Posts Tagged ‘Herman Melville’

Some Thoughts on Alfred Kazin’s America

October 4, 2010


We can only guess how many literature–loving undergraduate English majors have been dissuaded by the massive edifice of Literary Theory: Freudianism. Marxism. New Criticism. Structuralism. Semiotics. Feminism. Poststructuralism. Postmodenrism. Reader Response. etc. The tumescent postwar expansion of our university system along with the demise of so many literary publications has in many cases reduced the discussion of literature in this country to the “endless theorizing about what literature cryptically is” (513).

Rereading Alfred Kazin’s America, a selection of the late writer’s works adroitly and lovingly edited by Ted Solotaroff, I am transported to a less restive time when a university professor of literature like Kazin could get by simply expressing his enchantment with the written word. As Solotaroff notes in his introduction, Kazin “was not interested in literary theory or in what nowadays is called textuality” (xxi).

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s solipsistic (and rather disturbing) assertion in Self Reliance that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” is faintly echoed in Kazin’s essay To be a Critic:

To be a critic, nothing else is so important as the ability to stand one’s ground alone. This gets more important as criticism gets more standardized and institutionalized, as the critic gets more absorbed in literary theory rather than in the imaginations who are his raison d’etre (510).

Kazin always stood his ground, even when his opinions collided with hagiography. Here he is on the Lost Generation:

They had a special charm–the Byronic charm, the charm of the specially damned; they had seized the contemporary moment and made it their own; and as they stood among the ruins, calling the ruins the world, they seemed so authoritative in their dispossession, seemed to bring so much craft to its elucidation, that it was easy to believe that all roads really had led up to them (117).

And here he is describing how The Great Gatsby triumphs despite its flaws:

The book has no real scale; it does not rest on any commanding vision, nor is it in any sense a major tragedy. But it is a great flooding moment, a moment’s intimation and penetration; and as Gatsby’s disillusion becomes felt at the end, it strikes like a chime through the mind (122).

The mercurial and sometimes brilliant Norman Mailer has been an enigma for both reader and critic because his uneven output is often overshadowed by his tempestuous personality.

Mailer’s tracts are histrionic blows against the system. They are fascinating in their torrential orchestration of so many personal impulses. Everything goes into it on the same level. So they end up as Mailer’s special urgency, that quest for salvation through demonstration of the writer’s intelligence, realism, courage, that is to be effected by making oneself a gladiator in the center of the ring, a moviemaker breathing his dreams into the camera (278).

Things don’t always go according to plan for American writers, as demonstrated by this cutting observation about Sinclair Lewis:

Here was the bright modern satirist who wrote each of his early books as an assault on American smugness, provincialism, ignorance, and bigotry; and ended up by finding himself not an enemy, not a danger, but the folksiest and most comradely of American novelists (99).

e. e. cummings, another brash and electric talent, is neatly summed up by Kazin:

As Cummings saw it, the world was composed of brutal sensations and endured only by fiercely desperate courage and love; it was so anarchical that all attempts to impose order were motivated by either ignorance or chicanery (127-128).

And here he is on the tempestuous Sherwood Anderson:

Anderson turned fiction into a substitute for poetry and religion, and never ceased to wonder at what he had wrought. He had more intensity than a revival meeting and more tenderness than God; he wept, he chanted, he loved indescribably (93).

Emily Dickinson is the greatest literary genius our culture has created (says me). Adrienne Rich wrote that “genius knows itself” and Dickinson “chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed.” Here’s how Kazin describes Dickinson’s beautifully bizarre, cheerful death wish:

In poem after poem she expressed, in her odd blend of heartbreaking precision and girlish winsomeness, the basic experience, in the face of death, of our fear, our awe, our longing—and above all, of our human vulnerability, of the limit that is our portion (402).

Kazin reflects on the singular achievement of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man from the perch of a dispirited and tumultuous time (1971) while taking a swipe at Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and every other notable contemporary African American writer.

