T. Walter Herbert, Jr. begins his marvelously insightful study Moby-Dick and Calvinism (1977) with an apologia for producing yet another book about Herman Melville:
It has been true for some time that by writing one reasonably intelligible book on Melville a man could secure a better living in America than Melville managed to win by writing the whole body of his work. It is possible that this period is now drawing to a close; but while it has lasted his writings have received such an immense volume of commentary that yet another article on Melville, to say nothing of a scholarly book, should be obliged to present reasons for its existence. (ix)
The raison d’être for Herbert’s study is to make known “a major aspect of Melville’s creative achievement” by providing “a biographical account of Melville’s inner struggle with the theological ideas that were losing authority during his time” and investigating “his way of handling those ideas in Moby-Dick” (ix). Noting that “Melville’s religious perplexities were shaped by the fact that he absorbed in childhood the opposing theories of Unitarianism and the most conservative orthodoxy,” Herbert concedes that in the early nineteenth century, the debates between the proponents of these theories had come “to seem intractable and were denounced increasingly as a waste of motion” (5-6), and he suggests that Melville’s “preoccupation with outdated religious questions was a source of dismay to his most intimate literary associates” (11).
And if these questions were outdated in Melville’s time, how much more out-of-date would they seem to readers nearly a century-and-a-half-later? Somewhat defensively, Herbert writes that “Melville deals with historic theological issues that may seem quite remote to us, scarcely worth the energies of a great genius” and admits that “the need to review the historical context of his work” might be construed to be “antiquarian.” Herbert argues, however, that such an interest is anything but antiquarian, because religion was part of “the structure of ideas that molded [Melville’s] consciousness.”
As Herbert presents it, the interest of Moby-Dick and Calvinism rests not on the particular religious ideas and theories with which Melville engaged (though Herbert does an excellent job of elucidating them for his reader) but rather on something more abstract: it is, finally, a study of the ways in which “masters of literary art” like Melville take “command of certain basic conventions of thought” that “dominate the meditations of [their] contemporaries” (5). Melville, Herbert argues, “lived in a world very different from our own, and thought in the idiom that his world provided,” but he “addresses us directly” because he dramatizes “the historical finitude” of all the “basic conceptual frameworks in which men articulate their negotiations with experience” (5, 19).
Reading Herbert’s study some thirty years after it was published, I am struck by the ways in which it seems simultaneously current and out-dated. In 1977, it was ahead of its time, an example of what Sacvan Bercovitch and Myra Jehlen would refer to, nine years later, as “ideological literary criticism.” Herbert doesn’t use the term ideology, but like those critics in Bercovitch and Jehlen’s influential anthology Ideology and Classic American Literature (1986), he draws on work from the social sciences to illuminate his account of literary creation: “Lines of research in sociology, anthropology, and psychology have converged upon the recognition that individual persons, as well as communities, render experience intelligible by employing conceptions of the world” (3). Although he feels duty-bound to invoke psychoanalytic theory in his discussion of “intellectual conflict” (12-15), Herbert’s approach owes more to the work of Clifford Geertz and Thomas Kuhn, two of the most frequently invoked theorists among subsequent practitioners of ideological literary criticism. “Personality within a culture,” Herbert writes, “coalesces about the scheme of basic attitudes which the culture mediates to every newborn in making him a member of his society. . . . Accepted conventions of thought and action reach into the individual and establish the terms on which he must achieve whatever individuality is to be distinctively his own” (3-4). Herbert’s study is animated by a sense of the reciprocality of text and context that has now become de rigeur in the aftermath of the New Historicism.
And yet, one of the lessons of ideological literary criticism is that every act of reading or writing must be contextualized, and I am struck, reading Moby-Dick and Calvinisim in 2008 about the difference between its cultural context and my own. Indeed, I wonder whether the meaning of Herbert’s suggestion that Melville “addresses us directly” hasn’t changed in the thirty years since Herbert wrote those words: is it possible that the United States circa 2007 has more in common with Melville’s time than it did in 1978?
In 1977, there was a Democratic president in office and social scientists fretted about what Christopher Lasch called the “culture of narcissism.” Herbert writes with the implicit understanding that “the theocentric interpretation of moral experience has been superseded,” but urges his reader not to underestimate the importance of religious thought.
Three decades later, however, theocentrism seems to be enjoying a renaissance in the United States, with a Republican president in office who counts himself among the ranks of born-again Christians. By all accounts, George W. Bush was able to win re-election in 2004 because he managed to turn out a sufficient number of voters from the religious right to make the difference. In the aftermath of the election, the Economist, observing American politics from across the Atlantic, wrote that “the conservative rural red-neck Calvinist vote has captured America. A plurality of voters, emerging from poll booths, said that the most important issue in the campaign had been ‘moral values’. It was not, it seemed, Iraq or the economy. And eight out of ten of these moralists voted for George Bush” (“The triumph of the religious right,” 13 November 2004). Ten weeks later, U.S. News and World Report would call Bush’s second inauguration “a day for the true believers — the social conservatives, Christian activists, foreign-policy hawks, and, of course, George W. Bush himself” (20 January 2005).
Reading Herbert’s monograph in this cultural context reinforces my sense that Moby-Dick was an emergent text in 1851 and is an emergent text today in 2008 — in both cases because of its links to cosmopolitanism.