Thursday, June 28, 2012

John Stauffer and the Progress of Error

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. ("African Colonization--The Other Side," Letter to Horace Greeley, Frederick Douglass' Paper, September 25, 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:
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
The passage appears also in McDougall's Throes of Democracy at page 228.

As a Melville fan and review hound, I naturally 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 on Readex, Surgeon and Abolitionist.

Nothing about McCune's appreciative take on Melville's great book 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 page 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:
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 (Harvard University Press, 2001; paperback 2004).
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.

McDougall then appears to have read Stauffer on McCune Smith, not McCune Smith. Yes, that would explain the error. By the time McDougall got to the end of Stauffer's confused analysis in The Black Hearts of Men he (McDougall) forgot the part about its being only a "brief critique" of Moby-Dick

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 Works of James McCune Smith (Oxford University Press, 2006) at pages 143-148. So with the text before us in the OUP anthology 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 figured 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." 


Wallace, Robert K. "Douglass, Melville, Quincy, Shaw: Epistolary Convergences." Leviathan, vol. 6 no. 2, 2004, p. 63-71 at 63. Project MUSE

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:
"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)
Excellent!  Or again from 1984, John P McWilliams:
"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." --  Hawthorne, Melville, and the American Character
Thirsty federated seamen! Better yet!!!

In "American Agoraphobia" Ann Baker notes:
"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: Enemies Real & Imagined in American Culture (Purdue University Press, 1999) page 197.
Alan Heimert influentially developed the association in "Moby-Dick and American Political Symbolism," American Quarterly 15 (1963): 498-534.
"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." -- Annenberg Learner - American Passages, AMERICA ON THE ROCKS: THE IMAGE OF THE "SHIP OF STATE"
Other influential writers who favorably adopt or adapt the ship-of-state figure, pre-1970 include
  • Frederic Ives Carpenter
  • Harry Levin
  • Milton R. Stern
Before that, C.L.R. James in Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, properly cited as foundational on this and many other points:
"Like the revivalists, James saw the Pequod as the ship of state making a revolutionary voyage into the frontier of human possibilities." -- Aldon Lynn Nielsen, A Critical Introduction (University Press of Mississippi, 1997) page 44.
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..."--"Melville, Slavery, and the American Dilemma"
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.

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."  -- The War on Words: Slavery, Race, and Free Speech in American Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2010) pages 305-6 (fn 13).
McDougall, now Gilmore...Zounds, how this falsehood appeals to eminent academics! But our GRAND PRIZE for eloquent pretension of the highest order goes to...

... 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 148.

Citation via JSTOR:

Buell, Lawrence. “The Unkillable Dream of the Great American Novel: ‘Moby-Dick’ as Test Case.” American Literary History, vol. 20, no. 1/2, 2008, pp. 132–55. JSTOR,

Most 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 pag 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 posts:

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

James Alexander Houston (1819-1849)

Houston wrote for the Washington Union and National Era under the pseudonym "John Smith the Younger." According to the richly detailed biographical sketch in The Phonographic Magazine Volume 8 (May 15, 1894), Houston was born in Ireland, earned a medical degree in Scotland, and in America became an expert in shorthand, working for a time as chief stenographer for the U. S. Senate. His career in journalism included a stint as editor of the New York Herald. Altogether a remarkable person, Houston unfortunately died young at the age of thirty.

From "Literary Gossip" under Correspondence of The National Era, May 27, 1847. Letter from New York dated May 24, 1847 and signed, "JOHN SMITH THE YOUNGER"; found at Accessible Archives:
"Omoo," the new work of Mr. Melville , the author of "Typee," has met with a very rapid sale. Already five thousand copies have been disposed of, and it is probable that twenty or thirty thousand additional copies will be needed to supply the increasing demand. It is a very spirited, vigorous, and amusing narrative of sea life and adventures in the South Sea islands; but it is not equal to "Typee." The latter is one of the most fascinating books which has ever been composed full of the most splendid imagery and enchanting description. Herman Melville stands, in my opinion, in the very first rank of American writers. He writes without affectation, and therefore he writes powerfully and well.
In Douglass and Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style (New Bedford: Spinner Publications, 2005), Robert K. Wallace cites the passage above and identifies "John Smith the Younger" as James A. Houston. As Wallace observes, Houston's
"praise of Typee has been overlooked by Melville scholars (as has much of the response of the National Era to Melville in general).” -- Douglass and Melville