Certainly more than any black writer, Ellison achieved as dramatic fact, as a rounded whole, beyond dreamy soliloquy or angry assertion, a demonstration of the lunatic hatred that America can offer, on every facet of its society, to a black man. This irrationality is more real, more solidly grounded to blacks writing out of actual oppression than is the idea of an irrational society to white writers dislocated in a country they used to take for granted and now find so much of America “meaningless” (282).

And here’s Kazin on Herman Melville’s fall and posthumous rise:

Melville may have been ditched by his own century; he became important to the next because he stood for the triumph of expression over the most cutting sense of disaster, negation, and even the most ferociously unfavorable view of modern society in classical American literature (366).

The young Ezra Pound was in many ways a generous soul who took the time to befriend and nurture younger poets. He was also an egomaniac. According to William Carlos Williams, once, when the two young poets were walking through the New Jersey countryside, Williams exclaimed that the winter wheat was coming up to meet Ezra. Pound noted wryly that it was the “first intelligent wheat” he had ever come across. (This sounds like something Sheldon Cooper might say.) Kazin discusses how this great mind eventually became so diseased:

Pound was a convinced fascist. The cruelty and death of fascism are an essential part of his epic and cannot be shrugged away in judging his work. Pound recognized his epic hero in Mussolini because fascism, like Ezra Pound, had few abiding social roots and was based on an impersonation, like Pound’s, of a mythic personage (196).

There is a sheen of other-worldliness in Nathaniel Hawthorne, “the only novelist from New England as subtle as its poets” (338).

Hawthorne, surrounded by so many moralists who thought they commanded the reality principle, created more memorably than he did anything else a sense of the unreality of existence, of its doubleness, its dreaminess, its unrealizability by anything less profound than the symbolic tale (338).

While Kazin was enthralled with the “imaginations” of our finest writers, he wasn’t afraid to take a shot at one of our most exalted figures:

Thoreau was a pure idealist, living on principle: typical of New England in his scorn for Irish immigrants, properly indignant about slavery in far-off Mississippi, but otherwise, as he wrote Walden to prove, a man who proposed to teach others to be as free of society as himself (329).

Over seven hundred thousand combatants perished in the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in human history up to that point. Much good resulted from this ghastly episode in our history, but millions of lives were damaged irreparably and African Americans would not be fully emancipated and enfranchised for another century. Only God could say if such massive suffering were justifiable for any cause, but that didn’t prevent victorious Northerners from singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!”

The triumphant North needed proof of its saintliness, and found it in the consecration of Abraham Lincoln. The civil religion that came out of the war turned America itself into a sacred object and ritual demanded that America be its own religion—and that everybody had to believe in it. The Lincoln who never joined the Church became the god of a godless religion. Under the smug Republican administration of Calvin Coolidge, a great temple in Washington was built around a statue of Lincoln seated on a throne. Now the people truly had someone eternally to worship (400).

I’ll leave you with a final warning from Alfred Kazin.

If the critic cannot reveal to others the power of art in his own life, he cannot say anything useful or even humane in its interest. He will scrawl, however learnedly, arbitrary comments on the text (512).

by Richard W. Bray

Innocence: A Famed American Virtue Demolished in a Wicked Novella by Herman Melville

October 2, 2009

Innocence: A Famed American Virtue Demolished in a Wicked Novella by Herman Melville

Today we are nearly unanimous in the belief that all forms of slavery constitute an unpardonable crime against humanity because murder, rape, torture and the forced separation of families are its inevitable consequences. It is therefore difficult for contemporary readers to imagine a time when apologists for slaveholders were not limited to the Southern states and widespread assumptions regarding the innate inferiority of blacks made slavery morally and theologically justifiable to many Americans. Because black slaves were usually depicted by white southerners as helpless, childlike creatures who would prove utterly incapable of subsistence on their own, it followed logically that slavery was the most beneficial arrangement for both the simpleminded slave and his paternalistic master.

Viewed in its historical context , Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno, published less than a decade before the outbreak of the Civil War, is a bold and ironic exploration of the role race has played (and continues to play) in our national psyche. It is unsurprising that this tale about a successful slave rebellion was not celebrated by supporters of slavery in the years between the Nat Turner Rebellion and the Civil War.

