2013 BIRTHDAY LECTURE: CALL ME MELVILLE

Tonight, I’m going to tell you two stories, linked by a man who looms large in both, despite the fact that he was dead for decades when the stories occurred. That man is Herman Melville, known today as one of the great American writers, largely on the strength of his magnum opus, Moby Dick. The first story I will tell you is how Melville’s work was taken from the obscurity in which it languished at the turn of the twentieth century and made into one of the foundation stones of American culture’s image of itself at the time when American power and prestige was at its height. The other story will be about how the image of Melville, as a man and a cultural symbol, came to be used by people who understood America in ways violently opposed to those who saw themselves as guarding Melville’s legacy. The first story has been told before; it takes place largely within the critical establishment and in academia, and its effects are readily apparently to anyone who has taken an American literature or American civ course and is inclined to mull upon the experience. The second story is unfortunately ill-sourced; the questions I hoped to yield from it have not been asked, to my knowledge; and it takes us out of academia and into a world of bombings, betrayals, and desperate doomed rebellions. The two stories rely on each other, and both rely upon a man long dead, obscure in his own life, and a provider of no easy answers. Within the range of causes Melville has been conscripted to serve in death lie some of the basic quandaries of the American twentieth century.

In his own life, to the extent he was known at all, Herman Melville was known as the creator of picturesque romantic sea stories. Born in 1819 in New York to a family of good social standing that lost all of its money when he was a boy, Melville went away to sea as a young man, sailing to the South Pacific and working on whaling vessels. He came home to New York and wrote two novels based on his experience as a castaway on remote Pacific islands: 1846’s Typee and 1847’s Omoo. These two books were hits, playing to an American audience yearning for tales of noble savages and preindustrial natural splendor. With the proceeds, Melville purchased a farmhouse in Pittsfield, MA for his expanding family, and divided his time between it and the developing New York literary scene. This was the high point of Melville’s career while living.

There are a few explanations for the decline in Melville’s fortunes. There’s little getting around the fact that his third novel, 1849’s Mardi, was a near unreadable brick of  book, a sprawling picaresque allegorical fantasy sold to readers as another South Pacific yarn. It was a commercial flop and even sympathetic critics treat it gingerly today. Flop or no, Melville continued writing, publishing, and failing. His greatest work, 1851’s Moby Dick, failed to sell its original print run; “Billy Budd,” considered his greatest short work, was written for his desk drawer and only published posthumously. One of Melville’s twentieth century immortalizers, the historian Perry Miller, chalks up Melville’s fall to the rough and tumble literary politics of mid-nineteenth century New York. In his telling, there were three factions in the American literary world before the Civil War, and Melville fit into none of them. He was too democratic and passionate for the gentlemanly Anglophile whigs who ran the New York journals; he proved too philosophical for the Jacksonian literary nationalists in the Young America club to which he once belonged; and he was too earthy, too Jacksonian, and one suspects too New York for the transcendentalist coterie grouped around Emerson and Thoreau up here in New England. Nineteenth century literature, like prison, was a bad place to not belong to a gang. For whatever reasons, Melville was never considered a major literary figure in his lifetime after the failure of Mardi. Politics wasn’t all bad to him, though: patronage got him a position in the New York Customs House, where he made enough to support his family (though not enough to keep the Pittsfield house where he wrote Moby Dick) and while away his time on this earth until he died in 1891.

Interest in Melville’s work began picking up again in the 1920s, thirty years after his death and seventy years after Moby Dick flopped. The inciting incident for the Melville revival was the discovery of “Billy Budd” among Melville’s papers and its publication in 1924. Much of the initial interest in Melville at this time came from Britain; an English publisher first released “Billy Budd,” and D.H. Lawrence praised Melville as a great American writer in his book of essays on American literature in 1923. This interest rapidly found its way across the pond, where Melville found himself posthumously drafted into a later, and higher stakes, version of the battle that destroyed his career; the battle to define American literature.

None of the three literary factions among whom Melville came to grief in his own life existed in any meaningful form seventy years later. Outside of the academy, American literary life lived under the shadow of the critic H.L. Mencken and his coterie, clustered around Mencken’s magazine, The American Mercury. Mencken’s milieu had the social elitism of the Whig critics without their passion for propriety; the urban earthiness of the Jacksonian democrats without their populism; and the interest in foreign philosophy (especially Nietzsche) of the New England transcendentalists with none of their belief in the improvability of man. Their basic m.o. was to sneer at those dumb enough to believe in anything, be it Christ, Marx, American exceptionalism, or the League of Nations, illegal cocktails in hand, and the smarter ones, like Mencken, were sharp enough to parry all comers. More than ideas, Mencken and his set represented an attitude and a style, which many youths with literary pretensions attempted to make their own during the long boom of the 1920s.

