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Melville’s Allusions to Religion GAIL H. COFFLER Suffolk University President’s Lecture, Moby-Dick Marathon, New Bedford Whaling Museum, January 3, 2006. F irst, I’d like to thank the New Bedford Whaling Museum for their invitation to speak today. New Bedford is very special to my husband and me; we were married in the Seamen’s Bethel Chapel across the street. My husband, known to many of you, is Walter Bezanson; he wishes he could be here today and sends his greetings to everyone. I also thank the members of the Melville Society Cultural Project for all the work they have done—and are still doing—here. Thanks most of all to the Melville Society for electing me their new president. That honor comes, I suppose, because of my work on Melville’s allusions to classical art and mythology, and because of my recent book, Melville’s Allusions to Religion (2004), which lists all of Melville’s references to religion throughout the complete works. That is the topic I’ve been asked to talk about here today. One of the reasons that Moby-Dick ranks at the top of American literature is that it’s not only a wonderful whaling story—and it is that—but also it has many other dimensions and layers, richly embedded with allusions to religion and mythology, politics, history, biology, on and on. It was his allusions to religion that set Moby-Dick apart in its own century, so much so that the American readership then was not ready to perceive Moby-Dick’s true greatness or to recognize Melville’s overall achievement as a writer. Almost none of the books published this year will stand the one-hundred year test of time. But Moby-Dick was nearly one hundred years old before it really began to be read; now it has few rivals in American literature—or in the world! That’s exactly what Melville hoped for; he wanted to rank with Shakespeare and Homer as one of the world’s literary gods. As he wrote to Hawthorne when Moby-Dick had been published, “I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old Rome’s Pantheon” (NN Corr 212). Melville said he was not concerned with fame: “All Fame is patronage. Let me be infamous; there is no patronage in that” (193). Melville did not want any authority telling him how to write: not the church, not C  2006 The Authors Journal compilation C  2006 The Melville Society and Blackwell Publishing Inc L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 107 E X T R A C T S the state, not the editors, reviewers, or the general mob. The Melville of that time was a romantic rebel and iconoclast. When Moby-Dick was completed, he wrote to Hawthorne: “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb” (212). It was 1851, a time in America when a writer who broke the religious taboos could have his career ended by the religious right. This nearly happened with Moby-Dick and was worse with Pierre; finally, with The Confidence-Man, his career as a professional writer came to an end. Melville told Hawthorne, Moby-Dick was a “wicked book,” yet he “felt spotless as the lamb” because he thought his blasphemies and heresies could not be proven, due to his expert wordplay, irony, symbolism, and double and triple meanings. Hawthorne himself was skilled at ambiguities and covert meanings, camouflaging them with more acceptable moral messages, and few caught on to Hawthorne’s criticism of Calvinism in “Young Goodman Brown” or “The Minister’s Black Veil” or The Scarlet Letter, for always the story’s moral seems clearly stated, and the sinner pays for violating moral tradition. In Hawthorne’s work, there is another layer of meaning, where often the moral tradition is itself to blame for the tragic outcome, where the churchgoers are the actual sinners; where it is not the ostensible sinner who commits the unpardonable sin, but...


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