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From the Stacks: “The Significance of Herman Melville”

October 10, 1928

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Herman Melville, the celebrated author behind Moby-Dick, was born 194 years ago today. In his honor, we bring you an essay by Lewis Mumford—a legend in his own right—on Melville's philosophy and outlook. Melville may have spent the last years of his life largely forgotten by his contemporaries, but despite that, Mumford argued, Melville's significance was unparalleled. "Melville's settling down was inevitable, inevitable and difficult; but the difficulty was not due to the inability of a restless adventurer to accept a tamer and more even existence," Mumford wrote. "It was due to the fact that, having known a rounded and cultured life, however savage and exacting, he could not submit to the desiccated routine of Western civilization, with its contempt for art, its gross disregard for the higher manifestations of science, its dislike for meditation, its subservient religion, its frank subordination of all other values to that of Comfort. ... Melville's vision, like Emerson’s, like Whitman’s, like Thoreau’s, was a part, and a great part, of a growing whole."

Why does Herman Melville mean so much more to us than he did to his own contemporaries? What has his thought done for us, and what has his vision given? The change that has come about is not merely a change of style, so that the things which amused Mr. Stedman and Mr. Lowell are now old-fashioned, like hooped skirts, while the things that concerned Melville are, like the cubist quilts and coverlets of the 1850's, distinctly modern. Typee is still as good a book as Mr. Stedman thought it: we see now that it belongs to a more common order of literature, whereas Moby-Dick, the more closely we consider it, mounts to that lonely, wind-swept plateau in whose rarefied air only the finest imaginations can breathe. Distinctly, Moby-Dick belongs with the Inferno and Hamlet and Lear and the Brothers Karamazov; and if it does not establish its right to this company, it must occupy a lower place than the successful novels of its period, a David Copperfield or a Pendennis, books written with a complete acceptance of the current limitations and provincialities. 

Melville's work, taken as a whole, expresses that tragic sense of life which has always attended the highest triumphs of the race, at the moments of completest mastery and fulfillment. Where that sense is lacking, life shrivels into small prudences and petty gains, and those great feats of thought and imagination which transform the very character of the universe and relieve human purpose from the weak sufficiency of toiling and eating and sleeping in a meaningless, reiterative round, shrivel away, too, John Ruskin saw the truth of this when, in spite of his pacifist convictions, he praised the art of war, for its effect upon the human spirit: life becomes intensified and purposive when the battle with the forces of Nature, like Ahab's battle, is a deliberate pursuit and challenge, and not merely an apathetic waiting for a purely physiological end. The tragedy of life, its evanescence, its frustrations, its limitations within physical boundaries almost as narrow as a strait-jacket, its final extinction becomes, in a day that consciously embraces its fate, the condition of an heroic effort. It is just because these things lie in wait that man defies the gods, cherishes the images he has created and the relations he has solidified in custom or thought, and centers his efforts on those things which are least given to change. Though the sensible world is not derived, as Plato thought, from the heaven of ideas, the opposite of this is what every culture must strive for: to derive from the sensible world that which may be translated to a more durable heaven of Forms.

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Within the world of these forms there is Life, a tiling of value, and not merely living, a matter of fact and habit and animal necessity. Whether one develops this tragic sense of life on a battlefield, like Sophocles, or in a whaleboat, like Melville, it is a precious experience: for living, merely living, as every profane writer from Petronius Arbiter to Theodore Dreiser has shown, brings boredom, satiety, despair: whereas Life is eternal, and he who has faith in it and participates in it is saved from the emptiness of the universe and the pointlessness of his own presence therein. Living, for man, in all but the most brutish communities, like those of the savages of the Straits of Magellan or the outcasts of a Liverpool or New York slum, includes and implies this Life: and when Melville summons into his whaler die several races of the world, lie is expressing the universal nature of that effort which cups nature with culture, existence with meaning, and facts with forms. Ahab's tragic struggle is the condition of every high endeavor of the mind; while adjustment, acquiescence, accepting outward conditions as inward necessities, though they may prolong living in the physical sense, effectually curtail Life: this attitude, the attitude of Melville's contemporaries, the attitude of the routineers and Philistines at all times—and they have never perhaps seen so numerous as today—disrupts life far more completely than illness and death do; for it brings about a deliquescence of forms, such as the nineteenth century showed in all its common arts, and a disintegration of human purposes. When that happens, the White-Whale of brute energy reigns supreme: Life itself is denied: living produces no values, and men hide their emptiness by embracing weak counterfeits of purpose.

