The Interpretive Key that Allows Us to See Melville’s Work as a Unified Whole

By Will Hoyt

Like any other card-carrying American I have long believed that Melville wrote only one great work. Moby-Dick is—unquestionably if improbably—the one American novel against which all others can’t help but be measured, given the extent to which, through the use of an alienated workingman as a narrator, enough sea-room is provided to enable readers to live without fear of death and within view of polar citadels from which a white whale can and does glide forth like “a snow hill in air.” Tragic architecture, sterling prose, mystical insight, mischievous humor, sustained attention to human character under stress, seemingly antiquarian disquisitions that are ultimately philosophical, steadily increasing narrative suspense—the book’s got it all, and as if that distinction isn’t enough, the book also features prophetic vision regarding America’s role on the world stage that is every bit as strong and maybe even stronger than Tocqueville’s. How would it be possible for an artist to accomplish more? Unlike most writers, Melville crossed a finish line upon delivering Moby-Dick, and if the entirety of his production after that point turned out to be a relatively minor drift toward grace notes like Bartleby the Scrivener and Billy Budd, Foretopman, well, those are the wages for accomplishing something miraculous as a thirty-one-year old.

Imagine, then, my surprise when I chanced to read (in quick succession) The Confidence-Man, Pierre, and Clarel, each of which compel attention to the same degree that Moby-Dick does.

The Confidence-Man, written in 1856 and set on a Mississippi riverboat carrying passengers to and from St. Louis, stars a con artist who creates eight different masks to bilk eight different marks, and the book’s appeal lies in the skill with which the con-man gets hearers to entrust to him the entirety of whatever sum they have resolved, quite intentionally, to protect. At one point the confidence man appears as a coal agent selling undervalued stock, at another as a widower requesting aid for Seminole Indians, but most of the time (and especially on those occasions when it is necessary to out-duel fellow operators) the con artist appears as a cigar-smoking, brandy-quickened “cosmopolitan” who bears not a little resemblance to Melville himself, and here the plot thickens some—first because Melville was in grave need of money while writing Confidence-Man, second because the novel functions, ultimately, as a sharp and highly suggestive depiction of the American tendency to mistake Progress and affluence for Divine Providence. Note too that Melville’s swindler character shows up at Easter. In short, Confidence-Man proved to be a wonderfully entertaining read, so upon finishing it I quickly ordered a copy of Pierre (the book Melville wrote in 1852, after finishing Moby-Dick) to see what else I may have missed.

Goodness. True, there are Gothic aspects to the book that are on one level absurd. On other levels, though, the book is carefully dialed in, for Pierre is at root a masterfully patient take on the ways in which a happy man can, quick as a minute-gun salute, dig his own grave. The book has a headlong tilt to it, and there are hilarious supporting scenes where our hero is “packed in the mail for St. Petersburg” so that he can survive a day’s work as an aspiring writer in an unheated Manhattan tenement. But the true marvel is the weight awarded to forests and horsemanship and butlers at an imaginary ancestral home dubbed “Saddle Meadows.”

And that’s before even getting to Clarel, the 18,000-line epic poem Melville wrote between 1866 and 1876 while working as a customs agent out of a dockside shack near the railyards at the top of Manhattan’s meat-packing district. Clarel is loosely based on a trip Melville took to the Holy Land in 1857 after finishing Confidence-Man, and (in a subtitle) Melville calls his long poem a “pilgrimage,” which of course it is. Lest one think, however, that the book is about a search for faith, one should quickly add that Clarel is about a pilgrimage in the same way that Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is about a pilgrimage. In other words, it is a book about tourists who talk in entertaining ways for extended periods of time while travelling, which in Melville’s case means journeying between Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and a cliffside Greek Orthodox monastery known as Mar Saba.

The book has eight chief characters: (1) young divinity student Clarel, the protagonist from whose mostly receptive point of view the story is told; (2) his friend Nehemiah, a tract-dispensing, self-appointed protector of Clarel who is convinced that Jesus’s Second Coming is imminent; (3) Margoth, a Jewish geologist who is convinced that science, properly followed, will explain away miracles and end the need for all creeds save those accompanying the empirical method; (4) Mortmain, a disillusioned revolutionary who fought in 1848 for the Second French Republic; (5) Derwent, a hearty, hale, and thoroughly progressive Anglican priest; (6) Rolfe, a wanderer very much like Melville himself who is “given to study” but inclined to “supplement” Plato with “daedal life in boats and tents”; (7) Vine, a writer modeled on Nathaniel Hawthorne whose eyes are “opulent with withheld replies”; and (8) Ungar, an American Indian cavalry officer with “shoulders lithe” and “forest eyes” who is descended, in part, from Maryland Catholics. Needless to say, the topics being discussed in this book matter, and, no less importantly, the characters are drawn in such a way that the reader begins to care, much, about what happens to each of them. As for descriptions of the Holy Land proper, here too Melville succeeds, for he conveys the goodness of wells and “the ave of the vesper-doves” every bit as aptly as he presents stony silence and night skies where “stars like silver nail-heads gleam.”