You wouldn’t believe it nowadays, but time was people found it distasteful, or perhaps dangerous, to affect idle-rich pseudo-intellectual superiority in the midst of a crushing economic downturn. The 1929 stock market crash and subsequent depression spoiled the party for Jazz Age cutups like Mencken and showed that there were more serious problems in American life than laughing William Jennings Bryan off the national stage. Mencken became increasingly shrill – and decreasingly funny – as FDR dismantled his nineteenth century idea of elitist freedom and became more popular than him in the bargain. The fear and anger created by depression conditions inspired a general societal lurch away from what was then the political center, and anticapitalist sentiment and worries over the rise of Fascism in Europe sent much of that lurch leftwards. Literary culture followed suit. The Communist Party reached the height of its popularity in America (it was never that popular, but it did a bit better with intellectuals and artists than with the population at large), and Popular Front sympathies were widespread. Steinbeck’s depictions of impoverished migrant farm workers displaced the glitz and tragic navel gazing of Fitzgerald on the country’s literary stage.


“Where does the Melville revival enter into all of this?” the long-suffering listener could be forgiven for asking. The truth is Melville was not especially important to either of the tendencies I just described. I’ve found little reference to Melville in Mencken’s voluminous writings, but Mencken definitely pooh-poohed American literary nationalism and the universalist pretenses of writers of Melville’s vintage. The leftist cultural formations of the 1930s had more interest in Melville – he did, after all, write about working whalers who caught real hell off of their bosses – but realism was in vogue among Popular Fronters and Melville could not be called a realist. The group that came to take ownership of Melville’s legacy was defined in large part by their reactions against the literary and broader cultural and political trends of the 1920s and 1930s. For ease of reference, we can call this group the American Studies scholars.

This cohort includes a list of people whose names might be familiar to you if you read American literary criticism from any point from the ‘40s to the ‘70s, or paid close attention to the notes in your American civ course readings: F.O. Matthiesen, Van Wyck Brooks, Alfred Kazin, Leo Marx, Perry Miller, Vernon Parrington, Max Lerner, Henry Nash Smith, the list goes on. These scholars mostly came of age between the ‘20s and the ‘40s. They were all white and many of them were among the first cohort of Jews to attend to prestigious American universities. They were mostly men. Most of them dabbled, to depth or another, with some of the ideological trends of the day, mostly leftist ones. Several of them were Communist Party members at some point in the ‘30s or else were fellow-travellers, though their involvements were typically short-lived. Most of them recoiled against the Party, against Communism, and against anything they understood as extremism, which is to say against most of mass politics in the period between the world wars. What they devoted themselves to, in the place of the defined ideologies of the day, was an idea of America largely of their own creation, and to a shocking extent managed to make their idea of America America’s idea of America.

For a group of literary scholars who preferred close reading of novels and poems over discussing the social contexts in which literature is produced, the early American Studies scholars had some fairly transparent ulterior motives. Most of them agreed with a school of thought emerging in political science at the time, the totalitarianism school. The totalitarianism school held that the mass violence of the twentieth century was generated by political extremism, and that extremism was generated by the alienation of people living in modern mass society, cut off from tradition, unequipped to deal with the pace of change, dulled by numbing routine and anodyne pop culture, and hence easy pickings for any glib-tongued demagogue who came along and gave them someone to blame. The rise to prominence in depression-era America of the Communist party, populist demagogues like Huey Long, pseudo-fascists like Charles Coughlin, along with many other ineffectual but noisy Nazi groups, cults, and quacks, affirmed for the American Studies coterie the idea that mass man, left to his own cultural devices, would destroy himself. Next time, the reasoning went, there might not be an FDR to keep things copacetic.

