Moby-Dick and American democracy

Way back in high school, I had English teachers who were as obsessed with Moby-Dick as was Captain Ahab with the great white whale.

Rereading it now, I see a lot of things I missed before, like Herman Melville’s rhetorical mastery and variety, his sense of humor, and how well he represents the ethos and ideals of the middle of the 19th century.

1851, the year of Moby-Dick‘s publication, was only 75 years after our Declaration of Independence; the 166 years since 1851 have not laid to rest the deep-rooted issues of our history. But one can forgive Melville’s and his era’s youthful optimism when he writes (chapter 26):

“… [M]an, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes…. [T]his august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God….”

And in an almost Homeric passage: “If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities,… then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou Just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God!…”

Those were the days, when a novelist could ascribe greatness, to the point of a divine connection, to all men, without regard to race or class! (Yes, Moby-Dick is a story of men; whaling was not a profession open to women.)

Through his persona Ishmael, Melville expresses a true admiration for the accomplishments of men of all origins, brought together in the hardships of the sea, symbol of deep concentration of the mind and uplifting of the spirit. He pays particular tribute to the three harponers (chapter 27).

After Queequeg, a South Pacific islander, who is Ishmael’s friend to the point of sharing a room and bed (which was not uncommon in the inns of the time) and the enjoyment of a pipe fashioned from a tomahawk, we meet Tashtego, “an unmixed Indian from Gay Head, the most westerly promontory of Martha’s Vineyard,… an inheritor of the unvitiated blood of those proud warrior hunters.”

And then there is Daggoo, an African, a noble giant of a man: “There was a corporeal humility in looking up at him; and a white man standing before him seemed a white flag come to beg truce of a fortress.”

Melville notes that “at the present day not one in two of the many thousand men before the mast employed in the American whale fishery, are Americans born.” Native American (in today’s terminology), African, South Pacific native, crew members picked up in the Azores–all, to him, blend their efforts in a common enterprise.

I don’t mean to be nostalgic (and I hate to think of whales being killed for lamp oil or, today, pet food), but I am choosing this great American novel to contrast the spirit of a young democracy to whatever it is we have today, perhaps well symbolized by the malignant force that underlies the destructive white whale, an age of fear and loathing by all appearances… unless that Just Spirit of Equality and that great democratic God care to exercise their favorable influence among us, and quickly!


By I. W. Taber [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Moby Dick: Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1902.

PS A subsequent article by Paul Street in truthdig, 10/18/17, depicts the whaling industry as akin to slavery for the sailors, rife with racism, and exploitative of both man and nature. Whatever the historical merits of the case may be, Melville’s message seems to me to be the fundamental brotherhood of men striving together to overcome a malign destiny and the underlying brutality of their own nature. as brilliantly shown in The aged black cook’s sermon (chapter 64) to his (and all of our) “fellow-critters,” the sharks.

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About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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