Romanticism and Calvinism in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick
Herman Melville (1819-1891) is a controversial author best-known for his sea fiction and masterpiece, Moby-Dick. Indeed, Moby-Dick was not well received, nor was its brilliance recognized when it was first published in 1851. As Delbanco points out, the “tornadoes Atlantic of his being,”depicted in Moby-Dick and illustrating the depths of his conflicting inner world, were not appreciated by the public at the time (6). In fact, during Melville’s lifetime, the novel’s first edition of 3,000 was never sold out and the unsold copies were later burned in a fire in the publisher’s warehouse（Delbanco 7）. After that, Melville contrived to write three more novels under even worse contractual terms—Pierre, Israel Potter and The Confidence-Man. 1 The public support of his early books (Typee and Omoo) that once savored the “sirens and savages of Polynesia”(Delbanco 5) was lost by the time he wrote Mardi and Moby-Dick.
Being so desperate about the poor reception from his readers, Melville started retreating to write monthly magazine articles for small publishers; however, given the later popularity of Moby-Dick, it became the biggest irony of Melville’s life that when he was nearly forgotten and under-appreciated by his contemporaries he was actually writing the book for which he would be remembered for generations. Upon finishing Moby-Dick, he told Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb”(Sloan). The disquietude Melville experienced over the rejection by his once loyal readers foreshadows the reception that Moby-Dick would receive in the future.
Indeed, Melville’s assertion later confirmed multiple criticisms and their ramifications. Most critics agree with John Bryant that Moby Dick is a “hard read, at times infuriating” book (ix). To top it all off, its metaphysical rendering and unintelligible description of the miraculous enormous white whale more or less cloaks it in a fog of obscurity, which emphatically scared away the public. Indeed, in the New York Day Book on September 8, 1852, a malignant attack was cast against Melville and his writings headlined HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY"(Parker 350). It is further noted that, “a critical friend, who read Melville's last book, ‘Ambiguities,’ between two steamboat accidents, told us that it appeared to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman”(Wilson 62). Melvillean metaphysical and philosophical rhetoric has further been denounced as the craze of a monomaniac, and the symbolism and conceit embedded in the text has been accused as “sexually charged” and unholy (35).
In another letter from Melville to Hawthorne, he betrayed his anxiety again:
I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,-- it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write theotherway I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches. I'm rather sore, perhaps, in this letter, but see my hand! -- four blisters on this palm, made by hoes and hammers within the last few days. It is a rainy morning; so I am indoors, and all work suspended. I feel cheerfully disposed, and therefore I write a little bluely….2
From the aforementioned quote, it is not difficult to detect Melville’s small apprehension over the acceptance of Moby-Dick. Oddly, he also revealed that his ambition had outgrown his early books (Typee and Omoo, followed a year later by a sequel), although he knew that he would lose his public. On the one hand, he refused to cater to public interest which he considered poor and shallow in taste; on the other hand, he felt a sense of burden to seek the truth and find a vent-hole for “all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations”( Delbanco 6) as his protagonist, the mutilated Captain Ahab, regards an unreasoning animal as his foe. As a result, the grim sale of Moby-Dick significantly weighted against his already faltering financial life. Melville yet insisted on a “venture beyond materiality” in spite of his dampened and worsening finances（Bryan i）. Although some critics still show great admiration for his literary genius, Moby-Dick could be considered the climax of Melville’s desperation. The failure of Moby-Dick utterly frustrated and defeated Melville. In a consequence, his reputation could not recover and he was buried to darkness until the onset of the twentieth century.
Most notably, two books are considered important in marking the “Melville revival” in the 1920s, namely, Raymond Weaver's 1921 biography Herman Melville: Man, Mariner and Mystic and the 1924 edition of Melville's last great, but never quite finished manuscript, Billy Budd. Since the Melvillean revival in the 1920s, enthusiastic debates not in the least abate in the succeeding generations and the potency of the white whale remains powerful in the contemporary age. However, the mysteries of Ahab’s obsessive hunt of the big white whale remain more open to more interpretation than any other American works. Richard H. Brodhead once praised Melville as being “enshrined in the ranks of literature’s ultimate achievements” (1). He further admitted that what set Melville’s Moby-Dick apart from other classics is not so much the famous symbolic depth it carries, it is “its peculiar attitude...toward what literature is and can be, and toward what it can attempt as a work of literary making”(1). Richard H. Brodhead’s argument speaks for the greatness and the multiple quests Melville intended in his masterpiece, Moby-Dick. Bearing this in mind, I will conduct an inquiry into the polemics between Romanticism and religious thinking (known as Calvinist in that age) in Moby-Dick, which I observe to be the two essential instrumental elements in constructing the naval myth of Ahab and the doom of Pequod.My research will be done mainly following Emerson’s “transcendentalism” and T. Walter Herbert, Jr’s articulation of the relationship between Herman Melville and Calvinism. These two forces (Romanticism and Calvinism）work ambiguously and paradoxically, sometimes overlapping and even conflicting with each other in the text. Thus, this thesis will attempt to delve into their complicated relationships within the socioeconomic and political backdrop of early 19th century America.
