Fall in, man! Pray for a larger heart, and you will begin to understanding the why and the wherefore of a black man's endurance! JAMES MCCUNE SMITH. Sept. 1, 1851.Walter A. McDougall, writing on "Our Stillborn Renaissance" invokes a seemingly important (and previously unknown in Melville scholarship) nineteenth-century review of Moby-Dick:
("African Colonization--The Other Side," Letter to Horace Greeley, Frederick Douglass' Paper, September 25, 1851)
"McCune Smith, that African-American doctor who dreamed of a race-blind society, wrote a long, admiring review of Moby-Dick. He had no difficulty decoding the allegory. The Pequod was the American ship of state, hell-bent on vain pursuit of whiteness."
(First Things, April 2008)
So as a Melville fan and review hound, naturally I want to see this newly uncovered "long, admiring review" by James McCune Smith. Where is it, then? Nothing about it at Wikipedia. No mention of it in Bob Davern's otherwise fine and fascinating biographical article "Surgeon and Abolitionist" at Readex.
Nothing about McCune's appreciative take on Melville's great book here or at the website of the wonderful James McCune Smith School. Still, I am glad to know of their truly Melvillean motto over at PS 200:
"Where the search for knowledge begins and never ends!"Well let me google "mccune smith" + moby-dick and see what turns up.
First hit, John Stauffer's The Black Hearts of Men at Google Books. Aha! There on p. 66:
Stauffer reports that Dr. Smith "published a brief critique of Melville's Moby-Dick." Hmm, that can't be the "long admiring" one McDougall had in mind, or can it? Here's how Stauffer describes Dr. Smith's so-called "critique" of Moby-Dick:
All this amounts to a serious case of "interpretive overreaching," as Barry Gewen termed Stauffer's practice in the 2002 New York Times review, with reference to a different section of the book.McCune Smith’s interpretation of Moby-Dick conveys something of his erudition and aesthetic taste. In a March 1856 essay titled “Horoscope” he likened the Pequod, the whaling ship in the novel, to the ship of state in American politics. Horace Greeley, the influential editor and Republican party leader, was a “boatsteerer” much like Stubb, the second mate of the Pequod. “On the eve of an election,” Greeley “shrieks out” to his party “like Stubb in Moby Dick: after spotting a whale: “ ‘Start her, start her, my men! … start her like grim death and grinning devils, and raise the buried dead perpendicular out of their graves boys—that’s all. Start her.’ “ (McCune Smith was quoting from chapter 61 of Moby-Dick, “Stubb Kills a Whale.”) For McCune Smith, those in charge of both the Pequod and the American ship of state were in pursuit of the wrong thing: the white whale on the one hand, whiteness and respect for white laws on the other hand. They were thus sacrificing “the one thing needful”—“HUMAN BROTHERHOOD”—and the “belief that all men are by nature free and equal.” Horace Greeley “has avowed, in coarse terms, his belief in the inferiority of the negro to the white man, and his disgust at the idea of social commingling with his black brother.” So did every other major political leader in America. As a result, any hopes for “the cause of Human Freedom” “are doomed to be blasted.” In McCune Smith’s estimation, by ignoring the multiracial makeup of their country American leaders were following the plight of the Pequod and heading toward destruction and death. His “horoscope” was more accurate than he knew.Most of McCune Smith’s readers did not understand his obscure references to works such as Moby-Dick, however… (The Black Hearts of Men)
Brief is the right word, but what Stauffer found is no critique of Melville's writing. Stauffer had it wrong from the start when he set out to discuss "McCune Smith's interpretation of Moby-Dick..." (my emphasis). To his everlasting credit, Stauffer as editor has since presented the full text of McCune Smith's 1856 "Horoscope" letter in the anthology Works of James McCune Smith (Oxford University Press, 2006), at 143-148. So with the text before us we can see how Stauffer persists in his original error, by introducing McCune Smith's "Horoscope" as "a political reading of the novel." Yes, yes, McCune Smith offers a "political reading" of current national affairs, of controversial events and personalities in 1856--without, however, attempting to interpret or criticize Moby-Dick at all:
And more especially on the eve of an election, whether State or National, this “boat-steerer” of the Whig party, shrieks out like Stubb in Moby Dick, “Start her, start her, my men! Don’t hurry yourselves; take plenty of time—but start her start her like thunderclaps, that’s all:—“start her, now; give ‘em the long stong stroke, Tashtego. Start her, Tash, my boy—start her, all: but keep cool, keep cool—cucumbers is the word—easy, easy—only start her like grim death and grinning devils, and raise the buried dead perpendicular out of their graves, boys—that’s all. Start her!”The point of the juicy quotation from Moby-Dick is to keep stinging Greeley. With good reason! McCune Smith has not forgotten the "leprous prejudice" revealed in Greeley's 1851 proclamation, "it is not desirable nor natural for blacks and whites to mingle in the same community." And as Stauffer most helpfully points out in the biographical introduction, McCune Smith "never tired of lampooning" Greeley (Works, xxx).
