Melville, Our Contemporary
Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life
Date: April 11, 2002
Location: Gasson 305
As part of the Lowell Lectures in the Humanities with co-sponsorship by the Boisi Center, Columbia English Professor Andrew Delbanco addressed the religious and moral questions raised by the work of author Herman Melville in a lecture entitled “Melville, our Contemporary.” Delbanco, whom Time Magazine recently named as “America’s Best Social Critic,” is the author of numerous books and articles, including his most recent work, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost their Sense of Evil. He brought a close reading of a number of Melville’s works, including Moby Dick, to bear on moral issues, which have a particular urgency for American society in our times.
Delbanco argued that Melville was very much preoccupied with the human capacity for cruelty, and with the human appetite for belief. He was a writer who understood the power of demagoguery, and, like Dostoevsky, he was deeply aware of how compassion and cruelty can become intermingled, with devastating results.
With respect to the thematic elements of Melville’s work, Delbanco identified four characteristics which seem to make Melville especially appropriate for contemporary post-modern readers. First, Melville viewed knowledge as a social construction. Secondly, according to his correspondence with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville believed language was inadequate to capture our experience, but rather could only evoke or point to that which is ineffable. Thirdly, Melville’s plots tend to be non-linear, with digressions rather than consecutive plot developments, which suggests a less structured view of our experience of time. Lastly, Melville was a brash and exuberant individual who rejected the prudish ways of his own time.
In the aftermath of September 11, Delbanco (who works and lives in New York City) pondered what elements in Melville could speak to the “working class heroes” like the firemen and policemen who rushed into the World Trade Center. He suspected that the events of September 11 might signal the end of post-modern irony.