American Literature to 1900: Reading Questions and Information

Reading Questions and Background

Wednesday 3/12/97

Location: [Reed College] [Department of English] [Laura Arnold][ Nation and Narration]Daily Readings

Moby-Dick as Political Allegory


What necessitates a Political reading?

The readings of Moby-Dick as a political allegory rose to popularity during what I called on the last handout the "Cold War Period" (1960-1990). These readings can be seen as an outgrowth of the religious reading that we began to discuss last time and which Vanessa will be discussing a week from today. For most critics within this period, the logic of reading Moby-Dick as an allegory is based on three fundamental notions: 1) the historical circumstance of Melville's day would have make politics an inevitable subject; 2) the entire narrative structure is based on a jeremiad--an innately political form; 3) Melville infuses the narrative with overt markers of allegory thereby encouraging such a reading.

1. The Historical Circumstance Surrounding Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick was composed in 1850-51 during a time which Alan Heimert has characterized as "the very months of America's profoundest political crisis" (Heimert 306). These crises include

1848 The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (Mexico cedes lands in the Southwest to the U.S.

1848 Feb. French Revolution: "the success of the revolution in France and the ease with

which it was accomplished initiated a wave of upheavals across Europe; within months more than fifty revolutions had broke out" (Reynolds 3). Melville visits France in 1849.

1850 Henry Clay's "Compromise" which abolished the slave trade in the District of

Columbia, admitted California into the Union as a free state, divided the rest of the Mexican territory (new Mexico and Utah) into two territories that would decide upon entering the Union if free or slave.

1851 (April) Lemuel Shaw (Melville's father-in-law) enforces the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law

thereby putting the law officially into practice. Whale rhetoric was involved in this controversy. For example, Toni Morrison notes that "when New York anti-slavery leasers William Steward and John van Buren write public letters protesting the Sims ruling, the New York Herald responded. Its attack on 'The Anti-Slavery Agitators' began: 'Did you ever see a whale? Did you ever see a mighty whale struggling?'" (Morrison 15).

1821-61 Over 1,933,330 Irish immigrants entered Boston alone.

2. Moby-Dick as Jeremiad

In the article "Nationalism and Providence in Ishmael's White World," James Duban notes that Ishmael's narrative is structured upon the Puritan jeremiad (84-85). Using the Jeremiad form has intrinsic socio-political ramifications since it was commonly used in the nineteenth-century in political speeches aimed at getting the country "back on track."

Donna Campbell at Gonzaga University provides the following definition of a Jeremiad and summary of its structure (

A. Definition: A term derived from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who in the seventh century B.C. attributed the calamities of Israel to its abandonment of the covenant with Jehovah and its return to pagan idolatry, denounced with lurid and gloomy eloquence its religious and moral iniquities, and called on the people to repent and reform in order that Jehovah might restore them to his favor and renew the ancient covenant. Jeremiad refers to a work that accounts for the misfortunes of an era as a just penalty for great social and moral evils, but holds out hope for changes that will bring a happier future.

According to Sacvan Bercovitch (The American Jeremiad) and Perry Miller (The

New England Mind: From Colony to Province), the jeremiad could exhort to action and caution against headlong zeal. According to Miller, one technical problem is that the jeremiad "could make sense out of existence as long as adversity was to be overcome, but in the moment of victory it was confused" (33).

B. Structure. The structure of the jeremiad was prescribed by the theory of

external covenant.

1. Doctrine (text taken from Bible, especially Isaiah or Jeremiah):

a. Some proposition that people are pursued for their sins.

b. Recital of afflictions

2. Reasons: Exposition of the national covenant

a. terms

b. conditions

c. duties

3. Applications or uses

a. Provocations to vengeance

b. Proposed scheme of reformation

c. Imagined still more gory judgments unless the listeners acted upon preacher's recommendations.

(4. Prescription) Example: General Court 1648 called for day of fasting. Early

on, a distinction between physical afflictions and sins.

The notion that the U.S. had made a covenant with God is derived from the Puritan narrative (Puritans as New Israelites) that we discussed last class. The implication is that the United States is God's chosen nation ; nineteenth-century rhetoricians used such a vision to encourage Americans to view the West and Westward expansion as a New Canaan or promised land. Notice as well that such a rhetoric is based on a notion of an "imagined community" with a monolithic racial heritage. (It is worth noting as well that part of what Channing is doing in the "Moral Argument Against Calvinism" is redefining the Calvinist covenant to make it applicable to all segments of American society--regardless of class, race, or ethnicity.)

For many in the nineteenth century, the "national sin" for which the U.S. was being punished was slavery; however, it is not always clear what made it sinful. (For some this was because it violated America's racial purity, for others because it was itself immoral.) If America was to continue upon its course as "redeemer nation" it would need to get rid of this "sin." You might see if you can find analogues for the structure given above in Moby-Dick.

3. Allegorical Markings

In Chapter 45, Ishmael taunts us that we are truly "ignorant landsmen" if we feel compelled to "scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory" (Melville 177); yet, for most readers this gibe strikes us as remarkably unfair since Melville has himself encouraged such a reading from the very opening when the narrator says (sardonically?) "Call me Ishmael." The traditional hallmarks that signal "read me as an allegory" are those events or images that suggest a reader might translate them into a conceptual language: for example, names that refer us to other stories (if Elijah warns us about Ahab, are we really meant to ignore the earlier version of this story in the Bible?), or characters or events which are presented as a "type" (e.g. Ishmael himself unpacks the whiteness of the whale as indicative of something larger).