American Studies sought to combat this problem and their ideological foes less by direct confrontation and more by rhetorical positioning. Instead of the Popular Front’s fixation on contemporary social relevance, the American Studies scholars emphasized the continual cultural relevance of a canon of American literary works. As distinct from the Europhile, right-leaning literary classicist tradition that dominated academic criticism in the early twentieth century, they stressed American exceptionalism. Being made up of Jews and intellectuals, the American Studies writers did not indulge in nativism, and did not dismiss European culture, but the central point was that American culture brought something unique and universally relevant to the table. They disputed amongst themselves as to what that something was exactly, but on aggregate they agreed that American civilization was the working-out of western man’s drive toward freedom, democracy, and equality (in that order), often times in spite of the wants or actions of Americans themselves. They saw this process as working itself out in the canon of American literature that they compiled. For all of their talk of America as a uniquely democratic culture, the first American Studies scholars had little interest in popular or offbeat culture, and their sources were all big-name writers. Most of them fell into two categories, sometimes facetiously called “testaments.” There’s the “Old Testament” of the “American Renaissance” of the mid-nineteenth century – Hawthorne, Poe, Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Melville – and the “New Testament” of early twentieth century American modernists: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, etc. There was a sprinkling of writers from the period in between, as well: Mark Twain, Henry James, and our old friend from last year’s lecture, Henry Adams. Read these, the American Studies scholars told whoever would (or, in the case of generations of college freshmen, were compelled to) listen, and you would understand what America was about. You would see it, and say that it was good.

The American Studies scholars were hardly the first to claim to define American literature, of course, nor were they the last. They were, however, in a unique position of power in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Their interest in promoting a unitary national culture as an alternative to threatening political ideologies was shared by many in the government. As the country geared up for the Cold War, fears of cultural subversion and of a return to the perceived cultural drift and chaos of the prewar years spread widely in Washington circles. This coincided with the massive expansion in higher education that followed the passage of the GI Bill and the beginnings of government support for research of all kinds. We usually think of government assisted research in terms of hard science, and for good reason, but the Cold War national security state also had its hand in the pie of the social sciences and even the humanities. Hell, the CIA bankrolled much of abstract expressionist painting. The CIA also funded some of the early American Studies programs – whole academic departments dedicated to the agenda of the scholars I’ve been telling you about – such as the one at Yale. This yielded the amusing spectacle of CIA men, suborned academics, and rich (often right-wing) donors wrangling with each other over how best to spend secret government funds in order to push one or another rigidly programmatic vision of how free and democratic American society is. This funny irony often had sad results, though. No matter how far they ran from their youthful leftism or how sincerely they taught American exceptionalism, most of the American Studies scholars held to an idea of America that was too gentle, too cosmopolitan, and too intellectualized for right-wing nationalists in the funding foundations and in Congress. Moreover, to the right wing, a Commie was a Commie, ex- or no, and number of ex-Communists were chased out of the field which they created in no small part as an expression of their repudiation of Communism. This included F.O. Matthiesen, author of the classic American Renaissance, who had the misfortune of being both red-baited (he was considered a fellow traveler) and lavender-baited (he was gay). His career ruined, he killed himself in 1950.

Sad stories like that aside, the American Studies paradigm and the early Cold War state went together like peanut butter and chocolate. From their perch in important academic positions and watered by foundation and government money, the American Studies scholars propagated their idea of American literature far, wide, and deep. Their American canon was widely taught in universities and high schools across the land. The Baby Boom generation was taught what America was from a variety of sources – their relatives, movies, tv – but the official version came from the American Studies paradigm, and that meant exposure to Herman Melville.

What did the American Studies cohort see in Melville that Melville’s own peers did not? Part of what Melville brought to the table could be called highbrow insurance. Melville’s later works, especially Moby Dick and Pierre, could be seen as prefiguring literary modernism, both in style and in content. American critics need not feel ashamed in front of Joyce, Proust, and Sartre, they could tell themselves, when an obscure American were prefiguring all of those guys’ moves seventy years before the fact. Melville was a useful bulwark against charges of American parochialism, too, dealing as he did with universal themes on very broad canvasses. These literary qualities were what the American Studies critics focused on – they made much of their strict focus on texts, ironic given the level of attention they paid to their own societal context – but there were political implications in Melville’s work that the American Studies critics liked, as well. After all, what better symbol for totalitarianism than Captain Ahab? Here’s a man who gathered together a disparate mass of men and unified them in pursuit of a mad dream, leading them to willingly participate in their own destruction. This was especially congruent with the understanding of midcentury liberals that totalitarianism was only incidentally a problem of this historical circumstance or set of ideas, but was fundamentally a problem of humanity, one that couldn’t be solved but could be managed, if one learned how to live and think the right way. Ahab was a useful figure to point to for those who would make ideology a matter of psychology.

And so Melville was incorporated into the American canon, at least in part due to his merits; the American Studies critics, for all of their ulterior motives, weren’t slouches at reading and appreciating literature. Moby Dick and other weighty works of Melville’s terrorized, fascinated, or bored millions of college and high school students from that day to this, and for at least some of them entered into their idea of what their country was about.