After placing Clarel on a shelf, I purchased a copy of Raymond Weaver’s Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, published in 1921, and F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, published in 1941. It was Weaver who first established Melville’s greatness, after ordinary readers almost everywhere had thrown Moby-Dick to the wayside upon realizing that Ahab’s hunt for a white whale was not exactly the simple Polynesian adventure Typee had led them to expect, and it was Matthiessen who had most successfully ratified Weaver’s claims by placing Melville in a pantheon whose only other occupants were Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Hawthorne. Hence I wanted to learn what these two critics, especially, made of Melville’s later work, and after familiarizing myself with Weaver’s and Matthiessen’s theses I performed a crosscheck of sorts by reading three other studies—Randall Jarrell’s 1953 salute to Melville’s skills as a poet in Poetry and the Age, John Updike’s 1982 assessment of Melville’s career in The New Yorker, and Andrew Delbanco’s more recent and no less praised biography, Melville: His World and Work (2005). Verdict? I had not been sleeping during English class, and I have not, since that time, been on Mars.

Weaver devoted just two out of eight chapters to the entirety of Melville’s career after the commercial failure of Pierre, and lest anyone miss his point Weaver titled those two chapters “The Great Refusal” and “The Long Quietus.” Matthiessen, for his part, called Weaver to task for not paying enough attention to Israel Potter (which directly followed Pierre), but after that slap on the wrist Matthiessen turned around and devoted just two out of one hundred Melville-oriented pages to Clarel. Jarrell, upon close reading, cleverly walked back his claim that Melville was as good a poet as Whitman was; Updike considered Billy Budd a “return to form”; and—Delbanco? This biographer/critic teaches at Columbia University, so maybe he was unwittingly channeling Weaver, but regardless of whether or not there are extenuating factors at work it cannot be denied that this fine critic agrees with the Weaver/Matthiessen interpretation to the point where he actually follows suit—devoting just four pages to Confidence-Man and (in an attempt to explain how Melville “deliberately hobbled his muse”) barely twice that to Clarel.

What explains this disjunct? How can so many able readers see in the bulk of Melville’s post–Moby-Dick production a slow and perhaps even intentional drift toward mediocrity and incomprehensibility when the actual works appearing over the course of this purportedly aimless and increasingly bitter period are so engaging?

There are three possible answers to this question: (1) I could be misjudging the quality of Melville’s post-Moby-Dick offerings, (2) Weaver, Matthiessen, Updike, and Delbanco could be misjudging the quality of Melville’s post–Moby-Dick offerings by underestimating their worth, or (3) all of us could be judging well on the basis of interpretive paradigms that turn out to be incommensurable. Given the (to me) plain-as-day excellence of Melville’s middle and late-period textual records, on the one hand, and the (to me) plain-as-day excellence of Matthiessen’s, Updike’s, and Delbanco’s critiquing skills, on the other, I think the correct answer is the last one, and that the appearance of anomalous results after analyses of the same set of texts is a sign that Melville Studies, so called, may be ripe for the kind of paradigm shift that occurs in scientific revolutions. For that to happen, of course, there would have to be some other paradigm that simplifies reigning explanations of greatness to the point where accuracy is improved. What, then, would be the blindspot that, once eliminated, would enable Matthiessen and company to see what I, through no merit of my own, have chanced to see? It comes down to just one small detail that, so far, has been outside the purview of the critics who have worked hardest to celebrate Melville’s achievements: Melville wrote, always, from (and for) a decidedly Christian point of view.

Most of us tend to think that because Melville’s character prefers the company of a cannibal to a drunken Christian and that he dared to skewer hierarchical religion through the use of scandalous double-entendres, he essentially parted ways with, and to some extent even declared war on, the churchgoing options that he inherited from his Dutch Calvinist mother. And this assumption is, in a strictly considered way, correct—or at least, no less correct than our matching assumption that by relentlessly focusing on the existence of evil, Melville parted ways with, and to some extent even declared war on, the Bostonian, Christ Church Unitarianism that he inherited from his father. Thus it makes a kind of sense that the currently reigning Melville Studies paradigm should have taken hold, and though it makes less sense that we might forget the way in which Melville’s alter ego Ishmael predicated his “neither believer nor infidel” motto on the ability to keep “doubts of all things earthly and intuitions of some things heavenly” squarely in view, even that forgetfulness makes sense when one factors in the handicap from which we all now suffer thanks to the surrender of culture to technology, and the Enlightenment-derived privatization of religion. The problem is that by committing to the Weaver paradigm we have crippled our ability to see what Melville was actually doing as he followed through on insights gleaned in Moby-Dick, and nowhere is this handicap more clearly on view than in the tortured aspect to Weaver-generated appraisals of Confidence-Man and Clarel.

