Sacred Uncertainty: Religious Difference and the Shape of Melville's Career

Sacred Uncertainty: Religious Difference and the Shape of Melville's Career

by Brian Yothers


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ISBN-13: 9780810131798
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 04/30/2015
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

BRIAN YOTHERS is a professor of English at the University of Texas, El Paso. He is the author of Melville’s Mirrors: Literary Criticism and America’s Most Elusive Author and The Romance of the Holy Land in American Travel Writing, 1790-1876. Yothers is the associate editor of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, a coeditor of the travel section of the Melville Electronic Library, an associate editor for Melville’s Marginalia Online, a coeditor of the interdisciplinary journal Journeys, and an editor for the book series Literary Criticism in Perspective.

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Sacred Uncertainty

Religious Difference and the Shape of Melville's Career

By Brian Yothers

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2015 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-3179-8


Melville's Communion of Solitude: Reading and Marginalia

Melville's uncertain communion begins with the solitude of reading. Melville read and annotated numerous books, and critics have devoted a great deal of energy to explicating the significance of his reading to his body of writing. Despite this wide-ranging attention to Melville's reading and sources, William Rounseville Alger's The Solitudes of Nature and of Man; or, The Loneliness of Human Life, which Melville purchased and annotated in 1871, has been largely neglected in this regard. Melville's annotations in the volume, however, are substantial and suggestive. Alger, who was a Unitarian minister with extensive intellectual ambitions, had pieced together a compendium of human thought on the topic of solitude, drawing from the philosophers of the ancient world and the European Renaissance as well as from revered contemporaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson. If Alger's work represents a critical survey of human conceptions of solitude across historical epochs, Melville's marginalia to Alger shows precisely how much the concept engaged, and indeed often monopolized the thoughts of America's most influential novelist.

One of the lengthiest passages that Melville marked in Alger's volume was his gloss on a quotation from Goethe. Alger quoted Goethe as reflecting that "Were there but one man in the world, he would be a terror to himself" (MM 1.98). Alger's reflection on this remark, marked with a line in the right margin by Melville, is poignant and worth quoting at length:

Nay, it may be added, were there but one man in the world, there would be no man in the world. In the absence of humanity, he could no more remain man than there could be an island if there were no sea. The single individual is the collective as the little column of mercury in the barometer is to the whole atmosphere. They balance each other although infinitely incommensurate. A quicksilver sea, two and a half feet deep, covering the globe, would weigh five thousand billion tons. That is the heft of the air — that transparent robe of blue gauze which outhangs the Andes and the Alps. Its pressure is unfelt, yet if the pressure were unfelt, all the water in the earth would immediately fly into vapor. Public opinion is the atmosphere of society. (MM 1.1)

I quote this in its entirety, because it seems to me to represent a tension in Melville's work that persisted from one end of his career to the other. Melville concerns himself consistently with finding the balance between solitude and sociability, with weighing the relative merits of individual belief, passion, and self-assertion against the need for community and a sense of connection to the greater mass of humankind. Although Alger is not among the more celebrated of the writers that Melville annotated, it seems clear that Melville marked this moment because he found it to be cognate with something that animated his own literary production.

Indeed, taken as a whole, Melville's markings in The Solitudes of Nature and Man illustrate a thoroughgoing concern with the relationship between solitude and sociability, the nurturing of the self and the meaning of selflessness that works its way through his entire body of work. Alger's method throughout the volume is to demonstrate that figures from Emerson to Goethe to Schopenhauer to Hegel to Pascal to Jesus demonstrate a powerful need for solitude to nourish their artistic creativity and their prophetic insight into the nature of humanity, a powerful urge for connection to other human beings, and a sense of the profound pain occasioned by the social rejection that enables solitude. Alger portrays Jesus himself as a misanthrope pining for human connection, citing both the bitterness of Jesus's remark from the Gospels that discouraged his followers from "cast[ing] ... pearls before swine" and the pathos of his remark to Simon that "thou gavest me no kiss when I came in" when celebrating the kindness of the woman who anointed his feet and washed them with her tears (MM 1.11). Melville marked both moments in his copy, suggesting that this vision of Jesus as one both estranged from humanity and passionately drawn to it resonated with Melville. That Melville could passionately resent the arrogance of the solitary artist/intellectual as well as empathize with the pain experienced by such a figure appears in his annotation to Alger's citation of Emerson's disparaging views on the subject of "the masses." Alger had characterized these remarks with disapproval and surprise that the "kindly Emerson" could be the source of these uncharitable thoughts; Melville wrote at page bottom "These expressions attributed to the 'kindly Emerson' are somewhat different from the words of Christ to the multitude on the Mount" (MM 1.4). Notably, Melville preferred here, as elsewhere, the ethical demands of the Sermon on the Mount to a misanthropy informed by a selfish belief in solitary greatness.