But as it turned out, for all of their occupation of the commanding heights of American criticism and for all of their official backing, the American Studies scholars were incapable of controlling how Herman Melville, a man they ushered into the national consciousness, would be understood and used. And unlike most disputes over what literary figures mean, this one did not restrict itself to rudely-written journal articles.

Signs that the Melville consensus might not hold started to show early on. For one thing, Melville was the only writer in the American Studies canon that I know of that people went so far as to rename themselves after. There are two examples of this I know of. The first was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, but is better known to the world as Jean-Pierre Melville, director of such classic films as Army of Shadows and The Samurai. Before he became a famous film director, Grumbach was active in the French Resistance, where he took on the code name Melville, after his favorite author. He kept it after the war. His films weren’t really message films (especially given the overheated political context of postwar French cinema), but they do have a darkness and ruthlessness to them – in part inspired by his war experiences – that is not entirely in keeping with the canonical project the American Studies made Melville’s namesake a part of. That said, no one conversant with both Herman and Jean-Pierre Melville can say the name does not fit the younger man, or that Jean-Pierre Emerson or Jean-Pierre Hemingway would make any more sense.

Within the world of literary criticism, serious leftist attempts to incorporate Melville into their fold came about as the American Studies paradigm was taking hold. Imprisoned on Ellis Island – under the feet almost of the Statue of Liberty – awaiting a deportation hearing, the great Trinidadian radical scholar C.L.R. James wrote his interpretation of Melville entitled Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways. This work agreed with the American Studies scholars that Moby Dick was a prescient study of totalitarianism, but he turned the argument around on its originators. Ahab doesn’t represent a platonic, trans-ideological form of psychologized tyranny; he represents the highest product of advanced industrial society, the “managers, superintendents, executives, administrators” that brought about great advances but who also, by their very nature, sought to bring all under their control. James saw this dynamic at work in the United States, which had just imprisoned him for subversion, as much as in the Soviet Union, whose Communist Party considered him a non-person for questioning the Stalinist party line. Unlike the American Studies scholars, James did not see Ishamel as a symbol of American innocence and desire for American freedom, but rather as an intellectual enabler of Ahab’s tyranny, analogous both to the party-line Communists he was used to fighting and to the piously liberal American scholars who cooperated with McCarthyism. Hope comes from the titular “mariners,” “renegades,” and “castaways” that made up the crew of the Pequod, a self-contained world of hard work, unpretentious reason, and rough-and-ready democratic bonhomie, though dangerously vulnerable to the Ahabs of the world if not properly wary and organized.

After six months at Ellis Island, James was denied a visa extension and he shipped off to London.  The American critical establishment did to Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways what it so often did and does to books that seek to force reckonings it’s unprepared for: they ignored it. It would take the upheavals of the 1960s to partially dislodge the American Studies interpretation of Melville from its status as semi-official dogma. Many of the new generation of critics coming of age at that time took part in the upheavals, notably H. Bruce Franklin, a Maoist Melville scholar involved in numerous building take-overs at Cornell and Stanford. But the most spectacular reappropriation – or assault on, if you prefer – Melville’s legacy during the ‘60s took place outside of the academy. This is where the second man who rechristened himself “Melville” enters the story.


The man known to history as Sam Melville was born Sam Grossman in a hospital in the Bronx in 1934. He grew up poor around Buffalo, New York, and eventually became an engineer. A restless and by most accounts charismatic man who felt stifled by American society in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, he became involved in leftist political causes and by and by “dropped out” of conventional society and became a full-time movement figure in New York. He participated in anti-war protests and worked in the underground press. Most accounts of Sam Melville depict him as having being impulsive and action-oriented: to those of who have been to political meetings, he was the guy who’d always say “all this talk is bullshit, let’s go do something, anything.” It was in this spirit that he began taking progressively riskier direct actions, starting with harboring Quebecois militant fugitives and culminating in stealing dynamite and planting bombs in locations thought to be part of the American war machine, mostly banks and draft induction centers.

I would call Sam Melville, from as close to an objective level as I can get, the most serious of the New Left bombers, but that doesn’t mean all that much. Bombing was a desperate, ill-considered tactic to begin with, the product of facile young people deeply invested in proving themselves deeply invested. Few of the New Left bombers, to my knowledge, intended their bombs to kill — they were meant to materially slow the war effort by sabotaging its physical plant – but kill people they did, most often themselves by accident. Bomb-making is no activity for amateurs. With his engineering background, Sam Melville proved a capable bomb-maker and was conscientious (as far as any bomber can be said to be) about collateral damage; none of his bombs killed or seriously injured anyone. But he was impulsive, given to making snap decisions, and was almost entirely uninterested in taking even preliminary security precautions. He talked about his deeds with people be barely knew and endangered himself and his partners, a group that consisted of some of his lovers and various pals almost randomly recruited from the New York activist scene. Judged from the perspective of urban guerrilla strategy, Sam Melville could be seen as a man of useful nerve and technical skill, but in severe need of a disciplined organization. No such organization existed in the ‘60s left in America.

