In Recovering American Literature, Peter Shaw argues that "political correctness has sabotaged the study of American literature" and proposes to save five of our classic works from the trivializing gestures of those "Lilliputians" who insist on cutting our greatest treasures "down to their own size."
The works considered by Shaw are indisputably great and complex pieces of 19th-century American literature: Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Herman Melvine's Moby-Dick and Billy Budd, Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Henry James's The Bostonians. Shaw treats Melville's Typee in an appendix, acknowledging its literary value but setting it somewhat apart from the major works of the main chapters.
Whatever Shaw imagines has gone wrong in current American literary criticism is manifestly evident for him in the excessive attention paid by recent critics to political issues in Melville's great narrative of 1851 -- the epic of Captain Ahab's monomaniacal quest to find and kill the white whale that had torn away his leg and defied his authority over his ship, his crew and nature itself. For Shaw, Moby-Dick exemplifies the "democratic possibilities" explored in our greatest literature, and Melville subordinates political problems to the American dream of "democratic dignity" and brotherhood of the sort exemplified by the novel's narrator, Ishmael, lone survivor of the Pequod's destruction by the white whale.
Shaw knows that to argue for Moby-Dick as an affirmation of American democracy is to politicize the literary text, so he goes to some lengths to distinguish his political reading from the politics of those recent scholars he believes have trivialized Melville's art. Relying on F.O. Matthiessen's 1941 study American Renaissance and Henry Nash Smith's 1951 essay "The Image of Society in Moby-Dick," Shaw argues that "the democratic element" in the novel "was spiritual before it was political" and endorses Smith's view that "the democracy which Melville has in mind is not a political system or even a social system" but is "independent of institutions." Fusing or confusing Christian spirituality with the values of democracy by no means enables Shaw to transcend polities. Rather, it locates him firmly in an identifiable political tradition.
This position has been associated with those intellectuals committed to the Puritan origins of American democracy who trace America's political and social roots to the Calvinist theocracy of our forefathers. In several places in his chapter on Moby-Dick, Shaw recalls Ahab's descent from the "peculiarly American Calvinist tradition of obsessive speculation and searching for meaning." Matthiessen's American Renaissance, subtitled Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, not only challenged many of the assumptions of theorists of our Puritan origins such as Perry Miller, Matthiessen's colleague at Harvard, but also carried over many of these values for the next generation of American literary scholarship.
What Matthiessen accomplished was the translation of Puritan spiritual values into the secular philosophy and aesthetic values of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Melville and Walt Whitman -- heirs to the cultural legacy of New England Puritanism. These American writers turned Puritan identity into the American myth of self-reliant man, the "American Adam" capable of facing the moral and physical wilderness of the New World.
In his own time, Matthiessen worked for the rebirth of such American values at the very moment totalitarianism challenged democracy. He knew how important it was in 1941 to distinguish between democratic individualism, of the sort he identifies with Ishmael, and tyrannical will, of the sort he recognizes in Ahab's madness. "Living in the age of Hitler," Matthiessen wrote, "even the least religious can know and be terrified by what it is for a man to be possessed."
Shaw values Matthiessen for his adherence to moral and aesthetic values that Shaw considers beyond mere politics, but Matthiessen himself understood morality and art to be crucially related to social and political factors. In his preface, Matthiessen wrote, "An artist's use of language is the most sensitive index to cultural history, since a man can articulate only what he is, and what he has been made by the society of which he is a willing or an unwilling part."
In Matthiessen's terms, art cannot be separated from the social and political conditions of its production and reception. In assessing the politics of literary interpretation, then the decision must be made between "good" and "bad" politics. It is the latter that Shaw finds in recent interpretations of Moby-Dick as an allegory of Melville's vigorous critique of capitalism and thus of the Calvinist values upon which American free-enterprise economics and self-reliant individualism so often claim to be based.
What aggravates Shaw most is what he judges to be the lasting influence of the New Left on politicized interpretations of Moby-Dick. For Shaw, the historical relativism of such interpretations is a sure sign of declining scholarly standards. Sixties critics such as Leo Marx and Milton Stern used Ahab's obsession with the white whale to criticize the monomania of the American government in its conduct of the Vietnam War. Shaw argues that the New Lefts reaction against American capitalism encouraged scholars and critics in the 1970s to stress Moby-Dick as a systematic anticapitalist treatise that related industrialism, slavery and imperialism -- all expressed metaphorically in the whaling voyage, its captain's obsession with it and the exploitation of his workers.
Of course, one of the familiar marks of the literary "classic" is its capacity to address the problems of different eras. It is not just that William Shakespeare's plays transcend local concerns by virtue of their universality; his plays also speak to later audiences in terms of their own particular troubles. This is why different editions, dramatic adaptations, illustrations and interpretations are cited as indications of a literary work's status as a classic.
For the reader to recognize in Captain Ahab the signs of demagoguery and tyranny, that reader must relate the literary meaning to some meaningful experience. Ahab may not be the same as Adolf Hitler, but the analogy helps the reader in the 1940s understand what speaks generally to a wide variety of readers in the name of this "Ahab," 19th-century whaling captain named by Melville in this manner to recall the wicked king of Israel. As Melville reads the Bible and Shakespeare according to the needs of his 19th century, so we read Melville and his Puritan ancestors according to our own historical needs.
