Melville's Major Fiction: Politics, Theology, and Imagination
James Duban’s Melville’s Major Fiction (1983) represents the twentieth-century school of literary inquiry known as historical contextualism—that is, the study of narrative in the context of the novelist’s literary, historical, and philosophical reading and concerns. Duban thus reviews Typee, Omoo, Mardi, White Jacket, Redburn, and Moby-Dick as those novels explore and expose the psychological and historical foundations of American expansionism, slavery, and millennialism. Duban does so by demonstrating how Melville’s fiction tasks American manifest destiny via the creation of unreliable narrators whose outlooks relate to questionable appropriation of biblical precedent or to sometimes contorted applications of Jonathan Edwards’s The Nature of True Virtue and Bishop Joseph Butler’s The Analogy of Religion. The suggestion is that beneficent views of providential history are reducible to self-aggrandizement, and that seemingly grandiose political destiny is politically and psychological analogous to what John Ruskin called “the pathetic fallacy.” Duban’s chapter on Melville’s Pierre, in turn, explores Pierre’s delusive sense of moral imperative in the context of the miracles controversy of 1836-1843, in which Transcendentalists confronted Unitarians over the spiritual, as opposed to the historical, foundations of religious belief. The phenomenon of belief also inspires the epistemological drama of Melville’s The Confidence-Man, with Duban demonstrating Melville’s conversancy with a “grammar of assent” dating to the writings of John Locke. That chapter also details how Melville dramatizes the orthodox contention that Unitarian optimism in human nature—an outlook extending to the Anglican cleric Derwent, in Clarel—renders absurd the need for a crucified Christ. Duban’s closing chapter argues that the narrator of Billy Budd is unreliable, insofar as his account of the unknowable is conditioned by a defense of captain Vere grounded in Burkean conservatism and by events surrounding the Somers Mutiny Affair of 1842—rather than by textual evidence of Billy’s murderous activity aboard H.M.S. Bellipotent. Given its attention to narrative artistry and to the then-current social concerns of Herman Melville, Melville’s Major Fiction credits Melville with progressive political outlook achieved through creative artistry that rises above the dust of Marxist-tasking “consensus ideology.”
JAMES DUBAN is Professor of English and Associate Dean for Research and National Scholarships in the Honors College at the University of North Texas. He has authored books on Herman Melville and the Henry James family, with articles appearing in a host of scholarly journals.
Republication of this book has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.