- Visionary of the Word: Melville and Religion ed. by Jonathan A. Cook and Brian Yothers
Visionary of the Word: Melville and Religion
Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2017. 8 + 296 pp.
However far apart the words "convert" and "converse" may appear in contemporary discourse, at their etymological roots they blend almost indistinguishably. Both contain the meaning of "with" or "together," and both include notions of turning. But "conversion" implies a turning away or about, a transformation, whereas "conversation" signifies a turning toward, even a dwelling or consorting together (OED). This connection at the root points to a radical problem in studies of Herman Melville and religion. Melville's close observation of European and American imperialism led him to distrust political uses of religion to convert others. Yet at the same time, missionary ventures brought cultures into conversation with each other at all levels. The signal achievement of this splendid collection of essays is to chart that dynamic in chapters that speak to one another, dwell together in collegial discourse, and explore the possibilities of conversion and conversation as continuing efforts rather than completed acts.
The clear advantages of that conversation begin with the editors. They have both contributed to religious studies and Melville scholarship at what appears to be a watershed intersection. With two recent major texts in their wakes—Jonathan Cook's Inscrutable Malice: Theodicy, Eschatology, and the Biblical Sources of Moby-Dick (2012) and Brian Yothers's Sacred Uncertainty: Religious Difference and the Shape of Melville's Career (2015)—they have brought to a crested comb the wave of books by authors such as William Potter, Robert Milder, Timothy Marr, Ilana Pardes, Dawn Coleman, Martin Kevorkian, and Zachary McLeod Hutchins, among others, that have enlarged and vastly enriched the field. Visionary of the Word merges Cook's deep soundings of Melville's biblical sources and religious thinking with Yothers's wide-ranging consideration of Melville's global and lifelong religious questing.
The editors argue for a fresh look at Melville and faith partly in the way they have organized the contents as a series of open-ended discussions: "Faith, Doubt, Secularization: Transatlantic Contexts," "Religious Communities," and "Free Will and Determinism." These groupings offer manifold angles of vision [End Page 109] on their topics but also speak to other essays in the collection as a whole. Hence, rather than detail each chapter separately, I would like to suggest the multiple possible conversations within this assemblage, ones that reveal rich potential recombinations: of Melville's texts, of various intertexts, and of religious communities and ideas.
Which Melville texts shine most brightly in this new light? Clearly Clarel, the work most frontally concerned with world religions, calls for sustained attention. Jonathan A. Cook ("Clarel and the Victorian Crisis of Faith") embeds Melville's poetic masterpiece in transatlantic dialogue over doctrinal doubt, showing religious skepticism as a hotly urgent Victorian concern. Eileen McGinnis ("'Change Irreverent': Evolution and Faith in 'The Encantadas' and Clarel") turns to Victorian culture as well, charting Charles Darwin's role in Melville's religious evolution. Brian Yothers ("Melville's Asia, Melville's Missionaries") argues for starting the discussion of Melville's missionaries not with his early Pacific novels but with Clarel and the figures of Nehemiah, Nathan, and Celio. In his "Melville and the Mormons," Zachary McLeod Hutchins places Clarel's Nathan in unexpected contiguity with Alma in Mardi and Pierre in Pierre as indices of Melville's lifelong and evolving view of Mormonism.
Moby-Dick and Pierre emerge as similarly remarkable meditations on religion. In essays paired under the volume's third rubric, "Free Will and Determinism," Brad Bannon ("Coleridge, Edwards, and the Peculiar Progress of Melville's Free Will Problem") and Haein Park ("'The Apocalypse of Pain': Suffering, Theodicy, and Religious Identity in Moby-Dick") take different approaches to what Melville spoke of in his 1849 journal (quoting John Milton) as "Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute." Both essays start with Jonathan Edwards's Freedom of the Will, seen in light of nineteenth-century Christian theology, and with Ahab, although Park says more about Moby-Dick than does Bannon, who is centrally concerned with "Bartleby...