As Melville intended, the Romantic hero, Captain Ahab, might be classified as a Byronic hero. This categorization, the characteristics of the Byronic hero and its impact on the text will be discussed in the later chapters. Delbanco’s autobiography of Herman Melville, Melville: His World and Work3 , will serve as important background information shedding new light on Melville’s upbringing and its influence on the distinctive features in the writing of Moby-Dick.
Most critics probably would not disagree on the eminent features of Romanticism demonstrated in Moby-Dick. The expressive individuality and spiritual independence that Captain Ahab exhibits in the whale hunt have suggested the free will and rebellious spirit of that age. Moby-Dick echoes Emerson’s statement in “Self-Relianc,” claiming the affirmation of self in a newly established nation. Indeed, the aura of self-expression and individuality in this young and expanding nation—the United States, proved to be a fertile ground for the growth of Romanticism. As a fledgling nation, America contrived to search for its own national identity. Yet, it found itself in agreement with the Romantic spirit of its mother land, which emphasizes self-expression and self-discovery. This is also sometimes accompanied by the transcendentalist’s “self-reliance” and independence, as shown in the core beliefs of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the early 19th century of America. They advocated a strong faith in the inherent goodness and magnificence of both man and nature, and their core belief rests on a transcendental spirituality and the ethos of independence and self-reliance which has led to an American way of thinking; however, as a variant on Romanticism, Melville chooses a thoroughly opposite path to transcendentalism in his characterization of Captain Ahab and the other crew members on the Pequod. Although the monomania exhibited by Captain Ahab epitomizes a manifestation of self-assurance and spiritual search for ultimate truth, notwithstanding, he at times overreaches and misunderstands the Emersonean individuality and independence. That is to say, the Emersonean spirituality and self-reliance are misused by an overreaching “rebel” in Moby-Dick. In other words, Ahab is a rebel who appropriates the spirit of Emersonean non-conformity and attempts to lure and convince the crew that his craze is in accordance with the ethos of the transcendentalists. On the contrary, his rebelliousness moves beyond the limits of transcendentalism and turns into a destruction of goodness in all respects. Furthermore, in light of all the destruction and ultimate fall caused by his overreaching, his rebellious deed is apparently at odds with the tenets of goodness asserted by Emerson. In his essay, Emerson identifies “self-reliance” as one of the energies needed for the search of absolute goodness. In contrast, in Moby-Dick the energies are so appropriated a destructive force that they annihilate and annul the goodness as well as the meaning of life, which makes Ahab fit into the category of a Byronic hero.
Peter Thorslev gives a definition of a Byronic hero in 1962:
The Byronic hero does not possess "heroic virtue" in the usual sense; instead, he has many dark qualities. With regard to his intellectual capacity, self-respect, and hypersensitivity, the Byronic hero is "larger than life," and "with the loss of his titanic passions, his pride, and his certainty of self-identity, he loses also the status of [a traditional] hero" (Thorslev 187).
The protagonist, Captain Ahab should be accounted a Byronic hero according to Thorslev’s categorization of a Romantic hero. Such a definition of Byronic hero draws attention to the thematic essence illustrated by Melville through the major characters in Moby-Dick. How are these roles identified with the social constructs of his age? Obviously, Melville does not agree with the transcendentalists of his time. Oddly, he invents characters who seem to take part in a mutinous journey against Emerson’s transcendentalism with full energy. Readers can perceive the shadow of Napoleon in Ahab, as Furst describes, “a living model of a hero” (55) of his time. Furst’s essay shows the concept of the Romantic hero in literature and analyzes the transformation of a Romantic hero into an anti-hero. This is seen in part as a response to Napoleon’s rout after the French Revolution. However, one can detect some overtones in the characterization of Captain Ahab and the crew, who are more than rebels of Romanticism, and it is discernible that Melville endows his characters in Moby-Dick with something ingenious, other than Romantic.