Despite clear signals from Melville that Confidence-Man is, ultimately, a reflection on the extent to which there might be an ontological basis to truth that Americans in particular are called to either defend or betray, Delbanco argued in his 2005 biography that Confidence-Man is essentially “a postmodern work in which the swindler cannot be distinguished from the swindled.” Three years later however, Robert S. Levine confirmed Delbanco’s take by arguing (in an otherwise fine introduction to Israel Potter) that Confidence-Man is ultimately about “the instability of character.” And things don’t get any better when Weaver-based critics get around to appraising Clarel, a book where essential dramatic highlights include Mortmain (ex-revolutionary) being “astounded into heaven,” Rolfe (Melville stand-in) steering by “Mary’s mellow star of eventide,” and Clarel (student) emerging “like a swimmer rising” from “the last whelming sea” of unspeakable sorrow. To Weaver-based critics and even to Updike, Clarel is not about any of these things. Instead, it is about a failed search for God. Weaver’s pupil Charles Olson even went so far as to claim, in a celebrated study titled Call Me Ishmael (1947), that Clarel is a “betrayal” of what the Pacific Ocean taught Melville. Talk about a Great Refusal! Seeing as how the Pacific is where, for Melville, the “flood-gates of the wonder-world” opened and (as in a Pentecostal moment) everything started to mean everything else, Olson’s assertion is basically laughable. Yet I doubt very much whether other Weaver-aligned critics have laughed at Olson’s conclusion.

Perhaps, then, we ought to take a hint from the increasingly ironic aspect to Olson’s kind of refusal and ask whether Melville’s steadily deepening use of Christian logic might more adequately explain Melville’s development as a writer. For Melville didn’t just lean toward Christian biases. Rather, he cultivated them—first by spying out the importance of sacramentality, second by developing a homemade, “desperado” theology of being that was strong enough to withstand Matthew Arnold’s kind of “Dover Beach” doubt, and, thirdly and most provocatively, by declaring de facto allegiance to Rome.

It was in Moby-Dick that Melville intuited and explored the importance of sacramentality—and how could he not, given the extent to which the story of Ahab and the whale is steeped in King Lear, the play where Shakespeare’s Christian biases are best on view. When a whale is sighted, Queequeg’s, Daggoo’s and Tashtego’s three harpoon boats instantly swing out to dangle over the Pequod’s side like “samphire baskets” next to a cliff—a clear reference to Edgar’s detailing of Gloucester’s imagined predicament in Lear. Then, Starbuck offers to be a “blank” in Ahab’s eye so as to steer him toward right vision in much the same way that Kent and Edgar offer to be “blanks” in Lear’s and Gloucester’s eyes. What is wrong with Ahab and why are the renegades federated along his keel in trouble? It comes down to the same thing that Lear is afflicted by before being humbled by a night spent on the heath—to wit, an inability to see the value of faces and, by extension, incarnational life.

To Ahab and, indeed, almost all of us to the extent that we are scandalized by the claim that God can only be seen through a material medium, visible phenomena are merely “pasteboard masks” that ought to be removed so as to all the better see the Being that “hides” behind them, and Ahab becomes infuriated when, after ripping off intermediaries and going for the thing-in-itself, he finds “nothing.” Ishmael, by contrast, reflects on the color that appears when “white” light refracts, and from that point forward he starts to recognize the importance of intermediaries like words, the rightness of enfleshment regardless of the suffering entailed, and the duty to resist temptations to transcend our human estate. In the Catskill eagle section of the chapter entitled “The Try-Works,” Ishmael’s implicitly Christian resistance even becomes a sort of song. Salvation, he says, isn’t found by doing an end-run around creaturely status. Rather, it is found by showing up, giving thanks for the (glorious) light of day, and avoiding evil simply by being present no matter what comes. “For even if [we] forever fly within the gorge,” he explains, “that gorge is in the mountains”—the dimension where things are.

After the financial failure of Moby-Dick, Melville was under considerable pressure from publishers to produce works that would sell as well as the Polynesian travel adventures that first made him famous, and given that he was also in debt and had a family to support, most of the works that Melville wrote between 1851 and 1857 were, quite naturally, about the jail-like aspect to indebtedness and the absurdity of a capable fellow “preferring not” to get a real job upon glimpsing the looming aspect to impending bankruptcy. Yet each of these works also explored other themes, and starting in 1854 with Israel Potter, the fictionalized portrait of a soldier who fought in the American Revolution at Bunker Hill before being captured by the British, the essentially religious project that Melville had begun in Moby-Dick comes once again to the fore.

