Melville Ahead of His Time

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(HOST) Commentator Peter Gilbert was absolutely astonished by contemporary sounding references in Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick.

(GILBERT) At the beginning of Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael tells us that he feels called by fate to go to sea, as if his trip “formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. [Ishmael continues,]…the [play]bill must have run something like this [and here, centered on the page as if part of a theatre program, are the words]:

“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.

“Whaling voyage by one Ishmael.

“Bloody Battle in Afghanistan.”

What are we to make of these lines, which sound so very contemporary? Surely 19th-century Melville could not predict the 21st century like some American Nostradamus.

I suspect that the reference to “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency” refers not to a specific election outcome that was contested; it may just refer to the “grand contest” that every presidential election inevitably embodies. After all, Melville finished Moby Dick in 1851, and there hadn’t been a controversy about a presidential election since 1824. The references to presidential elections and the first British war in Afghanistan of 1841-42 may have been just random allusions to great global dramas – to be contrasted with Ishmael’s insignificant travels.

However, these references can be read another way. Marxist C. L. R. James thought the book’s conflict between the tyrannical Captain Ahab and the crew to be about the universal struggle of tyranny, freedom and class. After all, Melville was politically radical and, it’s been argued, was more in tune to the spirit of the radical French Revolution than of the American Revolution.

For support for this interpretation, James pointed, in part, to a passage in Moby Dick in which Melville ascribes to even the lowest mariners “high qualities”; he promises to “weave round them tragic graces” and to exalt “even the most mournful…among them”; he says he’ll “touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light.” He’ll do so, he says, because the “Spirit of Equality…has spread one royal mantle of humanity over all” humankind.

In this interpretation, the reference to a “Bloody Battle in Afghanistan” alludes to English imperialism, and a presidential election contest is not an inspiring democratic exercise, but a contest between the people and their oppressors.

But even if you don’t buy James’s argument, it’s always illuminating to consider a familiar and favorite text from a new perspective. And whatever you make of those tandem references to war in Afghanistan and a contested presidential election, they shock the modern reader’s system – like a cooler of ice-cold Gatorade poured over the head.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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