Friday, April 1, 2011

Melville the Founding Father

Revision of: Christian or Else

In Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, there are many different themes and ideas scattered throughout the 135 chapters. Melville himself sprinkled in his own thoughts about society and the world from the beginning. One of the most interesting ideas Melville was trying to convey in Moby-Dick was majority is not greater than minority; not in the sense of numbers because by definition the majority would have more but by ideas, reason, and being a man. He did this by using stereotypical majority and minority characters and situations such as Father Maple, Captain Ahab, Queequeg, the blacks, and Ishmael. Also, he did not stop developing this idea of equality between the people at Moby-Dick. In his later works like Benito Cereno, which I will talk about later, the concept is continued. Melville does all of this to show that a man that is white is no greater than a black, a pagan, or an alien for that matter. What matters is what is on the inside and Melville does a great job of showing this throughout the novel.

The first instance that there is a comparison between a majority and minority comes with the church encounters that Ishmael runs into while staying in New Bedford. In the chapter “The Carpet-Bag”, Ishmael wonders into a church and he describes it as such. “It seemed the great Black Parliament sitting in Trophet. A hundred black faces turned round in their rows to peer; and beyond, a black Angel of Doom was beating a book in a pulpit. It was a Negro church; and the preacher’s text was about the blackness of darkness, and weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there,” (Melville 11). It can be noted that Negro is a term used with a negative connotation of the minority and is used to do just that in Ishmael’s narrations. The scene is only a paragraph in the entire story and can be easily overlooked because at the moment that it appears in the novel it seems almost irrelevant. Melville did not import this paragraph for no reason though. He wanted the reader to compare it to the white church that Ishmael attends before the ship leaves for its voyage. Ray Browne wrote a book called Melville’s Drive to Humanism, and in this book he says that the chapter “The Chapel” gives information that can strongly be used in a comparison between black and white churches by Melville. Browne starts off by saying that in the white church only a few attend, while in the black one there seemed to be much more. Continuing, in the white church the people sat away from each other to isolate their grief, while the blacks shared their troubles as a whole (Browne 48). This is a prime example of a major theme in Moby-Dick; unity vs. isolation. The blacks are clearly the minority in the novel and at the time in history. The interesting thing Melville does is making the minority portraying the minority, blacks, as equal to or even stronger than the whites. This goes against conventional stereotypical thinking where even the lowest of whites are considered superior to blacks. The “Negros” in their black church act as one and in essence are a unit. I think Melville was trying to close the gap between the races. Him showing and saying that they are a unit is an example of how the majority can have less strength than they believe.

In a related topic Melville uses Father Maple to further compare the two systems of studying religion. “Maple comes in alone, not having used any man-made means of traveling in the storm. To have used such a conveyance would have been an admission by Maple that he had to depend upon his fellowman. As soon as he enters, he isolates himself from the congregation by climbing up to his crows-nest of a pulpit…The pulpit leads the world…The pulpit is the forward part of the ship as it plows through the sea and life. It travels blindly and unchanging (Browne 49). As Browne said Maple comes in and instantly isolates himself from the group or the common people. This shows how Father Maple considers himself and is probably considered by the people as greater than them. He stands above them at the pulpit almost signifying that he is closer to God than his followers. The majority is continually undermined by Melville. I think he does so that it can clearly be scene that the majority, the whites, don’t have the only way to worship and may not be the strongest. He wants the comparison to be made and thought about. Along those same lines, Browne last sentence in the quote, “It travels blindly and unchanging,” refers to the comparison of the pulpit being the front of a boat. This is in-turn comparing Father Maple and Captain Ahab. Both men are white and consider themselves above the common man and have a special bond with God. Although there bonds are very different they both are the leaders of a majority group; leading the white church is Maple and the vessel is Ahab. Having the power to control people, both of these men lead blindly and the majority follows. Melville saw this as another fault in the majority thinking of being superior. If the minority didn’t follow the teachings or orders of one man does that make them inferior? I don’t think so and neither does Melville. Strong support for this claim comes from the character Queequeg and his Pagan ways.