Perhaps most telling in relation to how Melville struck the balance between solitude and society appears in his underlining and scoring with a check mark Alger's statement that "It is not aspiration but ambition that is the mother of misery in man." At page bottom under this quotation, Melville wrote his own initials, "H.M." (MM 1.4). This is a fine distinction, but the context in Alger's work makes the nature of the distinction for both Alger and Melville clear: aspiration is an unselfish desire to achieve the highest artistic and moral goals, and ambition is aspiration's evil twin, a desire to achieve success by contrast to others. It is precisely this distinction that informs Melville's withering annotation to the Emerson quote.

The concern with solitude that appears in Melville's markings in Alger's volume is a recurrent theme in his marginalia. In Goethe's Autobiography, Melville noted with a check mark the following reflection on the necessity of solitude for the literary artist: "I clearly felt that a creation of importance could be produced only when its author isolated himself" — thus illustrating Melville's sense of the necessary loneliness of the literary calling (MM 1.565). In the writings of Schopenhauer, to whom Melville seems to have been led by Alger, Melville marked numerous misanthropic and even suicidal remarks, suggesting an attraction to the most extreme sorts of solitude, but he also made note of Schopenhauer's reflection on the moral ambiguities of genius: "The genius, on the other hand, is at bottom a monstrum per excessum; just as, conversely, the passionate, violent, and unintelligent man, the brainless barbarian, is a monstrum per defectum" (MM 2.315). Even at the end of his life, as he read Schopenhauer as a man in his seventies, Melville continued to reflect on the relationship between individual genius and interpersonal connection. As is demonstrated in his careful marking of references to religion in Schopenhauer's work, from discussions of the role of Buddhism in China to discussions of Anglican support for slavery in nineteenth-century Virginia, this obsession with the relation between the self and the broader human community frequently posed itself in religious terms for Melville.

The study that follows examines Melville's engagement with religious difference, both within American culture and around the world. It is impossible to understand Melville's wider engagement with religious and cultural questions, however, without understanding the fundamental tension between self and society, self and others that underlies his work, and that is manifested in particular in the way in which he interacts with other writers. Thus, I begin by exploring the ways in which Melville interacted with the various writers and thinkers that he regarded as his truest contemporaries and interlocutors, the figures of genius from both the past and his present from whom he received, as he eloquently stated it in "Hawthorne and His Mosses" a "shock of recognition" (PT 249). There is almost certainly no more concrete or reliable way to get at Melville's affirmations of and arguments with these interlocutors than in the markings and annotations that appear in his copies of many of their works.

These markings square with the most famous description of Melville's approach to philosophical questions, Nathaniel Hawthorne's letter written from Liverpool during his time as a consul there, in which Hawthorne wrote:

Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists — and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before — in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us. (Journals 628)

One lesson that we may draw from this is that Melville's understanding of the world and the place of his art in the world was fundamentally religious, not in the sense that he allied himself closely or exclusively with any ecclesiastical or creedal formulation, but through his constant inquiries into the very nature and meaning of existence.

Melville's solitude — his experience of it and the value that he placed upon it — helps to explain one of the fundamental facts of his career as a writer. From the beginning of his career to the end of his life, Melville's writing was shaped by ceaseless reading, and more than his contemporaries, more than his neighbors, more than his family, the writers that Melville read, both ancient and modern, formed his intellectual circle, and indeed the ideal audience for his work. Melville's markings in his own copies of books and his exchanges with contemporaries like Evert Duyckinck and Nathaniel Hawthorne on the subject of the books that he read reveal an author who is constantly seeking out new ideas to debate, refute, embrace, praise, condemn, and reevaluate. If we are to consider Melville as a religious thinker, we must engage with the fact that Melville's universal church, his communion of saints, constituted the assemblage of minds from around the world and across the ages that he encountered in his reading, from the Bible (as translated in the 1611 Authorized or "King James Version") to the scriptures of other religious traditions that he encountered in attenuated but provocative forms. The sort of existential intensity of engagement that we see in Melville's reading of the Bible and cognate texts is not limited to these few scriptures, however. It is noteworthy that Melville explicitly made a connection between one of the most heavily annotated portions of his copy of the New Testament and the works of William Shakespeare, a central literary model, remarking that Shakespeare was "full of sermons on the mount, and gentle, aye, almost as Jesus. I take such men to be inspired. I fancy that this moment Shakespeare in heaven ranks with Gabriel Raphael and Michael. And if another Messiah ever comes, it will be in Shakespeare's person" (Corres. 119). Melville here identifies Shakespeare with the production of scripture, even to the point of applying the idea of divine inspiration to his work. We see here that Melville regarded the writers to whom he felt the closest tie as figures of religious significance, even if the context for their writing was secular.

That Melville was a voracious reader will come as no surprise to anyone who knows his work, and his reading has been superbly documented by Merton Sealts, Jr., Wilson Walker Cowen, Mary Bercaw Edwards, and Steven Olsen-Smith. The full extent of the impact of Melville's reading on his religious thought and his aesthetic representation of that thought has not yet been fully appreciated, however. Melville's reading, marginalia, and allusions document the growth of an extraordinarily complex and engaged understanding of the religious and cultural ferment of the nineteenth century. Melville's marginalia to the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, and Nathaniel Hawthorne form the core of our knowledge about his reading, but thanks to Sealts, Olsen-Smith, Bercaw Edwards, and a host of other Melvilleans, we have a remarkably wide sense of the issues that engaged Melville in his reading.