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

counting newspaper excerpts from chapter 61 of Moby-Dick, "Stubb Kills a Whale"

Three excerpts from Moby-Dick chapter 61 (each beginning "Start her, start her my men!") found by Richard E. Winslow, III are listed in "Melville Reviews and Notices, Continued"; Leviathan 13.1 (March 2011) at 101:
Bay State [Lynn, Massachusetts], November 27, 1851
Republican Standard [New Bedford, Massachusetts], December 4, 1851
Gloucester News [Massachusetts], December 6, 1851
George Monteiro reports one very early reprinting titled "Killing a Whale" in the Hartford, Connecticut Daily Courant (November 20, 1851); and another one titled "Chasing and Killing a Whale" in the Concord, New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette on December 10, 1851 [update: as first reported by Winslow in Melville Society Extracts 89; see "Herman Melville: Fugitive References (1845-1922)" in Resources for American Literary Study, Vol. 33 (New York: AMS Press, 2010), 27].

Searching newspaper archives at I find more excerpts from chapter 61 of Moby-Dick:

"A Whale Chase," Massachusetts Spy, November 26, 1851.

"Chasing and Killing a Whale," St. Johnsbury, Vermont Caledonian, December 20, 1851.  Introduced, as in the New Hampshire Patriot, as follows:
Mr. Herman Melville, author of “Typee” and “Omoo,” has given to the public a new sea story, entitled “Moby Dick,” describing a marvelous cruise by a New England whaling monomaniac after the aforesaid “Moby Dick,” a great white whale, the fabulous leviathan of the sailors. Mr. M. in the course of his book lets us in to all the realities of actual whaling as minutely and faithfully as sea author has ever done. Subjoined will be found a highly interesting passage relating to the capture and death of the whale.

"Perils of Whaling," Cleveland, Ohio Plain Dealer, January 09, 1852.

Searching at Old Fulton NY Post Cards, I find reprintings with Stubb's exciting chase in two influential New York newspapers:

Among other excerpts, the review of Moby-Dick in the New York Daily Tribune (November 22, 1851) quotes chapter 61 with Stubb's chase in full under the head of "KILLING A WHALE."

"Whale Killing," New York Evening Post, November 29, 1851.

New York Evening Post - November 29, 1851

That makes ten, so far--and counting still, since more reviews of Moby-Dick (the longer ones, long known and reprinted in Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker) probably give the same excerpt from chapter 61.

UPDATE: For excerpts from "Stubb Kills a Whale" beginning "Start her, start her my men," add these three:

"Stirring Adventures," "Capture of a Whale" in The New England Farmer [Boston], November 29, 1851 (Melville Society Extracts 106)
"A Whale Chase, Nantucket Weekly Mirror, November 29, 1851 
"KILLING A WHALE," Columbus Daily Ohio State Journal, December 1, 1851 
 plus one with a longer extract from chapter 61:
"Whale Killing" in the Montpelier Vermont Patriot and State Gazette, January 8, 1852 (Extracts 106)
Also, consulting Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker (Cambridge University Press, 1995; paperback 2009), I find the Stubb episode reprinted in two London reviews of Moby-Dick (that's in addition to the excerpt in the long New York Tribune review):
London Atlas, November 8, 1851 (see Contemporary Reviews, page 366); and
London Morning Chronicle, December 20, 1851 (Contemporary Reviews, 406)
Making a grand total of sixteen known newspaper excerpts with the Stubb episode from chapter 61 of Moby-Dick; of which six begin "Start her, start her my men!"

STILL LATER - Added 07/24/2017:

  • Westchester Herald [Ossining, New York] December 16, 1851
  • Grand River Times [Grand Haven, Michigan], January 6, 1852
Found on