That Herman Melville became primarily a writer – and later the writer of the Great American Novel, as some people think of Moby-Dick – would have surprised his father Allan, who said (when Melville was seven) that he was “very backward in the language and a little slow in understanding. “His older brother Gansevoort was the one who was meant for size, his parents thought, but that changed when Allan died in 1832 after filing for bankruptcy two years earlier. Herman was 12 years old, Gansevoort 16 years old and both suddenly had to find their own way into the world with limited support from the extended family.
The younger Melville worked as a clerk at a local bank before going to some schools, first in Albany, then in Lansingburgh, New York. He taught briefly at school, worked on his uncle’s farm and finally set out as a cabin boy in 1839 on the way to St. Lawrence in London. He was 20 years old at the time. He joined the crew of the whaling ship Acushnet in 1841 and did not return home until 1844 when he began writing and published one novel per year for the next seven years, starting with Typee in 1846.
But he was also committed to the “Young America” movement. Typee’s American editor, Evert Duyckinck, was a vocal member. The New York Young Americans “were proud, raw and strict”, writes Andrew Delbanco in Melville: “His world and his work”, “less cerebral than the” transcendentalists “of New England and more familiar with the populist rhetoric of the Democratic Party.”
Politically, they were committed to free trade, low tariffs, and American expansion both in the North American continent and abroad (with differing views on whether or not this included the expansion of slavery). The aim was to reshape American society and, of particular interest to Melville, bring out new American literature based on “a different relative attitude toward God, toward the objective universe,” as Walt Whitman later wrote in Leaves of Grass formulated – A God who is only immanent, equal to the universe and not outside and above. God would not save the world, but America could by submitting it and transforming it in the light of new “scientific” thinking.
Until relatively recently, it was common for scientists to read Melville as an infallible proponent of the new thinking. Fifteen years ago Giles Gunn wrote in A Historical Guide to Herman Melville that Moby-Dick staged “the death struggle of an old civilization and the emergence of a new one”. Sure, Ishmael goes through hell aboard the Pequod under the rule of a satanic Ahab, who for Gunn is a symbol of “1,900 years of Western thought and its fruitless confrontation with the problem of evil”, but Ishmael is sure to show up in the end. with his “free and simple kind of ingenious desperado philosophy”, as Melville characterizes him at one point in the novel. The “Ishmael who returns to tell the story and reflect fully on his experiences is Melville’s prototype of modern man – egalitarian and liberationist in his relationship with others, with conventional beliefs and practices, and with his own body.”
In Herman Melville’s Ship of State, Will Morrisey argues convincingly that Moby-Dick does indeed offer a critique of the premises and political goals of the Young America movement – premises and goals that remain with us to this day. The America Melville returned to in 1844, writes Morrisey, “was about to elect James K. Polk to the presidency”:
Polk was part of a new intellectual and political movement that saw a generation change in the American conception of the right basis for law and freedom. While the founding generation understood the building of a republican regime as an attempt to secure inalienable natural rights for “all men” under this regime, the generation after that was divided over whether “all men” included slaves. . . This third generation of Americans began to view republicanism less as a security for rights than as a security for and the best expression of democracy itself, the social egalitarianism that Tocqueville described. Could that not lead to majority tyranny, the rule of the “people” in their power instead of popular sovereignty according to the laws of nature and the God of nature?
What we have in Moby-Dick, Morrisey argues, is not a celebration of this new view of American republicanism, but an image of “what a multi-ethnic, multi-religious democratic society would be under the regime of tyranny”.
Morrisey is a keen reader of Moby-Dick and extracts the political lessons of the novel section by section, chapter by chapter. Rather than seeing Ahab as a representative of the old order – a theocrat who takes his people on a wild hunt to “understand” and defeat evil – Morrisey argues that he is a modern man driven by the desire to to conquer nature. Although he is a Quaker, he is a strange Quaker – one who likes to kill, has no particular interest in piety, and rules over his “brothers” with an iron hand. Ahab may profess egalitarianism, but in reality he is simply using it as a whetstone to sharpen his tyrannical ax.
Ishmael is a modern man too, but an observer and commentator on Ahab’s quest. Like Ahab, Ishmael is only a Christian by name. He visits Whaleman’s Chapel before boarding the Pequod and hears a sermon with no mention of Jesus Christ but one that offers a series of moral warnings against “fake pilots” seeking “popularity and honor” above all else. The sermon, as “impressive and moving” as it is, writes Morissey, “unites neither the gathered together nor the messenger with his assembled.”
Ishamel’s true belief is a kind of progressive tolerance. He finds the cannibal Queequeg a better “Christian” than most Christians, but he also hugs the other side of the coin. If all men are equally good, they are equally bad. “Just as we are all savages,” writes Morissey, “we are cannibals beneath the surface of civilization,” and Melville suggests that perhaps the cannibal nature in man is the real driver of American expansion, not some Emersonian universal goodness.
Melville didn’t have time for Emerson (or Whitman’s) remarks about the inherent goodness of humanity. For Emerson: “Nature makes all grievances for good. Nature provided real needs. Finally, no sensible man distrusts himself. Its existence is a perfect answer to all sentimental cavilies. “Such a view was dangerous in Melville’s view. It treated the inevitable darkness in humanity as an illusion that would disappear with the light of knowledge. If this darkness were ignored, men could be tempted to follow a strong man like Ahab on a pseudo-spiritual search for knowledge.
The men on the Pequod are isolated from one another, which enables Ahab to unite them in his search for the mysterious Moby-Dick and to receive assistance with all the tools at his disposal. Ishmael shares Ahab’s quest to some extent, although he is more interested in seeing the whale than in mastering it, and explains at one point that “the parent of fear” is ignorance, which Morissey argues, is what he is entitled to a “cross-border … search” leads to knowledge. “
Ahab’s “sin” is megalomania; Most of the men aboard the Pequod are guilty of carelessness. They allow themselves to be coerced or bribed into a company that will lead them towards their destiny. In a final chapter of Ship of State, Morrisey elaborates on the lessons of Melville’s collection of civil war poems, battle pieces, which instruct readers to avoid extremism, act prudently, and “listen to one another. . . respect one another. “In his later contribution to Battle-Pieces, Melville writes that the South was” persuaded to revolution “by those who” plausibly “argued that their” constitutionally guaranteed rights were directly threatened. “The” most sensitive Love of freedom, “he continues,” was involved in supporting a war that was implicitly ending … an Anglo-American empire based on the systematic humiliation of man. “
Melville hoped, Morrisey writes, that after the Civil War, Americans would “put aside the passions that nearly destroyed the country.” In the poem “America”, which closes the main part of Battle-Pieces, America stands on a rock with “Hope has become wise / and the youth has matured for the seat of old age”. She had seen the “anger of her brood” fight in “cruel … pride” – had seen the “horror of the vision” – but she broke out of her “trance” and went from death “to life promoted”. In his later writing, however, Melville writes that in private life, “true reconciliation seldom follows a heated argument … friendship can only be sustained through mutual respect, and true friends are punctually equals,” suggesting that inequality is bringing the two Americas back into the Civilian population could drive war.
Morrisey’s Ship of the State is a wise book, even if its prose is occasionally thorny and perhaps too heavily quoted. Like many of the essays in A Political Companion to Herman Melville (2013), Morrisey offers us a more nuanced view of Melville’s politics and a rich and educational new way of understanding Moby-Dick. “In Moby-Dick,” writes Morrisey, “Melville not only anticipates the” spiritual “tyrants of the next century, but also rejects the cheerful illusions of utopia with which they would seduce the vast occupations under the influence of their regimes.”