Herman Melville's Ship of State

978-1-58731-368-4; 978-1-58731-369-1
Forthcoming Books
Hardback $28, E-book $18
155 pages, 6" x 9"

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Herman Melville's Ship of State

Morrisey, Will

William Morrisey unravels Melville’s “loomings” of the great whale, showing them to be important threads of politics and theories of governance. The Young America of Melville’s day valorized popular sovereignty such that moral law suppressed by the majority rule was bringing America to state of being that could only then be ruled by the mightiest of the mighty––the great Leviathan, who reigns in the boundless chaotic sea separated from “stable land.” The force of the created world and the necessary ordering achieved through conquest are dominating themes of Melville’s great tale, but as Morrisey observes approaching the great whale, ruler of the untamable seas, is for captain (ruler) an opportunity to destroy it. But for the sailor (the ruled) being close to the white whale is a moment for understanding, and in turn of being understood. Yet in what sense is being seen, for human beings of moral bearings, not also an impulse to self-impose? “The modern Ishmael wants to see, not to kill, perhaps to be seen, and surely not to be killed. Americans too need to come to terms with the white whale, if they are to perceive reality as it is without bringing destruction upon themselves.” Is Melville proposing an utterly new philosophy of ruler and ruled, of a proper gauge of the immeasurable chaos that is nature?

“Does Melville also intend to be a founder in the ‘New World’?” Morrisey’s study is a compelling look at the early political moments of a new nation, but one that at the time perceived itself as already aging and maturing in the process of political voyage and adventure. Dangers lie ahead, Melville seems to warn, and in his disenchantment of the vigor of the Young America he once endorsed he tells the story of what really happens when democracy is idealized and the surrounding waters of chaos are thereby veiled; and yet also of what happens when one would seek to command the chaos only to transform into the unpredictably destructive prey he pursues, especially under the guise of moral outrage.

Melville, like Ishmael, urges a new vision of both God and nature, and challenges the notion of rule in all its expressions. Americans, the people of the New World, are invited to be unafraid, but also careful. In wandering as on the open waters one wonders, beyond civic boundaries and conventions, and in that wonder one may finally come face to face with what is good and grand––but in beholding the great white whale, can one resist the urge to conquest, now that he is likewise by the leviathan beholden? Is the rule of man and the coronation of a specific dialectic of power an untenable victory, given that “‘Nature is nobody’s ally’: it wounds or kills any person or nation that violates it, impartially”?

Morrisey writes with lucidity and weaves together elements of history, literature, politics and perhaps his own affinity for Ishmael’s passenger spirit to reveal just how broad and boundless of a narrative Melville’s Moby Dick truly is.

 

Will Morrisey held the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College until his retirement in 2015. A native of Rumson, New Jersey, he served as Executive Director of the Monmouth County Historical Commission before his appointment at Hillsdale College in 2000. His M. A. and Ph.D in political science are from the New School for Social Research. He is the author of eight books, including Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War; The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime; and, most recently, Churchill and De Gaulle: The Geopolitics of Liberty. Dr. Morrisey has been an editor of Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy since 1979. His reviews and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Social Science and Modern Society, Law and Liberty, The New Criterion, and many other publications.