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  • Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival
  • Brian C. Etheridge
Clare L. Spark , Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2001. 730 pp. $55.00

Clare Spark's Hunting Captain Ahab is a bold and challenging work that seeks to illuminate the role that scholarship on Herman Melville has played in competing discourses on the relationship between the individual and society in the modern world. Spark brings together social and intellectual history, literary criticism, psychological theory, philosophy, and sociological musings to contextualize Melville's body of work and the various environments in which it was received. Using a wide array of sources and multiple perspectives, she argues that Melville scholarship opens a window onto "the innermost workings of cultural production, into the most hard-fought cultural and political struggles of the last five centuries" (p. 8). In this sense, she argues, her book is only "tangentially" about Melville, although she devotes the bulk of it to scrutinizing his works, tracing his life, and chasing down the details of all of his biographers (both admirers and critics).

Central to Spark's enterprise has been the "Melville Problem," which she defines as the shifting interpretations of both Melville himself and his relationship with his fictional characters. Based on her extensive reading in the secondary literature and her impressive forays into the archives of leading Melville scholars, Spark argues that there have been three phases to the Melville Revival. The first phase, initiated by Raymond Weaver, Melville's first biographer, identified Melville with Captain Ahab, praised their similar fanaticism in the pursuit of truth, and celebrated them as iconoclastic rebels against stifling Victorianism. The second phase began in the early 1930s and rejected the elevation of Melville to hero. Scholars like Charles Olson and Jay Leyda, who viewed Melville's early work as raw and self-destructive, approved of his later works as mature and tended to identify Melville with more stable and thoughtful characters such as Ishmael. Ahab, especially in the still nebulous third wave of the post-1960s, was identified with the imperialist, capitalist, ecocidal impulses of Adolf Hitler and—in the views of some—the United States.

Spark suggests that these competing discourses in Melville scholarship illustrate a larger tension in Western society. She argues that they are part of a fundamental struggle [End Page 143] over the legacy of the Enlightenment. The struggle is between what she calls the radical and the conservative Enlightenment. The radical Enlightenment represented an honest effort to empower the individual against illegitimate authority. By contrast, the conservative Enlightenment, which has been called many things—progressive, organic conservative, vital center—sought to co-opt democracy in the service of order by using a thin veneer of liberalism that advocated "gradual change." For Spark, Melville and Ahab are members of the former but are often distorted and tamed by the latter to serve different class and sociopolitical ends.

Without question, Spark knows and is passionate about her scholarship. She ranges widely across the landscape of Melvillian scholarship, expertly addressing the various contexts in which Melville's work has been appropriated. To this end, she has done an admirable job unearthing unpublished commentaries and correspondence of Melville. Some of her major finds have been Melvillian marginalia in a copy of Paradise Lost and unpublished letters by Melville in Henry Murray's collection at Harvard University. She also has a firm grasp of the larger cultural milieu in which Melville's works circulated, and she ably charts the changing contexts in which these works have been debated.

But her passion is also the book's weakness. According to Spark, Paul C. Metcalf, Melville's great-grandson, hinted in the title to an earlier book that she might be "another Ahab." The context in which he made this remark is not clear; but after struggling through her massive tome, one can draw an obvious parallel: Melville and the Melville Problem may be an obsession for Spark, much like the White Whale was an obsession for Ahab. In this sense, Spark's impressive command of her subject is a double-edged sword. She clearly knows a great deal...