Grace in the Arts: Herman Melville: An Author In The Angst Of Ambiguity -- By: James A. Townsend

Journal: Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
Volume: JOTGES 17:32 (Spring 2004)
Article: Grace in the Arts: Herman Melville: An Author In The Angst Of Ambiguity
Author: James A. Townsend


Grace in the Arts:
Herman Melville: An Author
In The Angst Of Ambiguity

James A. Townsend

Elgin, Illinois

I. Introduction

If one were to poll high school and college literature teachers for a Top Ten list among novels in the English-speaking world, hardly any such list would be complete without Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick, which initially was pretty much a failure in terms of sales ratings.

Lawrance Thompson of Princeton University authored a book entitled Melville’s Quarrel with God. Melville’s quarrel eventuated in Moby-Dick. Hardly one in ten thousand modern readers would ever think to call Moby-Dick a “wicked book,” yet Melville himself called it that. If we take his assessment at face value, then we see Melville’s quest to find the meaning of the universe as analogous to Captain Ahab’s quest to find the great white whale.

Right after Melville penned Moby-Dick, he wrote another novel entitled Pierre: or the Ambiguities. Certainly angst and ambiguity are rife in Moby-Dick, as demonstrated by the wide variety of interpretations later literary analysts have foisted upon the symbolism of Melville’s masterwork. Also, Melville’s friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, indicated in a famous quote that Melville was tortured by the ambiguity of not knowing where he stood regarding the question of belief in God.

Why did Melville have a running argument (as Lawrance Thompson indicated) with God? The empirical data of Melville’s own life reveals that he had a whale of a time in confronting the ominous, overwhelming, unwinnable battle against circumstances, the universe, and/or God. In Herman’s youth his father went bankrupt, insane, and then died. Also the boy Melville was unsuccessful at a miscellany of jobs. Later, one of Melville’s sons committed suicide and the younger one died of TB (as did Herman’s brother) and Melville himself struggled against a siege of works, illnesses, and injuries. And his magnum opus (Moby-Dick) was a financial flop. Everywhere Melville turned the universe’s woodwork

seemed to have splinters. Life seemed but a litany of lamentations. What was this massive, mysterious, seemingly malignant force Melville had to contend with? If the all-predestinating God of his Calvinistic youth was the animus behind all these adversities, then Melville had a bone to pick with this defiant deity. Like Captain Ahab in his monomaniacal scavenger hunt for the white whale, Melville was drawn to, yet defied by, this anything-but-cooperative, ever-thwarting deity. His questions and his quest produced one of the world’s greatest no...

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