For critic Bainard Cowan, allegory was indicative of Melville's era (remember that both Hawthorne and Emerson applaud and/or use it). Cowan argues that allegory is a "cultural activity that arises at moments of crises in history" (Cowan 7). In the nineteenth century, this crisis was the "chasm between Christian principles and bourgeois social action" which caused a loss of a coherent intellectual tradition (Cowan 33-35). You might want to consider what light Cowan's analysis of allegory sheds on why Cold War era critics were obsessed with allegory.

The following is a brief list of some of the common political readings of aspects of the text:

A. The Pequod's mates represent three sections of the American public, and their corresponding harpooners represent the race on which each section has built its prosperity in the early nineteenth century (Heimert 498-534; see Melville Chapters 26-27):

Starbuck = Yankee Queequeg = Pacific Islander

Stubb = "essentially Western" Tashtego = Native American

Flask = Southern Daggoo = African

B. Calhoun has similarities to Ahab in his scientific and methodical planning of attack and his role as the last avatar of 18th C Calvinist logic.

For other possibilities, see below.

4. A Chronological Bibliographic Dialogue

Most of the annotations are supplied by later members of this tradition; all citations are in chronological order.

Weathers, W.T. "Moby-Dick and the Nineteenth-Century Scene," University of Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 1 (Winter 1960): 477-501.

"For Willie Weathers, writing in a Southern Publication, Jefferson was the hero of Moby-Dick. Jefferson praised American nature for producing such creatures as the great whale, for Weathers, Moby-Dick embodies the Union. Ahab was William Lloyd Garrison, mounting a monomaniacal attack upon it" (Rogin 108).

Foster, Charles ,"Something in Emblems: A Reinterpretation of Moby-Dick," The New England Quarterly, Vol. 34 (March 1961): 3-35.

"Charles Foster, writing in the New England Quarterly, also identified the white whale with the Union. But he did not locate danger to the Union among the opponents of slavery. Daniel Webster, abolitionists charged, sold his soul to the devil by supporting the Fugitive Slave Law to gain the Presidency. Fister's Ahab was Webster" (Rogin 108).

Heimert, Alan, "Moby-Dick and American Political Symbolism," American Quarterly, Vol. 15 (Winter 1963): 498-534.

"Alan Heimert stood closer to Webster and the Massachusetts establishment than to either abolitionists or Southern Unionists. He described a Webster who popularly identified with American nature and the American nation. Heimert saw him in Moby-Dick. The possessed, monomaniacal Calhoun, who would destroy the Union to enshrine slavery, died opposing Webster and the Compromise. He was Heimert's Ahab" (Rogin 108).

Cowan, Bainard. Exiled Waters: Moby-Dick and the Crisis of Allegory. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1982.

See above section under "allegory."

Duban, James, "Chapter IV: Nationalism and Providence in Ishmael's White World," Melville's Major Fiction: Politics, theology, and Imagination. Dekalb, IL: Northern IL UP, 1983.

"James Duban and Paul Michael Rogin ...use and extend earlier interpretations that identify Ahab and Ishmael with political figures and issues. Duban agrees with earlier critics that Ahab is modeled on spokesmen for expansionism and slavery as Lewis Cass and John Calhoun, and he identifies Ishmael as 'an unwitting post facto accomplice to his captain's worst nationalistic transgression'" (Reynolds 109).

Rogin, Michael Paul, "Chapter 4: Moby-Dick and the American 1848," Subversive Genealogy: The Politics of Art and Herman Melville. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1983: 102-51.

"Rogin, whose interpretation of the novel is Marxist, sees Ahab not only as a representative of American expansionism and slavery, but also of American industrial capitalism. For him, the crew of the Pequod is a 'multiracial proletariat' enslaved by Ahab, who reunites all fragments of Jacksonian Democracy--'Free-Soilers, secessionists, Young America expansionists, and conservative proslavery Unionists'--into a 'new communal body, which also contained within it the industrial core of the patriarchal New England Whiggery--Webster and Shaw--and then led that ship of state to its doom'" (Reynolds 109).

Pease, Donald, "Chapter 7: Melville and Cultural Persuasion," Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Context. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987.

To be reviewed by Jenny Wapner next week!

Reynolds, Larry, "Moby-Dick and the Matter of France," European Revolutions and the American Literary Renaissance. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.

"According to Reynolds, Moby-Dick incorporates 'a damning commentary on current French political radicalism' that expresses Melville's 'distrust of the "people" and his revulsion at their capacity for self-destructive violence'" (American Literary Scholarship 1989: 54).

NOTE: Beginning in 1989, there begins to be a number of articles which follow Pease's model and consider what it would mean to read Moby-Dick as a cultural artifact. You might want to consider what the relationship is between reading Moby-Dick as an allegory of 19th-century politics, and doing a political reading of the work it did it its own day or its reception thereafter. In this category I would place the following works:

Dimock, Wai-Chee, "Chapter 4: Blaming the Victim," Empire for Liberty. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989: 109-139.

Morrison, Toni, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature." Michigan Quarterly Review. Vol. 28 (1) (Winter 1989): 1-34.

Spanos, William. The Errant Art of Moby-Dick: the Canon, the Cold War, and the Struggle for American Studies. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

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