Having already depicted the Tribune editor as a Mrs. Malaprop and Byron's alienated hero Alp, McCune Smith jabs him again by comparing Greeley's energetic wire-pulling at election time to Stubb's funny way of exhorting oarsmen. Whig or Republican, Greeley is another Stubb--a comically eccentric but hard-working, and therefore effective party "boat-steerer." McCune Smith's "political reading" if anything deconstructs the complacent racism of national leaders. Stauffer gets this part, clearly. Let me acknowledge too, the mere mention of Moby-Dick in 1856 is a wonderful find by Stauffer and well worth exploring. Melville's great book is exhilarating and liberating in so many ways, I can imagine it being appreciated in any century as a book about slavery and freedom. And McCune Smith's citation does open up all kinds of deeply interesting questions and resonances, as Robert K. Wallace suggests in Douglass and Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style (New Bedford: Spinner Publications, 2005), 55-56. But you can't get around the fact (why even try?) that the quotation is a quotation, and the political application is to Greeley, not Melville's novel. In a 2004 journal article, Wallace accurately described the citation from Moby-Dick and in effect corrected Stauffer's misreading:
James McCune Smith quotes Stubb's exhortation to the crew in chapter 61 to illustrate his characterization of Horace Greeley as the "boat-steerer of the Whig party." (Leviathan)Wallace has it right. In the quoted passage Stubb and his crew chase an ordinary whale, not The Whale (not the white whale or by extension whiteness). It almost looks like Stauffer has mistaken Stubb's whaleboat for Ahab's whaleship. Stubb has charge of one boat, one of four whaleboats on The Pequod.
Stubb's whaleboat is not The Pequod!
Look, McCune Smith's 1856 letter (signed "Communipaw") to the editor of Frederick Douglass's Paper never once mentions The Pequod or its captain Ahab. In fact, McCune need not have read the novel Moby-Dick to get the quote he applied to Greeley, since the entire passage that McCune Smith quotes from chapter 61 had been widely excerpted in newspapers a few years back. The story of Stubb "KILLING A WHALE" was considered a highlight of Melville's book. Editors chose to reprint the episode as a thrilling tale, and for its realistic descriptions of whaling. Of course McCune Smith might have had a copy of Melville's book handy, but he would not have needed it to quote from "Stubb Kills a Whale" if he had access to a file of New York or New England newspapers from late 1851 or early 1852. The possibility of copying from a newspaper seems all the more likely when you realize that several of the known 1851 newspaper excerpts from "Stubb Kills a Whale" (for example, in the whaling ports of Lynn, New Bedford, and Gloucester, Massachusetts) begin exactly where McCune Smith begins his quotation, with "Start her, start her my men!" Again, the appeal of the excerpt lies in its dramatic and supposedly realistic content. Introducing the excerpt on "WHALE KILLING" in the New York Evening Post (November 29, 1851), the editor opines that in Moby-Dick Melville has "probably let us into the realities of actual whaling as minutely and faithfully as any sea-author has ever done." One abolitionist newspaper said about the same thing:
"MOBEY DICK" introduces us to the hard eventful life of a whaleman, and, so far as we have read, is a volume of great interest. (National Era, November 20, 1851)So McCune Smith's contemporaries mostly recommended Moby-Dick, if they liked it, for its realism, and gave the account of Stubb as a good case in point. But Stauffer has McCune Smith figuratively reading The Pequod as America, allegorically the American ship of state. Where did that idea come from? Google the key terms and you will discover Melville's Pequod as American ship of state is just about the commonest of critical commonplaces.
Here's a good one to start off, from the 1984 Barron's Book Notes on Moby-Dick:
Excellent! Or again from 1984, John P McWilliams:"The Pequod represents sthe entire world, but on another level it is also a symbol for one particular area of the world, the United States. Metaphors linking countries to ships (“ship of state,” for example) were even more common in Melville’s day than in ours, and Melville wants you to remember that the Pequod is undeniably American." (21)
"Because of its thirsty [sic] federated seamen, multinational crew, and racial hierarchies, the Pequod resembles the American ship of state on its pioneering voyage through time."Thirsty federated seamen! Better yet!!!