Acknowledging that Melville's reading was determinative for his writing raises a new series of questions: who were the writers that he found most engaging? What patterns in their writing seem to unite them? How does Melville handle them? Several points are especially worthy of note. First, Melville tends to approach his interlocutors on the printed page as good-faith seekers of truth. He argues with them ferociously at times, and he mines them vigorously for images and allusions at others, but there is a persistent sense that he and they belong to one community of thought, whatever their differences. Moreover, Melville seems to express kinship in both his marginalia and his fiction with others who share his inquiring stance and his determination to balance the artistic demands of solitude and idiosyncrasy with the ethical demands of empathy and love. Perhaps the most striking example of this tendency is the seventeenth-century physician Sir Thomas Browne.

"Crack'd Archangel": Sir Thomas Browne and Melville's Religious Renaissance

Our evidence for Melville's engagement with the writings of Sir Thomas Browne is substantial, but we do not have extant marginalia for Browne's works. Evert Duyckinck reported to his brother George that Melville had borrowed his copy of Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici, and after devouring the book with his wonted intensity, returned it, confiding to Duyckinck that Browne seemed "a kind of crack'd Archangel." Like many of Melville's observations on other authors, this seems both a remarkably expressed insight into what is most essential in Browne's work and recognition of a fundamental quality of Melville's own mind and art. Brian Foley has rightly remarked that the phrase "crack'd archangel" "defies any simple explication," but I would like to probe some of the reasons for the suggestiveness of the phrase. "Crack'd" clearly enough suggests insanity and thus forecasts a figure like Gabriel in Moby-Dick, who is clearly both named after an archangel and "crack'd" in this conventional sense, but it is not Gabriel, a single-minded religious fanatic, who corresponds most closely to Browne in Moby-Dick. Rather, Browne becomes most evident in the words and phrases of Ishmael, Melville's narrator and the figure who provides the novel as a whole with its witty and paradoxical blend of farce, satire, irony, introspection, and exaltation. Thus, the "crack'd Archangel" of Melville's conversation with Duyckinck seems to indicate most powerfully the idea of a fractured religious consciousness, representing a faith that is at once potent and divided. Melville himself appears to be a "kind of Crack'd Archangel," and it is precisely Browne and Melville's shared struggles with religious difference that explain why Browne's style proved so powerfully generative for Melville.

We have long known that Browne was a major influence on Melville's prose style. Noting this fact has been mandatory at least since the publication of F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance, and Brian Foley has brilliantly outlined Melville's stylistic borrowings from Browne in both Mardi and Moby-Dick, particularly at the level of the sentence, where, for example, Foley notes that Melville employs syntactical and aural doubling reminiscent of Browne in order to test the limits of expression through language. Foley also demonstrates that Browne provides a model for blending the scientific and the personal in a single disquisition, as Melville does with such success in Moby-Dick. John Wenke demonstrates that these formal devices are closely connected to classical models for philosophical debate, observing that "Browne's dazzling allusive technique transforms every page of Religio Medici into a debate among competing positions." Following Foley and Wenke, the extent to which Browne becomes a part of Melville's artistic DNA throughout his career becomes more apparent once we consider the larger ways in which Melville's considerations of difference, and particularly religious difference, in Moby-Dick and beyond betray a high degree of conceptual congruence to Browne's treatment of difference in Religio Medici.

The power and fragmentation to which Melville referred in his characterization of Browne becomes evident once we consider the rhetorical self-positioning in which Browne is engaged in Religio Medici. Browne seeks in Religio Medici to define his own idiosyncratic views, situate them as part of Anglican orthodoxy, and allow for personal dialogue with the Catholic Church from which the Church of England had become separated. Melville's project, from Mardi to Clarel, can be seen as an expanded version of Browne's project. Melville's concern is not only to maintain productive dialogue between Protestantism and Catholicism in his work, but also between Christianity and the other major world religions and between numerous varieties of Protestantism and skepticism toward any revealed religion.


Excerpted from Sacred Uncertainty by Brian Yothers. Copyright © 2015 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents


Abbreviations and References to Herman Melville's Works,
Introduction The Sacredness of Uncertainty,
Chapter 1 Melville's Communion of Solitude: Reading and Marginalia,
Chapter 2 Landlessness: Religious Difference around the Globe, Typee to Moby-Dick,
Chapter 3 "Poor Richard Ain't a Dunker": Mapping American Religious Difference, Pierre to The Confidence-Man,
Chapter 4 "Conflict of Convictions": Remapping Religious Difference in Battle-Pieces,
Chapter 5 All Souls: Clarel, Religious Pluralism, and Unitarianism,
Chapter 6 "I Too Am Uncertain": The Doubtful Testament of Billy Budd and Melville's Later Poetry,
Selected Bibliography,

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