Melville's younger contemporaries, who fought in the Civil War, knew Life and Death; but those who prospered in the years that followed knew something more dreadful than simple death: they knew chaos and purposelessness and disintegration, such chaos and purposelessness, mixed with a wan, reminiscent hope, as Henry Adams pictured in his Education. Herman Melville portrayed a human purpose, concentrated to almost maniacal intensity, in Moby-Dick; and in Benito Cereno, in Bartleby, and in The Confidence Man, he showed the black aftermath, when the purpose is not sustained and carried out in art, and when he himself was deserted in his extremity, by contemporaries who neither understood nor heeded nor shared his vision. No single human mind can hold its own against all that is foreign to it in the universe: Shakespeare's heroes issue their brief defiance, before they are blotted out: such unity of spirit as one may possess, as philosopher or poet, must be sustained in the community itself. A new culture, the product of two hundred and fifty years of settled life in America, had produced Walden, the Leaves of Grass, Emerson's Notebooks, and Moby-Dick; but that culture, instead of sustaining and carrying forward the integration of man and nature and society shadowed forth in those books, was completely uprooted by the Civil War, and a material civilization, inimical in many aspects to the forms and symbols of a humane culture, was swept in by the very act of destruction.

Two generations of that material civilization have shown us its lopsidedness, its aimlessness, its grand attempt to conceal its emptiness by extending concrete roads and asphalted streets and vacuum cleaners to more and more remote terrains: our most humane writers, like Mr. Sherwood Anderson, have shown how mercilessly the whole human being is crippled by this one-sided triumph; and even our most bewildered writers, who have exulted in all these maimed energies, have shown in their very act of deification how brutal and aimless they are. We realize that the effort of culture, the effort to make Life significant and durable, to conquer in ourselves that formidable confusion which threatens from without to overwhelm us—this effort must begin again. And in thus making a beginning we are nearer to Whitman with his cosmic faith and Melville in his cosmic defiance, than we are to a good part of the work of our own contemporaries. It is not that we go back to these writers: it is, rather, that we have come abreast of them; for in creating that new synthesis, in lieu of the formless empiricisms and the rootless transcendentalisms of the last three centuries, the writers of our own classic past were nearer to the contemporary problem than almost any of the Europeans have been—since the physical remains of another culture in Europe give the mind a false sense of stability and security.

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Herman Melville's world is our world, magnificently bodied and dimensioned: our synthesis must include and sublimate that very quest of power which Melville portrayed with such unique skill, as a combination of science and adventure and spiritual hardihood, in Typee, Mardi, and Moby-Dick. Melville's life warns us not to stop here: men must test their strength in surrender as well as in lonely conquest: he who knows neither social union nor sexual passion nor love is indeed an Ishmael, who finds himself an outcast because he has cast out that which was most precious to his own nature: there is love in the universe as well as power: the sun warms and the rain slakes the thirst: the whales dally and the first song of creation is the song of sex. 