In Israel Potter the subject attracting Melville’s attention is, mainly, the extent to which America functions as a New Israel—both for the book’s hero, who wanders like Moses for forty years in the deserts of England and France while attempting to get home, and, too, for the rest of us who harbor millennialist expectations in direct proportion to our prosperity. In Confidence-Man, Melville ups the ante by stopping to consider whether collective belief in America as a new Israel could itself favor the arrival of an Antichrist. This is a risky gambit, but Melville meets the challenge by discovering in the occasion an opportunity to showcase truth’s ontological basis, and, as well, the (populist) ability of Americans to recognize that basis. “Thou liest,” thunders a Missourian backwoodsman upon hearing the con artist’s promotion of a miraculous herbal cure, and when the Missourian’s curt statement is followed by unwavering intransigence matched only by a country merchant’s stubborn trust in the filtering value of truth’s “stony strata,” Melville’s entire novel starts to signify in the new and quite salutary dimension that he will just a few years later begin to systematically explore while writing Clarel.

Clarel reads like it was written yesterday. The concerns are that current. And I suspect that if those of us who understand and appreciate postmodern predicaments were to actually sample some of this book’s more crucial cantos, we would have a hard time putting the poem down. Here is Rolfe talking to Derwent, after crossing paths with a Dominican priest on the journey to Mar Saba:

Who’s gained by all the sacrifice
Of Europe’s revolutions? who?
The Protestant? the Liberal?
I do not think it—not at all:
Rome and the Atheist have gained:
These two shall fight it out—these two;
Protestantism being retained
For base of operations sly
By Atheism.

Or skip ahead to Ungar talking to Rolfe about the New World as the travelers draw near to the stony silence of current-day Bethlehem:

If be a people … let
From any ruling which fore-ran;
Even striving all things to forget
But this—the excellence of man
Left to himself, his natural bent …
And if, in satire of the heaven,
A world, a new world have been given
For stage whereon to deploy the event;
If such a people be—well, well,
One hears the kettle-drums of hell!

Interested? Now go back to the canto at the book’s center, where Mortmain dips a hand into the Dead Sea to offer his companions a sip of the “bitter drink” given to “Christ upon the Tree.” Nobody takes Mortmain up on his offer. Come, come, he says. Is it “carnal harlotry” you are afraid of, or perhaps John the Baptist’s head on a plate? Taking note of everyone’s silence, Mortmain quietly points out that evil, at its root, is a lie with the face of truth:

Things hard to prove: decorum’s wile,
Malice discreet, judicious guile;
Good done with ill intent—reversed:
Best deeds designed to serve the worst;
… trad[ing] on the coast of crime
Though landing not …

This latter canto, preceded as it is by a brief warning in which readers are asked to reflect on 2 Thessalonians 2:7 so as to be able to “read aright,” is strong enough to make even seasoned readers of Dante gasp, and when we consider also that this canto is the crowning achievement of an artistic program that was declared and inaugurated in Chapter Nine of Moby-Dick—at that point we surely ought to gasp again.

Moby-Dick’s Chapter Nine consists almost entirely of one Father Mapple’s send-off sermon for Ishmael, Queequeg, and all the other whale-men gathered at a New Bedford chapel to receive a customary pastor’s blessing before heading out to sea aboard the Pequod, and the sermon itself is notable, principally, for the way in which it appears to be directed, personally, at Ishmael. The pastor’s theme, naturally, is Jonah—the Israelite prophet who is swallowed by a whale upon fleeing God’s commands—but barely a third of the way through the sermon Ishmael, the “cap-and-ball” guy who has just told us that he signed up to avoid knocking people’s hats off, starts to squirm in his seat. Look at him, Fr. Mapple seems to be saying. “Plainly he’s a fugitive! No baggage, not a hat-box, valise, or carpet-bag …”

We laugh, of course. How could we not, given the glee with which Fr. Mapple spins his yarn. Now, though, we can see that Melville too was laughing, because Fr. Mapple, it turns out, was describing Melville the writer every bit as well as he was describing Ishmael. Hawthorne noted that when Melville stopped in Liverpool to visit during his trip to the Holy Land in 1856, he traveled every bit as lightly as Ishmael did, and now that we can read the entirety of Melville’s work in the key Melville actually wrote it in, we should also be able to see that by telling the story of Jonah dragged down into the land of the dead where “oozy weeds about us twist,” Melville was in effect pledging to do as Fr. Mapple claims Jonah was instructed to do. “And what was that, shipmates?” asks Fr. Mapple, rhetorically, at his sermon’s climax. “To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood. That was it!”

The miracle, as we now also can see, is that Melville actually delivered on this promise. 

Will Hoyt operates an inn for oil and gas workers near Wheeling, West Virginia.

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