(Hawthorne, Melville, and the American Character)
In "American Agoraphobia" Ann Baker notes:
Alan Heimert influentially developed the association in "Moby-Dick and American Political Symbolism," American Quarterly 15 (1963): 498-534."Melville scholars have long acknowledged that political allegory plays an important role in the novel and have seen the Pequod as an American ship of state...." (Fear Itself, 197)
"It is possible to argue, then, as Alan Heimert did forty years ago, that Melville's epic consciously allegorizes America as the ship of state."Other influential writers who favorably adopt or adapt the ship-of-state figure, pre-1970 include
(America on the Rocks)
Frederic Ives CarpenterBefore that, C.L.R. James in Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, properly cited as foundational on this and many other points:
Milton R. Stern
"Like the revivalists, James saw the Pequod as the ship of state making a revolutionary voyage into the frontier of human possibilities." (A Critical Introduction)Literary scholars and critics frequently liken The Pequod to the American ship of state. The preceding is a true, verifiable statement. It is a false statement to say, as Stauffer does in The Black Hearts of Men that McCune Smith
"likened the Pequod, the whaling ship in the novel, to the ship of state in American politics." (66)Besides misrepresenting a quotation as commentary on the novel, Stauffer has wrongly attributed a truism of twentieth-century literary and cultural criticism to James McCune Smith. Now we all make mistakes and scholars welcome the chance to acknowledge and correct theirs. One big problem is the rapid publication of articles and books encouraged, if not demanded of college professors by their academic institutions. In this case we have Stauffer's original error in Black Hearts of Men, soon followed by his repetition of the error in the anthology Works of James McCune Smith--made worse even, by turning McCune Smith's quotation from Moby-Dick into "a political reading of the novel." Then Stauffer repeated the error a third time in his chapter-length essay for the 2006 Blackwell Companion to Herman Melville:
"...Smith likened the Pequod to the ship of state in American politics..."My reason for bothering with any of this is quixotic enough, in a world of lies to slow if not halt the spread of one particular falsehood. That Stauffer's error continues to progress is shown in the writings of McDougall, cited above, and a couple of others that I have learned about.
("Melville, Slavery, and the American Dilemma")
In 2010, Brandeis Professor Emeritus Michael T. Gilmore relied on Stauffer's edition of Works to claim falsely in a footnote that:
“black activist and physician James McCune Smith compared the Pequod to the Republican Party and, criticizing what he saw as a failure of resolve, called for a style of leadership like Ahab’s, not Stubb’s." (War on Words)
|Michael T. Gilmore|
Lawrence Buell for "The Unkillable Dream of the Great American Novel: Moby-Dick as Test Case."
Reading this you would think Buell really had read McCune Smith instead of Stauffer on McCune Smith:
“In her [Toni Morrison's] account, the challenge to the baleful racist status quo is entirely Ahab’s. Here we see a fortuitous rounding back to what seems to have been the very first African-American commentary on Moby-Dick, that of antebellum African-American physician and polymath James McCune Smith in Frederick Douglass’s Paper (1856), for whom the lesson of the novel as a meditation on the possible righting of social wrongs boiled down to the necessity of firm rather than feckless anti-slavery leadership (McCune Smith 146). --American Literary History 20 (2008): 132-155 at 148Most impressive, how Buell's "necessity of firm rather than feckless anti-slavery leadership" brilliantly and alliteratively paraphrases Stauffer's shaky claim that
“... in effect, McCune Smith wanted a leader with something of Ahab’s monomania and unwillingness to compromise with his utopian vision."To explain Stauffer-McDougall-Gilmore-Buell's dubious assertion that McCune Smith craved an Ahab of a national leader would require more reading by me, more thought, and another post. It means as best I can figure out at 4 a.m. (ok, time for bed) to describe and somehow discount McCune Smith's alleged utopianism. Smith's wish for Ahab seems to be getting more intense, over time. In the Blackwell Companion chapter cited above, McCune Smith went from "in effect" wanting an Ahab to outright "wanting" (Stauffer's emphasis) one, dropping the qualifying "in effect." Remember though, this is where the search for knowledge begins and never ends. Yep, the whole thing needs more study...
Hey Professor Buell! Where's the commentary on Moby-Dick at p. 146 of Stauffer's anthology?Where did Dr. Smith say anything about Ahab? All I see is a good bit about Stubb, applied to Horace Greeley.
Related melvilliana posts: