The History of Literature #159 – Herman Melville


Today, Herman Melville (1819-1891) is considered one of the greatest of American writers, and a leading candidate for THE American novelist thanks to his classic work, Moby-Dick. How did this unpromising student become one of the most inventive and observant writers of his time? What obstacles did he face, and what did he do to overcome them? What other works of his are worth reading? Jacke, Mike, and special guest Cristina, aka The Classics Slacker, who recently spent 24 hours aboard the Charles W. Morgan listening to the novel being read, take a look at this fascinating man and his whale of a book.

Enjoy 19th-Century American authors? Try Episode 90, Mark Twain’s Final Request.

Wondering how Melville got his ideas? Learn more about one of his inspirations in Episode 111 – The Americanest American, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Ready for more adventure? Try Episode 82 – Robinson Crusoe.

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On Digitization, Democracy, and Dignity

Several times now we’ve referred to the dignity of small audiences in arguing for self-publishing as a worthy endeavor, which should be celebrated rather than stigmatized. I’m glad to see the great Jeremy Waldron (incidentally a former professor of mine, and one of my favorites) has come out with a new book on the subject. As Samuel Moyn of The Nation summarizes:

In Dignity, Rank, and Rights, Jeremy Waldron—perhaps the leading legal and political philosopher of our day—argues that the notion of human dignity originated in the democratization of the high social status once reserved for the well-born.

Here we go! Self-publishing is not discussed in Moyn’s long article tracing the origins and development of dignity, but it’s easy to draw the parallel, especially when you connect dignity with democracy. In citing a particularly rousing passage from Moby-Dick, Moyn gets a little tangled up in his arguments and, in my opinion, misses Melville’s point:

Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces, but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes…. [T]his august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. [It is] that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!

Moyn finds these references to kings and God as “strange,” since Ishmael has previously mocked the godly dignity of kings and their coronations.

But as someone who has gone on the record taking the side of the slushpile against the smelling-salts crowd, the contradiction does not strike me as strange at all. Publishing books is a great thing. That’s why it should be more widespread.

(Too bad for Melville I read this a few weeks too late. Might have given him a plus two in the Great Novella Tournament of Champions.)