Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The American Contradiciton

Moby Dick was first published in 1851, just 10 years before the beginning of the American Civil War.  This marked the beginning of the reconciliation of the “American Promise,” that if all men are created equal according to the Declaration, how can slavery exist on any moral grounds according to the most basic laws?  While the Civil War was fought for many reasons, chief amongst them the question of slavery, this war exposed the duality of America.  Sailors themselves are at a fundamental slaves themselves, they are given poor quarters, meager rations and forced to work in difficult if not dangerous conditions for what could be very little pay.  The crew of the Pequod, which is mostly white, must rely on the abilities of non-white members of the crew to achieve the goal of whale hunting, specifically for hunting Moby Dick.  The success or failure of the voyage rests solely on the skills of Queequeg, a South Seas cannibal, Tashtego, “an unmixed Indian…last remnant of a village of red men” (130), Daggoo, a large African, and Fedallah, a Persian from the East.  Using the boat as representation for American society at large, Melville can examine the relationship between slavery and its masters.  Each of these harpooners represents the idea of the “noble savage” and with that understanding the justification of slavery.  These men are the uneducated, Godless heathens of far off lands that work under white men to serve the needs of their masters.  And of course these savages are the superior fishers when it comes to whaling that they are able to apply the skills as a savage to better the chance of success for their white masters.  The implied motivation that, the whites, provide for and enlighten a lesser race through hard forced labor, would be God’s work.  Like the slave holders in the South relying on the continued subjugation of Africans to keep producing trade goods, the harpooners are subject to the directions of the white crew.  It’s this idea of dependence within the structure of slavery that Melville seems to be playing with.  Can industry exist without subjecting the other or must their always be a hierarchy to determine success?  The fact that each harpooner represents one of the “other,” especially racial groups that have either been subjected to or eliminated by the white power structure, pulls the view from looking at American subjugation to a more global Western subjugation of Eastern.  On the Pequod we have reaffirmation of the established hierarchy between whites and non-whites.  That even in a Northern state which has already abolished the institution of the slavery there is still a racially motivated component to the division of labor.  The whites make up the majority of the crew and the entirety of the leadership and the non-whites are relegated to the work that is most base and dangerous.  For Melville, this connection appears essential to the operation of whaling, it is doubtful that this is an avocation for slavery, but rather simply the consequence of a capitalist society.  Somebody must be on top and someone must be the bottom, while the American Dream promises equality for all the reality of the market is hierarchy.


  1. I think this blog entry serves as a great starting point and outline for a revision. Although addressed in a somewhat brief fashion, you hit on several key ideas that demonstrate the role of race, hierarchy, power, and slavery in Moby-Dick. I think you will have sufficient evidence to expand on how Moby-Dick can help us see how Melville views either American subjugation or global subjugation.

    For a revision, expansion of the ideas that you bring up is needed. As it stands, your entry feels like a quick sprint through many important ideas and concepts that deserve much more attention than what they are given. In addition, more evidence from the text is needed to convince the reader of Melville's stances on subjects such as slavery, business, and America or the world as a whole. More examples from the text will greatly aid your effort here.

    Overall, I believe that you can use this blog as a good starting point for your revision. All these ideas you bring up are both interesting and relevant to your argument. With more examples and evidence from the text, you should be well on your way to a great revision.

  2. This is hurried, sloppy, and disengaged from the *details* of the text.

    This doesn't mean it lacks value, perhaps surprisingly. You summarize - hastily! - some of the important political/historical context, and some of the obvious ways in which Melville is engaged with that history and with those politics. But it's not an argument, and it doesn't engage with the text - at best, it sketches out a perfectly valid and interesting *area* of inquiry. It's like a paragraph you write in order to discover your true topic - you just stop there. I'd be interested in seeing what happens next, of course, because you are identifying questions and topics of great interest.