Queequeg is introduced in the chapter “The Spouter-Inn” with a description by the landlord to Ishmael about his new sleeping partner. He is a cannibal harpooner and the landlord said Queequeg was out so late because he selling human heads. Of course Ishmael belonging to the group of white people was frightened by the landlord’s description of this man and he even tried to sleep in the lobby where it was too cold and uncomfortable. So, Ishmael decides he wants the room and Queequeg was still not there. Before Ishmael could fall asleep, in walk a tan skinned man with tattooing all over his body. After a shouting match that left Ishmael calling for the landlord to come and save his life, Ishmael had a major revelation. “I stood looking at him for a moment. For all his tattooing he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What’s all this I have been making about, thought to myself – the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian (Melville 26). At this moment Ishmael has come to terms with what I consider Melville’s major theme. Even though Ishmael is a Christian and Queequeg is a Pagan, Melville wants us to see that Ishmael can see through the outside coverings of a stereotype. Melville has some fun with the situation saying that Ishmael would rather sleep with the Pagan over a drunken Christian. This is humerous but it also has some truth behind it. Melville closes the chapter with Ishmael saying, “I turned in, and never slept better in my life” (Melville 27). This is because he came to terms with the fact that even though Queequeg was in a minority group that is normally looked down upon by the white majority, he is a person just like himself. This doesn’t seem like earth shattering news but the time period and setting must be considered. This novel is based in a time where white men were looking to travel the world and expand America. And if that meant taking over an island of natives, it probably happened. I mean anyone that had a different skin color was looked as inferior by the whites and Melville did not agree with this thinking.

Looking back to the idea of unity vs. isolation, I earlier associated the majority white with isolation and the black minority with unity. Melville makes this idea present again in the chapter “The Counterpane”. This chapter takes place the morning after Queequeg and Ishmael first slept in the same bed. Ishmael wakes up with a, “pagan arm thrown round,” says Browne. He tries to get out but the cannibal hugs him as though, “naught but death should part”. This is the symbolism of the death of prejudice that came from the sleeping partners the night before. Also, it can be considered the being of a unity between the two. Later Melville describes them as married, a loving pair. This shatters the traditional thinking of society. Ishmael doesn’t let his prejudice get the better of him and in doing so I believe is taking his ideas from Melville’s direct feelings. The two form a brotherhood regardless of their skin and that is how it should be.

In the chapter “A Bosom Friend” Queequeg is found by Ishmael in the lobby after both attended the chapel separately. This is a good example of both isolation of the whites and how I believe Melville thought of religion. First, before I stated how the sleeping partners are on good terms it just shows how actually isolated the white church is seeing as Queequeg and Ishmael both attended but they did not arrive, sit, or leave together. At this point I feel that this was the underlying message while my point is going to come from when Ishmael finds Queequeg in the lobby of the Inn. Ishmael is narrating and he compares Queequeg to George Washington and talks about Queequeg as a philosopher. This got me thinking and because of this comparison that Ishmael makes I am going to make the comparison between Melville and another of our founding fathers; Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was the third President of the United States and I see, all be it might be a stretch, him and Melville having similar views on major ideologies. Thomas Jefferson was considered a Deist for his religious beliefs. I’m not saying that Melville was a Deist but I do think that Melville would entertain the idea. Jefferson opposed the corruption of Christianity but not Jesus himself. He believed in the freedom of the mind and this is a main reason that America gives its citizens the freedom of religion (Capper 208). My comparison of Melville and Jefferson comes from their equal ability to think outside the box. They both had the innate ability to not be influenced by the majority or the safe answers. They did not have anything against Christianity, but then again then didn’t have anything against any religion and that is what made both of them great. Pushing the boundaries of our society to better the people was the goal of both icons; while one was a politician and the other an author I see multiple similarities between the two.