Thus, what kind of stance should we take in interpretingthe paradox and contradiction demonstrated in Moby-Dick in terms of Romanticism? In order to obtain a comprehensive and well-rounded glimpse of the contradictory and conflicting influences on Moby-Dick, it is imperative to examine the forces of American Romanticism and to explore how they are mediated by Melville to converge into a new vital literary form.
As the Romantic spirit appears in Moby-Dick, in this thesis, the different aspects of it will be examined. If Ahab’s transcendentalism is problematic as well as destructive and lacks morality, how can we contextualize it within the Romantic spirit? As a writer in the Romantic era, Melville on the one hand incorporated the traits of Romanticism, while, on the other hand, he boldly challenged the attitudes of most Romantics. Such dialectics shown in Moby-Dick will be examined later.
Besides Melville’s problematic stance in relation to Romanticism, in Moby-Dick he has also stirred a religious crusade against Calvinism. His skepticism of Calvinism is no secret. Giorgio Mariani discussed “doubt about Calvinism” in Moby-Dick and reexamined Melville’s skeptic stance towards Calvinism (37). Christopher Grasso surveyed skepticism and faith from the Revolution to the Civil War, while Orestes Brownson commented “there is not much open skepticism, not much avowed infidelity, but there is a vast amount of concealed doubt, and untold difficulty” (466). Obviously, this concealed skepticism can be traced in many of Melville’s works, particularly Moby-Dick.
Edgar A. Dryden borrows T. Walter Herbert’s exposition and points out that Moby-Dick embodies Melville’s personal skepticism against the contemporary theological ideas that were central to his culture (134). Melville emphatically suffers a religious crisis all along his life. That is, he struggles between a world which is government by laws enacted by Providence and a world governed by his own inherent laws. In a high degree, Moby-Dick demonstrates Melville’s religious dilemma and rebellion. In other words, in Moby-Dick, Melville shows American Romantic spirit and simultaneously rebels against orthodox Calvinism. Thus, the historical backgrounds of Romanticism and Calvinism will later be explored in Chapter Two, which will supply supporting background information for Melville’s romanticism and skeptical stance toward religion. Due to Melville’s Calvinist upbringing, he makes use of a number of religious symbols in Moby-Dick, yet, they are at times extremely perplexing and can be interpreted from different angles. On account of the abundant puritanical thinking and spiritual implications employed in Moby-Dick, some tenets of Calvinism, such as the issue of original sin and “Total Depravity”(Hanko) could still be located in the novel. Ahab’s rebel against original sin suggests not only the free spirit of Romanticism but also Romantic religious perspective. As Melville seemed to refute Romantic pantheism and deny unlimited human free will, in this thesis skeptical Calvinism will be contextualized in a Romanticist narrative through the exploration of their intertwined complexity in Moby-Dick.
In Chapter Two “Romanticism and Calvinism” we will examine Romanticism and Calvinism in the Melvillean age and scrutinize their relations with American society. We first trace how Romanticism descended from the so-called Big Six, ‘William Bake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats,” who formed the core of English Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They alternately expressed the romantic spirit and delivered their own aesthetic principles. Romanticism originated in Europe and then spread to other parts of the world. It reached its peak in the mid 19th century, which is in accordance with the time of the birth of Moby-Dick. Thus, a probe into the Big Six’s influences upon Melville will be done, but with the emphasis on the Melvillean Romantic principles in his works, especially in Moby-Dick. I will also discuss the American social context, in which Romanticism finds the ground to grow, in an aura of nationalism. The notion of nationalism will be supplemented by observations on the change of social structure from the 18th century onwards—the rise of the American Renaissance and the coming of the American empire. It is usually claimed that the social forces converge into an arrogant and overreaching collectivity that causes American nationalism to mature, and it is on account of these ecosoical collectivities that Melville runs counter to the mainstream and puts forth a warning against nationalism. Besides American Romanticism, the issue of Calvinism will be explored, starting with the Five Points of Calvinism and how its doctrines of predestination and total depravity affected American society in Melville’s time (Slick). It is asserted that the Calvinist doctrine has lost its footing in balancing life and work, despite Benjamin Franklin’s avocations of ‘inner worldly asceticism’ as a work ethic. In other words, Calvinism is no longer efficacious in a feverishly expanding nation.
