery Channing at the 1850 Antislavery Convention: “What signal success has yet crowned the Fourier movement…? What alarm, what commotion has it caused throughout the country? What mob has howled upon its track? To what extent has it secured the confidence and awakened the zeal of the white laboring classes? Where are its multitudinous supporters! They are non est inventus. I am not speaking reproachfully, but dealing with facts. On the other hand, how eventful has been the history of the anti-slavery movement! What discussion and conflict, what agitation and tumult, what tremor and consternation, in Church and State, among all sects and parties, have marked its triumphant career! And how many have been induced to become its advocates and supporters! Is not this an evidence of rare vitality?” Garrison goes on to accuse “the Socialists” (i.e. the utopian socialists) of racism and sexism. (Philip Foner and Herbert Shapiro, Northern Labor and Antislavery, 172-173.)

[ii] 41. If Melville is seriously identified with Ishmael here, then he has repudiated White-Jacket (who scorns the lackey Happy Jack) and every other one of his democratic rebels. The tone is joking and ironic; perhaps such teasing of the conservative reader (including Hawthorne) constitutes the “wickedness” of the book.

[iii] 42. See Foner and Shapiro, Northern Labor and Antislavery. For the land reformer critique of abolitionism (wage slavery was worse than chattel slavery), see George Henry Evans, Young America, 11 Mar. 1848 (174-178).  On the comparable conditions of wage and chattel slavery, see John Pickering, National Reformer (184-185), or Evans, Working Man’s Advocate, 27 July  1844 (189-91). On international support for abolitionism, see “Address From the People of Ireland,” signed by “Daniel O’Connell, Theobald Matthew, and Sixty Thousand other Inhabitants of Ireland, published in The Liberator,  21 Mar. 1842 (114-116). See also “Address to Mr. Collins,” a statement by Glasgow workers, in Herald of Freedom (Concord, New Hampshire) 4 June 1841 (236-41), and the racist plea to Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor to abandon his support for abolitionism, published in Working Man’s Advocate 22 June 1844 (186-189).
[end, book excerpt]

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