Browne says that Melville is actually critiquing religion. “Melville snaps at the Christian religion – and indeed all such religions – by remarking on those people whose loved ones died at sea: What deadly voids and unbidden fidelities in the lines that seem to gnaw upon all Faith, and refuse resurrections to the being who have placelessly perished without a grave” (Browne 48). He quotes Melville, “But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.” He says that this is a gloomy outlook on religion and is a critique of it as well. I have to disagree with the analysis done by Browne. Melville is not as much critiquing religion as much as the corruption of religion. Like before with Father Maple and him leading blindly I feel that Melville does not look down upon faith but more upon the thought of being a sheep following the shepard. A person should have the ability to make their own decisions about what faith they have and how they follow it. This is represented with Queequeg’s God Yojo. Although it seems to Ishmael as just a small, wooden idol at first, majority white thought, as the story continues Ishmael opens his mind and even joins Queequeg in one of his ceremonies. This in my eyes is Melville saying something like it is okay to be different as long as it makes you happy. Your religion does not make you superior, inferior, and have anything to do with social rank, or at least it shouldn’t. Neither should the color of your skin or where you grew up. All of these are things I think Melville was trying to convey to the reader.

My last example of how Melville believed that the majority group is not better than the minority. The short story Melville wrote Benito Cereno is a great example of this theme. “In one language, and as with one voice, all poured out a common tale of suffering” (Melville Benito). This is a quote from Benito Cereno as Delano is boarding the ship. The message here is crystal clear seeing as the members on the ship were all different shapes and colors. The point was that color does not matter. Babo is a black and he portrayed by Melville as being mentally superior then the white man. All men are created equal is a line I could see Melville living by. This phrase goes back to Thomas Jefferson and his writing of the Declaration of Independence. When Jefferson was making this country free or Melville was writing a whaling novel the idea that majority did not equal superiority was present in both their minds and helped shaped America what it is today. Without this type of thinking slavery would still be here today, and with Melville at my side I want to say thank God it’s not.

Browne, Ray B. Melville’s Drive to Humanism. Purdue Research Foundation. 1971.

Capper, Charles and Hollinger, David A. The American Intellectual Tradition. Oxford University Press. 2011

Melville, Herman. Benito Cereno. Dover Publications, Inc. New York. 1990.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Penguin Books. 2003.

1 comment:

  1. This feels long, and you seem to almost shift topics several times - not completely, but there are subtle shifts. You move from the initial broad idea of minorities and majorities into a long-term focus on race, which you explore several ways, including through Queequeg and through the churches. Some of the most interesting shifts are simultaneously the most problematic.

    To me, for instance, the most interesting moment in the essay was when you shifted into a comparison between Jefferson and Melville, which is partially about Jefferson's deism in relationship with Melville, and partially, I think, about liberty more generally. The thing is that you could write multiple essays on this topic alone - an essay on Melville in relationship with the deism of the founding fathers (not just Jefferson!), or an essay on Melville, Jefferson and race (Jefferson, of course, dreaming of the end of slavery while holding slaves - it's an interesting point of comparison with Melville, especially given his father-in-law's critical role in upholding the fugitive slave act, which I discussed briefly in class at one point, or an essay about Jefferson's expansionism in relationship with Melville's apparent hostility to expansionism.

    My ultimate point is that the topic of minorities and majorites in MD is an awfully big one. The most obvious evidence for that is that you're only really writing about race, but calling race "majorities and minorities." The difference is important - because there are religious minorities (Quakers and Shakers, to say nothing of pagans and gnostics!) all through the novel, as well as people who *feel* like they are outside because of their financial status, as well as people who are *sexually* different.

    You do plenty of good work; my point is that you could have been more focused, and given more focus, your research could have been more focused (imagine, for instance, focusing your research on Jefferson alone - how much easier that would have made things in some ways!).