Chapter Three, “Romanticism and Its Influences,” will continue the discussion of social concerns in Moby-Dick in terms of Romanticism. It will not only focus on the destructive sides of modern materiality but also argue that Ahab’s morbid obsession with hunting down the leviathan at the expense of the lives of all crew members on the Pequod can be regarded as a critique of the extreme Romantic spirit. Melville writes to criticize; however, the very problems he sets out to denounce also become his own. After the success of Typee and Omoo, Melville realized that there was always a voice inside him calling to speak out the truth of life, but the task of speaking out the truth becomes a mockery at that time because his contemporaries regarded Melville as a maniac. In other words, the inner voice of his ambition annoyed and haunted him despite the popular success of Typee and Omoo. Although he succeeded in writing some tropical island romances which greatly pleased his readers, he could not forsake his pursuit of this ultimate voice. Not until he risked “losing his public” by insisting on his writing style, did his once loyal supporters reject him and in consequence he was plagued by the financial burden for the rest of his life. He cannot forsake his pursuit of ideal Romanticism nor cater to the mediocre tastes of the readers of his time. He ends up writing this ultimate voice into his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, with his keen perception and insight. Melville not only garners the complexity and darkness of human nature he observes along his wandering on the sea and elucidates them in full length but also he writes to criticize and disparage the religion and the capitalist spirit of his age. In Moby-Dick the loss of human affection and fellowship in the extreme Romanticists, thus, further serves as a reflection of contemporary Americans.
Chapter Four, “Calvinism and the Writing of the Novel,” will examine Calvinism of Melville’s era through exploration of the text of Moby-Dick. The many ungodly figures in Moby-Dick would probably be viewed as blasphemous by Calvinists; even Melville himself describes it as a “wicked book” in a letter to Hawthorne (Multiverse). Indeed, in a Calvinist community, where individuality and personality are deemed small and worthless compared with God’s will, those who set their will higher than God’s will are considered blasphemous and arrogant. In Moby-Dick, Melville admits his incapacity to solve the religious predicaments faced by his contemporaries between being holy and blasphemous. The destructive ending of the novel seems to get around a solution and directs his readers to a deeper thought of inscrutable but powerful mystery of the universe. Melville embeds this in the characters of Moby-Dick to illustrate the concealed undercurrent of religious crisis in the late nineteenth century American society. Consequently, the roles of the creator and created become a major issue in the text. He further criticizes those who attempt to replace the role of the creator and dominator of the universe. Yet, in the text, Melville contrasts the doctrine theocentricism (the belief that God is the center and cause of our existence) with Captain Ahab’s monomania and obsession to underscore the corrupted and complicated social phenomenons in nineteenth century America. Thus, through an inquiry into the text, the relationship between Ahab’s daring rebuttals of God with Ishmael’s godly attitude in the text will be further examined. Obviously, Melville tries to escape moral and social judgments, but he still reveals his debasement of human arrogance. The greatness and splendor of human beings in capitalist society have been overwhelmingly undermined in Moby-Dick through the destructive end brought by Ahab’s monomania. Through Moby-Dick, Melville illustrates his concern over America’s failure to fulfill the Calvinistic prophecy of God’s promise of goodness on man. Pequod’s ultimate destruction connotes God’s punishment as noted in Calvinistic prophecy, which refers to the goodness promised by God to man and the destruction man brings by his own arrogance and ignorance. Melville eventually paves the path for a middle way philosophy in Moby-Dick, which will be discussed in final chapter.
The concluding chapter, “The Middle Way,” will summarize the major points discussed and illustrate Melville’s philosophy, which is a breakthrough in both Romantic and Calvinistic trends in America. It will not only conclude by drawing a possible middle way suggested by Melville, between Romanticism and Calvinism, but also point out Melville seemingly attempts to reconcile the God of Calvinism with Emerson of Romanticism in a tug of war. He does not submit to Calvinistic prudishness and hypocrisy, neither does he yield to the proud overreaching Romanticism. In brief, in Moby-Dick, Melville suggests a possibility of surviving tactics by digging into the darkness of human nature and pitting man against the temptation of sin, which involves a new dialogue with nature and God.
1 Pierre is about a zealot who destroys his world while trying to reform it; Israel Potter is about an old soldier deserted by his country; and The Confidence-Man is a “masquerade” of disguise and deceit set aboard a Mississippi steamboat (Delbanco 7).
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3 Dr. Andrew H. Delbanco (born 1952) is the Director of American Studies at Columbia University. He writes extensively on American literary and religious history. This book is a highly acclaimed autobiography of Melville, receiving the Lionel Trilling Award at Columbia University. Herman Melville has been a subject of his interest (quoted from "Professor Andrew Delbanco Awarded National Humanities Medal", Columbia News, Feb. 14, 2012. Web. July 26, 2012).
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