A Whale of a History Thread

The History Thread returns with another look at the politics of a Classic American Writer – in this case, Herman Melville. The author of Moby-Dick is more like Edgar Allan Poe than Nathaniel Hawthorne (who was Melville’s close friend, and probable unrequited love), in that he rarely made a public show of his politics; one must trace his beliefs through his writings.

Melville’s work is, unsurprisingly, largely autobiographical. His destitute life in New York informed the miserable childhoods of many Melville protagonists. His repeated return to oceangoing tales reflects Melville’s own career as a sailor, fictionalizing his experiences hunting whales, trading in the South Seas and serving in the US Navy in his most celebrated works, from Moby-Dick to Billy Budd. He wrote an epic poem, “Clarel,” exploring his ambivalence towards religion after visiting the Holy Land in 1857. Much of his work (including “Bartleby the Scrivener,” his famous tale of a man who would “prefer not to” do his assigned work, and The Confidence-Man, probably his best-regarded novel in his lifetime) simply reflected his frustrations towards not being accepted as a writer.

Melville did not openly identify with any political party. Scattered evidence suggests he sympathized with the Democratic Party, at least broadly, from his friendship with Hawthorne to his poems on the Civil War which evinced a sympathy for the South to holding a customs post in New York City under Andrew Johnson. Yet considering the political orientation of the Democrats circa Melville’s lifetime, it’s hard to square this with Melville’s own work, which shows the great writer wrestling with racism, slavery and the power structures of his time more forthrightly than many of his contemporaries.

moby dick
The Unbearable Whiteness of Moby

Indeed Melville’s work is most easily read as anti-authoritarian tracts. Moby-Dick, of course, is subject to endless interpretations in its tale of an all-powerful tyrant leading his crew on a doomed quest to destroy the White Whale. The crew is racially diverse and riven by class divisions, none of which matters to Ahab as much as his singleminded pursuit of the Whale. This, too, shows up in Billy Budd, where the protagonist is executed for accidentally killing a brutal officer, not because the Captain believes it’s just but because it’s necessary to uphold the rigid chain of command. White-Jacket, a scintillating account of life in the Navy, shows its captain exercising endless acts of petty tyranny, from ordering his men to shave their beards at penalty of imprisonment to graphic, brutal scenes of flogging.

In these and other tales, life at sea, with the clear-cut demarcation of authority, provided an easy for Melville’s disillusionment with antebellum America. Whatever America’s pretensions towards democracy, society was easily controlled and driven by the whims of its leaders, who too often were incompetent or tyrannical. Perhaps this is too vague to draw specific political conclusions (“Who ain’t a slave?” asks a character in Moby-Dick); after all, Democrats of the time viewed themselves as Tribunes of the People (read, the White People) while Whigs and Republicans positioned themselves as checks on executive tyranny and opponents of slavery. Few see themselves as the oppressors, or their side as the one restricting freedom.

But Melville’s most overtly political work is his 1855 novella Benito Cereno. It’s a fictionalized account of a real slave mutiny in 1805, where slaves aboard the vessel Tryal had overthrown and murdered the ship’s crew, then waylaid an American trading vessel off the coast of Chile. Melville uses this scenario to show the humanity and intelligence of black slaves against the pompous ignorance of whites, from the overtly cruel Spanish slavers to the American Captain Delano, who expresses a condescending sympathy for the freedmen while viewing them as little better than animals. Jettisoning his condescending sympathy, Delano and his men join forces with the surviving Spaniards to suppress the rebellion; the slave leader Babo is executed, his head mounted on a pike, while Delano and his crew assuage their guilt with prize money.

benito cereno
“Who Ain’t a Slave?”

In its stark depiction of the horrors of slavery, its uncommonly humanized (if somewhat stereotyped) African characters, and Melville lacerating white attitudes towards people of color, even among “enlightened” Yankees, Benito Cereno is amazingly forthright and powerful. Black authors from Ralph Ellison to Toni Morrison have hailed it as transcending its time in a way more famous antislavery works like Uncle Tom’s Cabin have not. Connecting this work to Moby-Dick, Morrison lauds Melville for showing how “the trauma of racism is, for the racist and the victim, the severe fragmentation of the self and has always seemed to me a cause (not a symptom) of psychosis.” Morrison also notes how Delano’s greed and sense of self-preservation overcome his nominal idealism: “when measuring fear and the loss of control against money, money wins.”

As with Hawthorne and Poe, Melville’s work contains a number of attacks on contemporary politicians that might be missed by modern readers. Contemporary reviewers fell over themselves debating which political figure (John Calhoun? William Lloyd Garrison?) Ahab might represent in Moby-Dick. The answer is probably none of the above, though it’s telling how easily his work lent itself to such an interpretation. More clear cut, again, is Benito Cereno; Melville’s characterization of Captain Delano was a caricature of the recently deceased Daniel Webster for his role in the Compromise of 1850. Even “Bartleby the Scrivener” takes a potshot at Franklin Pierce, blaming the title character’s plight on his losing a government job under Pierce.

Herman Melville, then, isn’t a “political writer” in the sense that a Frederick Douglass or Harriet Beecher Stowe was political. He wasn’t advocating specific causes or consciously pushing a worldview through his writings. Rather, like all great novelists, his work reflects the concerns and tensions of its time in a broader, more absorbing sense than telling voters they must support Abraham Lincoln or Stephen Douglas.