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  • ALA 2013—BostonMelville’s Bibles beyond Moby-Dick
  • Zach Hutchins, Chair

Because Moby-Dick has long been regarded as Herman Melville’s best and most important work, scholars have long turned—and recently re-turned—to the novel as a referendum on Melville’s relationship with religion and the Bible. In Melville’s Bibles (2008), Ilana Pardes situates Melville’s most famous novel among “an impressive array of interpretive discourses—from literary renditions of biblical texts to traditional commentaries (among them, Calvin’s commentaries and rabbinic lore), Gnostic mythos, popular sermons, political speeches, comparative accounts of religions and mythologies, and biblical encyclopedias” (2). And in Inscrutable Malice (2012), Jonathan Cook explores “the pervasive and overarching influence of both Joban theodicy and apocalyptic eschatology as recurrent themes and motifs within Moby-Dick” (10). Extending this resurgence of scholarship on Melville’s use of scripture and the sacred to texts beyond Moby-Dick, contributors to this panel demonstrate the need for a more expansive reconsideration of Melville’s interest in religion: Joseph Meyer reveals the unrecognized influence of biblical matriarchs on Pierre’s depictions of nineteenth-century domesticity; Dawn Coleman finds, in the Reverend Falsgrave, reason to believe that Melville was sympathetic to the Unitarian emphasis on moral reasoning; and Danielle Rubin identifies, in Billy Budd, allegorical representations of King David that challenge recent pacifist readings of Melville. For all of the attention given to Melville’s treatment of the Bible and its God in Moby-Dick, these papers reveal that significant and exciting work remains to be done on his engagement with religion in his other novels and poems. [End Page 92]

Rethinking Mary Glendinning’s Role in Pierre through an Old Testament Context Joseph M. Meyer, Independent Scholar (University of Arkansas)

In the character of Mary Glendinning, Melville infuses the sentiments and concerns of the early matriarchs of Genesis: Eve, Sarah, Rachel, and Rebekah. These women play integral roles in continuing the chosen lineage that are arguably second only to God’s role. When we place Pierre’s mother in the context of these biblical matriarchs—especially Rebekah—we find that Mary’s role in the novel warrants a reevaluation. Rebekah is willing to lie and to deceive her husband in order to make sure that Jacob procures the patriarchal blessing from Isaac. Mary is also equally willing to do that which is necessary for her son to maintain his blessed status. This paper focuses on connections between Rebekah and Mary Glendinning. Through these connections Melville explores the complex relationship between motherhood and divine agency. Another of Melville’s chief concerns in the novel is exposing the predilection of nineteenth-century mothers to invoke the matriarchs of Genesis to justify their own compromise of core tenets of Christianity for the sake of maintaining control of their families.

Melville and American Religious Liberalism: Critiquing the Transcendentalist Conscience in Pierre Dawn Coleman, University of Tennessee

In American Religious Liberalism (2012), historians Leigh Eric Schmidt and Sally Promey argue for reconceiving religious liberalism, traditionally understood as church-based liberal Protestantism, to include a wide range of practices from metaphysical religions to print culture to the arts. From this perspective, Melville appears as one of the most provocative figures of mid-nineteenth-century religious liberalism, whose work reflects a sustained and often disputative dialogue with Unitarianism, an understudied connection in Melville studies. Pierre shows Melville engaging with this tradition through a consideration of the epistemological and ethical limitations of “conscience,” an ancient concept rejuvenated by the Protestant Reformation and vital to nineteenth-century American Unitarian theology. Critiquing Transcendentalist notions of conscience that championed private intuition, Pierre suggests instead the desirability of a Unitarian approach to conscience that valued rational deliberation and consultation with trusted advisors as essential to moral reasoning. The novel supports this Unitarian-inspired moral reasoning not only through its [End Page 93] critique of Pierre’s naïve intuitionism and its catastrophic consequences, but also through its implication that Pierre might have made wiser decisions had he sought advice from his mother or Reverend Falsgrave, both of whom merit a more sympathetic reading than they have often received. Tracing Pierre’s complex treatment of conscience underscores Melville’s debt to...


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