The synthesis that Melville foreshadowed in his ideas is not simply a logical structure: the search for such an abstract solution of life's problems is one of the idola of the closet. Melville's synthesis was embodied in acts and deeds. During the years of his early manhood, as he wandered about the world and contemplated existence under the stars and bore a hand in working the ship, his environment his experience, and his vital relationships were a single integer. He did not lack what libraries and the social heritage of man gives; but he mixed this with activities that gave back to books the subtle properties that cannot be transmitted to the printed page, but must be derived directly from life. The reviewers in London might well have been shocked by the spectacle of a “common sailor” writing Typee. Melville had bridged in literature that great gap between the respectable, learned professions and the common trades that had hitherto been crossed, with rare exceptions, only by those who definitely had lost caste, or who, like Bums, had risen with a sense of uneasy sullen pride to acceptance among people of high rank.

America had taken all the established castes and classifications of Europe and left them to sort themselves out according to nature and ability. By a singular dissociation of ideas, which involved the destruction of an old social tissue, it had permitted a free and disinterested creature, a man, to emerge from a conglomeration of classes and practical interests. Melville was not primarily a sailor; he was not an adventurer; he was a man sailing, a man adventuring, a man thinking, proving in his early manhood that a whole and healthy life may involve many functions, without sacrificing its wholeness and health to any one of them. Whitman with his nursing and carpentering, Thoreau with his pencil-making and gardening, were Herman Melville's brothers in the spirit: they did not disdain the practical life: they faced it manfully: but instead of neglecting every other activity for “business,” they saw that what was called business was only a small part of the totality of living: they behaved towards it, as Whitman said, as if it were real, with the knowledge that merely getting a living was not a sufficient contribution to Life. Brutal though Melville found whaling to he, it communicated, nevertheless, a sense of Life: there was astronomy and mathematics and natural history and art and religion within the bulky hold of the whaler, as well as technics and business and the daily logbook. 

The vision that grew out of this experience was a whole one, not, like the science of its time, subordinated to practical interests or even narrower metaphysical schemata. Through this dissociation from inherited values all things began at scratch: no one element in life, except sex, carried a handicap. Melville's settling down was inevitable, inevitable and difficult; but the difficulty was not due to the inability of a restless adventurer to accept a tamer and more even existence: it was due to the fact that, having known a rounded and cultured life, however savage and exacting, he could not submit to the desiccated routine of Western civilization, with its contempt for art, its gross disregard for the higher manifestations of science, its dislike for meditation, its subservient religion, its frank subordination of all other values to that of Comfort. Melville's contemporaries, with chance exceptions, neither lived as full a life as he had lived in the South Seas, nor were they able to understand it even as a theory. For these contemporaries, Melville's vision was an example of Bedlam literature: they did not realize that Bedlam was precisely the world they lived in, and that Melville's vision, like Emerson’s, like Whitman’s, like Thoreau’s, was a part, and a great part, of a growing whole.

The stripping down of Herman Melville's ego, which he began in Mardi and finished in Pierre, was a sloughing away of labels, nicknames, party war-cries, habits, conventions, and acceptances; it was, necessarily, a prelude to that building up of a new ego, a surer and more central I, which is the task of our own time both for men and for communities. Melville himself was crippled in the work of reconstruction by a hiatus in his own career, which was followed and made final by the social hiatus of the Civil War: though he sought to complete the work in Calarel, one cannot pretend that he did anything but foreshadow this mended psyche, this more richly integrated self: one of his last poems, “The Lake of Pontosuce,” perhaps approaches nearer to the goal than any other work of his. It is useless, however, to speculate upon what might have been: the accidents that befell Melville are part of that malign doom that he himself pictured in Moby-Dick, and they do not affect the essence of his work. Whatever Melville's life was, his art in Moby-Dick was that integration and synthesis which we seek. Through his art, he escaped the barren destiny of his living: he embraced Life; and we who follow where his lonely courage led him, embrace it too. That embrace was a fertile one, and in each generation it will bring forth its progeny. The day of Herman Melville's vision is now in the beginning. It hangs like a cloud over the horizon at dawn; and as the sun rises, it will become more radiant, and more a part of the living day.

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