Upstream. A Mohawk Valley Blogzine.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Symposium Misses Chance To Fully Explore Herman Melville.

Note: The following article, which appeared in The Sunday Gazette on October 29, 2006, grew out of an earlier post that I wrote for this blog.

Nineteenth-century American author, Herman Melville, has a strong connection to the Capital District, but the Capital District has not capitalized on that connection like Pittsfield, Massachusetts has (where Melville spent the bulk of his creative years). Melville moved to Albany when he was ten years old. While there, he attended the Albany Academy for several months. Two years later, after his father died, his mother rented a house in Lansingburgh where the family of seven lived for the next nine years. While in Lansingburgh, Melville attended the Lansingburgh Academy, taught school and published his first writing, “Fragments From A Writing Desk,” in The Democratic Press And Lansingburgh Advertiser. Melville left Lansingburgh in 1839 but returned in 1843. During the winter of 1844-45, he worked on his first novel “Typee” in an attic room overlooking the Hudson River.

The Albany Academies are attempting to rectify Melville’s obscurity in the Capital Region by hosting a Why Melville Matters conference from November 17-19, 2006. Co-sponsor of the symposium is The Center for Humanities, Arts, and TechnoSciences (CHATS), State University of New York at Albany, and the event will bring together scholars, artists, historians, and others to discuss Melville through panels and the presentation of papers.

I applaud the Academies’ efforts to bring Melville to our attention. One of the events of the conference is a twenty-four hour reading of Moby Dick, which Pulitzer Prize winning Albany author, William Kennedy, will begin and which Albany Academy alumnus, Andy Rooney, will end. Moby Dick, thought by many scholars and readers to be the great American novel, is well worth reading and any activity that encourages people to read the book is worth doing.

I do have some concerns about the symposium, however--not so much about what it is including, but what it is excluding. According to the academies, Melville matters because “The questions he posed are the same issues that inspire contemporary writers, artists, and thinkers today—the vexed relations between humans and their environment, racial and social injustices, capital punishment, psychological alienation, and the new frontiers of science and globalism.”

Lists of suggested paper topics include Melville and environmentalism, Melville the ultimate eco-tourist, Melville and Pedagogy, Gender and queer studies: approaches to Melville’s short fiction, racial and social issues in Melville’s fiction, Melville and Science, cetology and herpetology, etc.

It doesn’t seem to matter to the supporters of this conference that the questions Melville posed most, especially but not exclusively in Moby Dick, were theological. Is God good or is he malignant? Does God exist? Do men and women truly have free will or is everything predetermined? Why do good things happen to bad people? Are people essentially good or are they basically evil?

Moby Dick has several hundred Biblical names, quotations and allusions, the first one showing up in the third word of its famous opening--”Call me Ishmael.” Ishmael, according to the Bible, is the first Arab and the ancestor of Muhammad. The Koran reveres Ishamel as a great prophet. These facts along with the chapter called The Ramadan could lead to a discussion of Melville and Islam. Now there’s relevance.

A brief sampling of Melville‘s comments on religion, either directly or through the mouth of a character in one of his books include "That greatest real miracle of all religions, the Sermon on the Mount." and “...all good Christians believe that any minute the last day may come, and the terrible combustion of the entire planet earth.” He once said, in an oft repeated quote, “That Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or another, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free....“

The absence of religion from the symposium is not only curious because of Melville’s obsession with it, but because when Melville attended the Albany Academy, while it was not a religious academy, religion was part of the curriculum. Depending on what department you were enrolled in, you were required to take courses in religious history, natural theology and evidences of Christianity.

On the other hand, the absence of a discussion of Melville and religion in the upcoming symposium is not completely surprising. Having graduated from the University at Albany’s bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in English, I know first hand how thoroughly secularized most English scholars are. It’s not that there is a conspiracy to avoid discussing a writer’s relation to religion, it’s just that the concept of God is so remote to the thinking of most academics, that it gets marginalized in most literary discussions.

Anyway, some good will come out of this symposium, even if Melville’s life long quest to resolve religious issues raised during his religious upbringing has been relegated to the category of irrelevant.

Maybe hearing parts of Moby Dick read aloud will inspire some people to read the novel for the first time, and they can decide for themselves if Melville thought Ishamel and Queequeg were a gay couple, or if Starbuck had survived the sinking of the Pequod, whether or not he would have been the founder of Greenpeace, instead of lending his name to a coffee company.

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