Like many contemporary reviewers, Arnold Rampersad is excited by the deliberate militance of Babo’s rebellion. For Rampersad, Babo is not only the central protagonist of Benito Cereno, but a literary creation worthy of the accolade, “the most heroic character in Melville’s fiction” (164). This is a legitimate reading of the story which Rampersad cogently asserts by delineating Babo’s place in the pantheon of black protagonists, from Uncle Tom to Bigger Thomas. However, at the risk of disagreeing with one of our most distinguished critics, I would assert that there is an alternative reading of Benito Cereno. The perspective of Melville’s narrative suggests that Babo—although an outstanding a specimen of black manhood— is not the central focus of the story. According to this reading, Benito Cereno is not essentially about black people; it is about how white people choose to view black people.

American myths and fantasies regarding the true nature of black folks are brilliantly depicted by Melville in the person of the story’s narrator, Amasa Delano. Rampersad quotes C.L.R. James’s observation that Delano “itemized every single belief cherished by advanced civilization…about a backward people” (165). Indeed, Delano “cherishes” the notion that black people are inherently childlike creatures designed by his Creator to serve whites because it is a reassuring conviction: “There is something in the negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one’s person” (Melville 1356). For a Massachusetts seaman who had previously profited from slavery without having to confront it directly, a great deal of potential psychic pain is avoided by the way Delano would deny Africans their basic humanity. For Delano, slavery is simply another form of animal husbandry: “In fact, like most men of good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to a Newfoundland dog” Melville 1357).

Delano, like many antebellum Northerners, refused to accept black people as fully human because doing so would have required him to confront the horrors of slavery. His “undistrustful good nature” represents the naïve willingness of prewar Notherners to accept Southern propaganda which defined slavery as a benign institution (Melville 1327). Rampersad neatly sums up Delano as “the embodiment of fantastic white liberal values (notably the famed American virtue called innocence)” (171). Delano’s innocence vis-à-vis slaves in Benito Cereno is so extreme that it beseeches readers to ask why Melville chose to tell this particular story from such a peculiar vantage point.

By presenting diabolical and treacherous black revolutionaries through the parallax view of a man incapable of detecting their humanity, Melville creates irony which approaches satire. The possibility that the slaves have indeed taken over the ship is so inimical to his world view that Delano invents fantastic explanations for the bizarre sequence of events he encounters on the San Dominick. Ironically, Delano’s initial response to the rebellion is to question the Benito Cereno’s breeding: “The man was an imposter. Some low-born adventurer, masquerading as an oceanic grandee.” Delano continues his internal debate concerning Benito Cereno’s authenticity right up until the inevitable slave uprising, virtually ignoring a plethora of evidence that it was the slaves who were running the ship. Despite several not-so-subtle clues, Delano is constitutionally incapable of entertaining the possibility that the slaves had taken over the San Dominick. Even when Benito Cereno and three white sailors leapt into the ocean, Delano still could not fathom that black men might ever be anything more than servants of white men. The final irony of Delano’s brief tenure on the San Dominick is his ridiculous assessment of the mutiny, where attempted murder is seen as evidence of the black man’s inborn domestication: “a servant, a dagger in his hand, was seen on the rail overhead, poised, in the act of leaping, as if with a desperate fidelity to befriend his master to the last” (Melville 1368).

Captain Delano’s outlandish naiveté when confronted by rebellious slaves in Benito Cereno is a metaphor for the manner in which many antebellum Northerners preferred to view African Americans. When Delano is unable to fathom the distress Benito Cereno feels with Babo holding a razor to his throat, Melville is suggesting that it is easier to accept the doctrine of white supremacy at a distance. Northerners who rarely had dealings with blacks were probably more susceptible to the comforting myths of innate black inferiority than the Southerners who interacted with slaves on a daily basis. By making the true nature of the rebellious slaves invisible to Delano, Melville demonstrates how persistent denial can be in the face of evil.

by Richard W. Bray