American Literature and the Dream

By Frederic I. Carpenter | Go to book overview

9. Melville AND THE MEN-OF-WAR

LITTLE KNOWN in his own lifetime, Herman Melville did not become famous until after the centenary of his birth, in 1919. But from then till the centenary of his first novel, in 1946, his fame has increased a thousand fold.--Why? Perhaps his early critics were imperceptive, or his reading public stupid. Or perhaps his sudden reputation may fade in the future. But there is a better reason. Melville first became a classic after 1919, at the end of the First World War. Since 1946, the end of the Second World War, his stature has increased. Melville had the misfortune to live during the most peaceful of all the civilized centuries, but to think in terms of Armageddon. He conceived the world as a man-of-war.

Born a century too soon, Melville truly prophesied the future. But in a sense he also lived outside of time--like Taji, "eternity is in his eye." He was a prophet, not only in that he foretold the future, but also in that he proclaimed the inner reality of things. He possessed the myth-making imagination: all life became an allegory whose meaning obsessed him. But since most readers prefer simple stories to allegorical fiction, his prophecies fell fiat at first. Today their meaning seems important.

That Melville prophesied disaster to a century which expected the millennium, and that he suggested the inner meaning of things to an America concerned first with their utility, are reasons enough for his greatness. But they are also reasons for his weakness. Remonstrating against the blind optimism of his contemporaries, he often exhausted himself in reaction. And searching for the undiscoverable truths of eternity, he often lost himself in speculation. In one book only did he achieve the perfect balance, suggesting the truths of eternity in terms of his own time: Moby Dick prophesied the ultimate failure of the American dream, without distortion or confusion. But all his other novels (including even Billy Budd) suffered either from the bitterness of his disillusion, or the obscurity of his thought.

That his own literary greatness was bound up with his philosophic meaning, Melville himself repeatedly implied. In Mardi, he announced his intention of contriving a "romance" which might, possibly, "be received for a verity." In Moby Dick, Ahab suggested his author's purpose to uncover "the features of that reasoning thing"

-73-

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American Literature and the Dream
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Part I 3
  • 1 - Introduction 3
  • 2 - The American Dream 5
  • Part II 11
  • 3 - The Transcendental Dream 11
  • 4 - Emerson 19
  • 5 - Bronson Alcott:Genteel Transcendentalist 30
  • 6 - Walt Whitman''s Eidolon 40
  • Part III 51
  • 7 - The Genteel Tradition:A Re-Interpretation 51
  • 8 - Scarlet a Minus 63
  • 9 - Melville and the Men-Of-War 73
  • Part IV 83
  • 10 - The Pragmatic Realization 83
  • 11 - Charles Sanders Peirce:Pragmatic Transcendentalist 94
  • 12 - William James and Emerson 105
  • 13 - Sinclair Lewis and the Fortress of Reality 116
  • Part V 126
  • 14 - The Romantic Confusion- The Devil in America 126
  • 15 - The Romantic Tragedy of Eugene O''Neill 133
  • 16 - Death Comes for Robinson Jeffers 144
  • Part VI 155
  • 17 - Thomas Wolfe- The Autobiography of an Idea 155
  • 18 - John Steinbeck- The Philosophical Joads 167
  • 19 - The Time of William Saroyan''s Life 176
  • 20 - Hemingway Achieves the Fifth Dimension 185
  • Part VII 194
  • 21 - The Good and the Bad 194
  • 22 - The Logic of American Literature 199
  • Notes 208
  • Index 217
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