Political Contexts Enhance Classics

By Rowe, John Carlos | Insight on the News, May 23, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Political Contexts Enhance Classics


Rowe, John Carlos, Insight on the News


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.

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