An essay by Randy Boyagoda in the online journal The New Pantagruel demonstrates how truly catastrophic in its consequences has been the relentless politicization of literature over the past twenty-five years. Boyagoda wants to recoup Moby-Dick for the cause of American patriotism, arguing that Melville’s “primary ambition” was “to enable Americans to appreciate, in the fullest complexity, their muddy grandeur, and recognize, however vexingly, the imperfect splendor of their nation.”
Boyagoda traces Moby-Dick‘s rise to prominence in academic literary study, making the plausible point that Richard Chase’s Herman Melville: A Critical Study (1949), for example, was part of an effort made by prominent post-war Americanists to identify “a native-born artist whose achievements could adequately complement the stature of a fledgling superpower.” That much of now canonical American literature was used by many such critics to celebrate America, to enlist works of literature in a cultural cold war rather than delineate their purely literary virtues, is undeniable. To this extent, the Cold War ideology of much of early Americanist criticism surely did make literary study an implicitly political activity, in turn almost ensuring that later, more radical critics would attempt to discredit the ideology while continuing to regard the study of American literature as an excuse to engage in cultural politics.
Boyagoda deplores the results of the left-wing appropriation of Melville, citing specifically what he considers the baneful influence of the Marxist interpretation of Moby-Dick by C.L.R. James, but he doesn’t renounce the political approach itself, advocating, in fact, that conservatives abandon whatever lingering belief they may have that “high literature ought never be dragged down into conversation with politics.” (I myself haven’t noticed many scruples on this score among present-day conservatives, but I suppose Boyagoda moves in different circles than I do.) He offers an alternative interpretation of Moby-Dick in which Queequeg becomes “the ideal American”: “The son of an island king, he leaves behind his aristocratic inheritance to seek adventure and edification in the West. He willingly humbles himself to become a lowly crewman and rises through the whaling ranks through his skills as a harpooner. Today, he seems the archetypal American immigrant in search of the Promised Land, who found it, worked hard, and made good.” Certainly Queequeg is portrayed sympathetically in Moby-Dick, and Boyagoda’s simplistic account is no more simplistic than the view of him as exemplar of the working class, or the view of Ahab as rapacious capitalist or incipient fascist (although it does seem rather too squishily multicultural for most conservatives’ comfort). Yet Boyagoda isn’t finally interested in “scraping away an accumulation of critical barnacles and returning to Melville for Melville,” as he claims to be, but is plainly concerned that a new set of barnacles be added:
These same virtues [embodied by Queequeg] must be nurtured today no matter how old-fashioned or “patriotic” (or even Christian) they may seem to those too easily disenchanted by America’s strengths and weaknesses. Such efforts will inevitably be derided in some corners as a new conservative politicization of literature. More truthfully, they develop out of and seek to develop further a thoughtful love of country. . . .
What a thoroughgoing denial of the integrity of such a singular work as Moby-Dick to suggest it is valuable because it might ultimately inculcate a “love of country”! Does Boyagoda really expect that thoughtful people will want to read Melville’s novel so they can get a good dose of such patriotic medicine? How does it return Melville to Melville to reduce his literary achievements to such pap? On the other hand, is it any better to value Melville primarily because his work can be similarly wrenched out of shape from the other direction and made into a left-wing critique of American excess? Does it return Melville to Melville to portray him as a political polemicist, of whatever persuasion?
That such a novel as Moby-Dick can be read in such wildy disparate ways as those of Boyagoda and of James and his followers suggests to me two things: 1) Moby-Dick really is the sort of capacious work, allowing a multitude of readings, that the New Criticism encouraged us to think of as the supreme accomplishment of literary art; 2) neither the conservative nor the radical interpretations of Moby-Dick can be trusted as accounts of what Melville was “really” trying to do. They’re just interpretations, and very pallid ones at that. They don’t come close to describing the aesthetic and metaphysical mazes one can travel in reading Melville’s novels and short stories. Boyagoda says that reading Melville will help Americans recognize “the imperfect splendor of their nation.” How about the perfect splendor of literature?