Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival

By Horn, Jason G. | Christianity and Literature, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival


Horn, Jason G., Christianity and Literature


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?