At times, Shaw seems intent on attacking only the historical relativism and thus the anachronism of these politicized interpretations of Moby-Dick, but he also is concerned with how this turn to the political has changed our understanding of the historical contexts in which the novel was written and received in antebellum America. In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on "The New Melville," Scott Heller confirms Shaw's fear that "race, class, and gender" are the primary concerns of scholars reinterpreting Moby-Dick although the scholars Heller quotes (with the exception of Peter Shaw himself, of course) generally view the new historical approaches to Melville, as well as to other canonical American writers, to be cause for excitement regarding the new information and new interpretations being published.
It always has been difficult for me to understand how Moby-Dick could have been taught for so long without more careful consideration of the great social and political events of America in the 1850s. Yet this is just how the novel was taught to me; MobyDick was treated in the classroom of the mid-1960s as if abolition was not the most important issue of Melville's day, the women's rights movement did not exist, the Civil War was not just around the historical corner and urbanization and industrialization were not transforming the everyday lives and habits of Americans. MobyDick was taught to me in the very period Shaw claims to be the beginnings of the New Left propaganda campaigns. It was taught to me as a great debate regarding the fate of Christianity, especially in its capacity to incorporate the different myths and religions of the world. Scholarly works such as Lawrance Thompson's Melville's Quarrel with God (1952) and H. Bruce Franklin's The Wake of the Gods: Melville's Mythology (1963) treated Melville as some version of George Eliot's Casaubon, toiling over his notebooks of the myths and religions of the world as the real world grappled with the problems of social, economic and technological upheaval.
What Shaw considers to be the trivial turn to politics in studies of Melville since the mid-1960s actually has helped historicize Melville's novel within its own time and confirm judgements of its literary value. Cathy Davidson, editor of the scholarly journal American Literature, notes in Heller's story about the "New Melville" that the journal receives "more submissions about Melville than any other writer," rather good evidence that the new scholarship has helped keep Melville part of our changing literary canon. New scholarly studies in the 1980s, such as Carolyn Karcher's Shadow over the Promised Land: Slavery, Race, and Violence in Melville's America (1980) and Michael Paul Rogin's Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (1983), enabled us to understand Melville as an artist and citizen in the complex and often conflicted times of antebellum America.
Shaw begrudgingly, but repeatedly, acknowledges the relevance of the efforts in the last two decades to rehistoricize Melville and Moby-Dick: "Without question Melville had in mind the economic exploitation of American workers, just as ... he meant to evoke ... the terrifying power of industrial machines and ... the lure of money in a commercial society." The problem with these "politicized readings, each of which has its modicum of truth," is that they "flatten out and cut down to narrow political use a work that heretofore shot out richly suggestive sparks of meaning in all directions." Dismissing efforts to make Melville politically relevant to our own times--even if tyranny still challenges us--while acknowledging the significance of efforts to rehistoricize Melville in antebellum culture, Shaw offers to restore to us the missing aesthetic dimension he feels no political reading can compass.
Just what is this "central meaning" needed to complete the "partial picture" of Moby-Dick? Shaw argues that it is the "higher purpose" the artist urges his culture to strive to achieve, the "evolution of a higher consciousness" that has always been the challenge great art poses for its "national culture." I have no objection to this as one of the several purposes of MobyDick, except my objection to the general vagueness and idealism of this "central meaning." Yet, Shaw is willing to specify just what he means when he identifies for us the origin of this interpretation of Moby-Dick's appeal to our "higher" national consciousness: "Americans, who ignored Melville for three-quarters of a century, were presented by the Englishman D.H. Lawrence with Moby-Dick as a worthy object of their attention.... For some 40 years after D.H. Lawrence's revelation, American criticism of Moby-Dick was conducted as an act of cultural self-criticism and hence took its place alongside the most serious critical dialogues of other cultures."
Shaw refers to D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature published in 1923, years after American scholars such as Raymond Weaver had begun the modern rediscovery of Melville. In his chapter on Moby-Dick Lawrence is decisively "political" in his interpretation, and I only can conclude from this end of the 20th century that it reads as bad politics. Far from celebrating the higher consciousness Melville encourages Americans to achieve, Lawrence reads Moby-Dick in terms of his very modern, neo-Nietzschean values (preeminent among them is Nietzschean "ressentiment"--his critique of modern man's hatred of "time, change, and becoming") and his mockery of the Puritan values Shaw seems so intent on reaffirming: "What then is Moby Dick? He is the deepest blood-being of the white race; he is our deepest bloodnature.... We want to hunt him down.
To subject him to our will. And in this maniacal conscious hunt of ourselves we get dark races and pale to help us, red, yellow, and black, east and west, Quaker and fire-worshipper, we get them all to help us in this ghastly maniacal hunt which is our doom and their suicide."
I cannot believe that this is the "central meaning" of Moby-Dick; I cannot believe that Shaw really accepts this wild Laurentian ranting about the "doom" of America. If I were to believe it, then the "act of cultural self-criticism" that occurred by way of our readings of Moby-Dick for those 40 years before New Left politics "wrecked" the book would have to follow the history mapped out by Lawrence himself: "But Moby-Dick was first published in 1851. If the Great White Whale sank the ship of the Great White Soul in 1851, what's been happening ever since? Post-mortem effects, presumably."
If this was the "charge" to critics of Moby-Dick from 1923 to 1963, as Shaw suggests, then is it any wonder that the critics since 1963 have tried to render Melville and his great American novel, Moby-Dick, in terms more historically and politically credible? Which Melville would you prefer be taught in the schools--the mid-19th-century writer struggling to come to terms with abolition, women's rights and industrialism, or the Melville speaking through the modern Englishman, D.H. Lawrence,the elegy of American civilization?…