Sam Melville was caught because he made a classic mistake: he trusted a hippie. Though in this case, the hippie, one George Demmerle, was a member of the far-right John Birch Society who took up a purportedly freelance agent provocateur gig, though by all accounts he enjoyed the opportunities his assumed lifestyle afforded him. Demmerle met Sam Melville at Woodstock, gained his confidence, and steered him into the hands of the police. Melville’s associates went underground (including his ex-lover Jane Alpert, from whose memoirs most of our information on Sam Melville comes), and Sam Melville was sentenced to eighteen years in prison. Less than two years after his arrested, he was killed after taking part in an uprising that briefly took over Attica prison.

I don’t quite remember where I first heard of Sam Melville, but as I became more interested both in Herman Melville’s work and the legacy of the 1960s the question of what Herman Melville meant to Sam Melville lingered in me. Direct evidence on this question is scanty. Sam Melville died without writing a memoir, and his published letters tell us little about his name change. Jane Alpert, arguably the person who knew him best, wrote that Sam told her that Melville was his maiden’s name, but Alpert didn’t buy it, knowing that Moby Dick was Sam’s favorite book. Her claim is backed up by radical attorney Bill Kunstler, one of the last people to see Sam Melville alive. Kunstler was brought in to try to negotiate a settlement with the Attica rebels, a settlement that never came. There, he apparently got to talking with Sam Melville in the occupied prison yard, and inquired after his name. Melville towards Kunstler that he took the name Melville, inspired by Moby Dick as Alpert claimed. In his interpretation, the white whale, not Ahab, was evil, and the doomed quest to destroy the whale was a noble, if quixotic one – and the fact that Ishamel, the lone survivor of the Pequod, went back to sea in the end was highly relevant. For Sam Melville, his namesake Herman was a prophet of cyclical, doomed, but existentially necessary war against an evil, elusive, and ultimately unstoppable enemy. The struggle is the point – not the victory.


Like both men who rechristened themselves in his image, Herman Melville left no memoirs and no programmatic statement of what he meant to achieve. I believe part of the attraction towards Melville on the part of literary scholars is this gnomic quality; that, combined with the volume and complexity of his work, furnishes a lot of ground for critical exploration. I can’t tell you whether Sam Melville’s reading of Moby Dick is valid or not, though I will say that the idea that Captain Ahab is a hero strikes me as highly specious. I don’t know Melville’s work as well as I’d like, but there is on quote that I think is relevant here. The context was a letter, written by Melville when he was still a young-ish literary striver, to Evert Duyckinck, his patron back when Melville was still on the right side of New York’s literary Jacksonians. Melville was trying to explain to Duyckinck why he had commited a serious faux-pas: expressing approval of Emerson, a transcendentalist and anathema to Duyckinck and his posse. Melville explained himself thusly: “I love all men who dive.”

Melville, in the end, was more true to his dive into the murk of human existence than was Emerson, and he paid for it in life and received for it the dubious benefit of posthumous acclaim. The American Studies scholars may have used his work to construct a politically-motivated and rather limited canon, but they were also genuine lovers of literature and they seized on Melville at least in part because of his willingness to give into the unknown. If nothing else, they needed to prove than an American writer could do as well as a European.

But to dive is to willingly give oneself up – irrevocably, if not completely – to forces you cannot control. In the physical act the diving metaphor is derived from, that force is gravity, the attracting force pulling bodies towards bodies of greater mass. To dive is not to surrender entirely to gravity – the diver needs to decide when and where to let go, and what to do as they fall – but there is an acceptance of what may come as a consequence of the decisions to seek things that only be found in this dangerous way.

In sanctifying a man committed to the dive as a part of the American canon, the American Studies scholars were enshrining a way of being that led far outside of the circumscribed orbit of their ideas, and at times outside of the orbit of reason or morality. The same aspects that make the highest accomplishments of culture a salve, an ornament, or a tool of social order can also lead people outside of these concerns, and into very murky waters. Those who would know culture had better be prepared to dive deep themselves.

2013 BIRTHDAY LECTURE: CALL ME MELVILLE

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