Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!
essays

Mar 1, 1980

Melville and America: 1848

A review of Herman Melville’s probes into Jacksonian America’s existential crisis.

Michael Rogin

“Herman Melville: State, Civil Society, and the American 1848.” The Yale Review 69(Autumn 1979):72–88.

America in the nineteenth century suffered the dilemma of social and political inequality similar to that of feudal Europe, where the bourgeoisie faced the [81] threat of social revolution, American destiny, with its continental expansion, had evolved from a pursuit of liberty and independence to economic prosperity. American society was becoming torn between a sentimental culture rooted in familism and egalitarianism, and marketplace imperatives which violated that sentiment.

The protracted social conflicts were finally addressed in Europe by Karl Marx; in America by Herman Melville.

Melville’s artistry attempts to weave various strands of meaning and value into the human condition, in a world where those values can have no ultimate stability. Melville used poignant symbolism to depict contemporary social issues in his prose.

Melville’s writings address the complexities of the human condition in the conflicts between self and society, free will and necessity, faith and doubt. In his masterpiece, Moby Dick, the white whale becomes a unifying symbol of meaning and contradiction. The whale typifies a myriad of ambiguities: colossal power and mildness, tumultuous fury and awesome beauty. The whale is a paradoxical symbol of all good and all evil, depending upon its viewers’ subjectivity, much like the paradox Melville perceived in the United States. In 1848 America was a country founded on the pursuit of liberty and civil rights, yet it had recently absorbed half of Mexico and continued to practice chattel slavery.

Melville concerned himself not solely with the emancipation from racial slavery, but also with the philosophic question of liberation from authority. For Melville, the victory of capitalism over slavery merely replaced the “whip” with the “wall.”

The politics of Wall Street erected not only separating walls between family and work, but also isolated men from meaning in their work, and trapped them within an unresponsive hierarchy by impersonal authority. The failure of politics to remove social flaws consigned Melville’s character, the worker Bartleby the Scrivener, to a slow death of alienation from humanity and meaning. His passive resistance, expressed in his phrase, “I prefer not to,” thwarted his employer’s cosmetic attempts to restore human bonds to the relationship of worker and employer.

Karl Marx found his hope for humanity in the working class, who he felt could eventually actualize the potential of the state to solve social problems. Unable to conceive of such social transformation, Herman Melville discovered his kind of political renewal in the Civil War, where the state returned to its primacy over civil contradictions. Fathers and Sons of the new Union became painfully reconciled, symbolized by the newly constructed “Iron Dome” of the Capitol Building. The “Iron Dome,” Melville wrote, “would be stronger for stress and strain.”