Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival

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By Clare L. Spark. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-87338-674-4. Pp. x + 730. $55.00.

More is at stake than just another analysis of Herman Melville in this hefty, detailed, and wide-ranging study by Clare L. Spark. In fact, she has far less to say about Melville than about the struggle between radical and conservative modernists to appropriate Melville's social philosophy. Both groups found Melville's thought particularly malleable, especially his ambivalent notions about democracy, and by selectively reading his fiction and presenting his life, they revived both for an "organicist ideology" that shaped and subsumed Melville for authoritarian rather than egalitarian purposes. Not mincing words, Spark points to the Melville revival itself as a "telling episode in a longstanding global effort to maintain authoritarian social relations in an age of democratic aspirations" a struggle waged primarily by those she calls "corporatists" and "organic conservatives" (11). Hers is a New Historicist approach to intellectual history that traces the life of democracy itself, then, through the thoughts and actions of those devoted both to reviving Melville's work and making it work for them.

Before examining the intellectual maneuvers of Melville's most influential revivers, however, Spark uses Part One of her book to explore thoroughly the "Melville problem": how to understand Melville's own apparently ambivalent response to democracy and its institutional supports. Was he a radical or conservative social critic? Or both? Spark locates Melville's vacillations between democratic and antidemocratic thought in the nineteenth-century populist and progressive movements that sought to balance the "claims of individuals" and the "claims of community" while maintaining social equilibrium (35). As she does throughout, Spark supports her account by juxtaposing a variety of documents: business, education, and government policy statements with newspaper editorials, popular lectures, and, of course, Melville's fiction. Moderation would win the day, as Spark shows, liberals and conservatives opting for an essentially "antidemocratic propaganda" that Spark claims still functions today to coopt, if not muffle, individual dissent and constrain free thought. Masked in terms of the national good, individual interests were subsumed by business interests, which supplied an "illusion of unity" through "promises of abundance" (69).

Academic institutions were not immune to this corporate conservatism, as Spark shows when she takes up the critical handling of Melville by scholars preoccupied with the social value of Moby-Dick, especially with Melville's characterization of Captain Ahab. "Ahab became Melville in institutions held to be implicitly critical and self-critical" yet "individuality was flaunted in one breath, taunted in the next" (74). And while Melville lashed out at social and intellectual constraints, Spark points out that his revivers, in pseudo-progressive fashion, did not. They found themselves in the "double bind" that lies at the center of the Melville revival and that springs from Melville's characterization of Captain Ahab. Is Ahab the radical champion of individual liberty, the Promethean hero who attempts to clear the veil away from all that would restrain human access to truth? Or is he a tyrant bent on forcing nature and humanity into his own services. Here Spark separates herself from Melville scholars in general by refusing to fix Melville and his problematic Ahab in one position; instead, she underscores Melville's involvement in the "intractable dilemma specific to an evolving, incompletely realized democratic society, misted still by corporatism" (82). By refusing to consider Melville's complicit connections with problems of an evolving democracy, as Spark contends scholars obscured and mystified his greatest work and diluted the impact of his most powerful character. …