Current scholarship concerning one of my favorite novels, Moby Dick, by Herman Melville seems, like the ship Pequod, to be heading to the bottom of the ocean. Concerns raised by younger literary scholars appear to be issues they are interested in not those raised by either Melville or his novel.
Take the Why Melville Matters conference held several years ago, and co-sponsored by the Albany Academy, which Melville attended (the school that is not the conference), and The Center for Humanities, Arts, and TechnoSciences (CHATS), State University of New York at Albany. The event brought together scholars, artists, historians, and others to discuss Melville through panels and the presentation of papers.
The efforts to bring Melville to the public’s attention was worthy of applause. One of the events of the conference was a twenty-four hour reading of Moby Dick, which Pulitzer Prize winning Albany author, William Kennedy, began and which Albany Academy alumnus, Andy Rooney, ended. Moby Dick, thought by many scholars and readers to be the great American novel, is well worth reading and any activity that encourages people to read the book is worth doing.
The symposium, however, raised many problems for me—not so much about what it included, but what it excluded. According to the academies, Melville matters because “The questions he posed are the same issues that inspire contemporary writers, artists, and thinkers today—the vexed relations between humans and their environment, racial and social injustices, capital punishment, psychological alienation, and the new frontiers of science and globalism.”
Lists of paper topics included “Melville and environmentalism,” “Melville the ultimate eco-tourist,” “Melville and Pedagogy, Gender and queer studies: approaches to Melville’s short fiction, racial and social issues in Melville’s fiction,” “Melville and Science, cetology and herpetology,” etc.
It didn’t seem to matter to the supporters of this conference that the questions Melville posed most, especially but not exclusively in Moby Dick, were theological. Is God good or is he malignant? Does God exist? Do men and women truly have free will or is everything predetermined? Why do good things happen to bad people? Why do bad things happen to good people? Are people essentially good or are they basically evil?
Moby Dick contains several hundred Biblical names, quotations and allusions, the first one showing up in the third word of its famous opening—”Call me Ishmael.” Ishmael, according to the Bible, is the first Arab and the ancestor of Muhammad. The Koran reveres Ishamel as a great prophet. These facts along with the chapter called The Ramadan could lead to a discussion of Melville and Islam. Now that’s relevance.
A brief sampling of Melville‘s comments on religion, either directly or through the mouth of a character in one of his books include: “That greatest real miracle of all religions, the Sermon on the Mount.” and “…all good Christians believe that any minute the last day may come, and the terrible combustion of the entire planet earth.” He once said, in an oft repeated quote, “That Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or another, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free….“
The absence of religion from the symposium was not only curious because of Melville’s obsession with it, but because when Melville attended the Albany Academy, while it was not a religious academy, religion was part of the curriculum. Depending on what department you were enrolled in, you were required to take courses in religious history, natural theology and evidences of Christianity.
On the other hand, the absence of a discussion of Melville and religion in the symposium was not completely surprising. Having graduated from the University at Albany’s bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in English, I know first hand how thoroughly secularized most English scholars are. It’s not that there is a conspiracy to avoid discussing a writer’s relation to religion, it’s just that the concept of God is so remote to the thinking of most academics, that it gets marginalized in most literary discussions.
Anyway, no doubt some good came out of the symposium, even if Melville’s life long quest to resolve religious issues raised during his religious upbringing was relegated to the category of irrelevant.
No doubt hearing parts of Moby Dick read aloud inspired some people to read the novel for the first time, and they were able to decide for themselves if Melville thought Ishamel and Queequeg were a gay couple, or if Starbuck had survived the sinking of the Pequod, whether or not he would have been the founder of Greenpeace, instead of lending his name to a coffee company.
Note: 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of Herman Melville’s birth. Melville was a New York State writer and the most important American writer of all time. This is the first of a number of articles on Melville.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Sunday Gazette.