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Take, and Read, Young Men! (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Herman Melville by Joseph O Eaton.
Herman Melville by Joseph O Eaton.
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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) August 5, 2020: Young men today who are in search of meaning in their lives might want to consider the cafeteria of possibilities that the American poet Herman Melville (1819-1891) presents for the young Clarel to experience up close in his 18,000-line centennial poem Clarel (1876).

Young men today in search of meaning in their lives are presently living their lives in a barren desert, figuratively speaking. So Melville invites them to travel with Clarel to the Holy Land and to go on a pilgrimage there with Clarel. As a young man, the historical Jesus went out to the desert to listen to John the Baptist.

Long before that, God's chosen people, following their human leader Moses, lived for forty years in the desert, where they lived on manna provided by God as their daily bread. I guess this means that they made themselves at home in the desert - the proverbial waste land we may all live in today under President Donald ("Tweety") Trump.

Now, young men today who are willing to accompany Clarel on his pilgrimage in the Holy Land imaginatively might want to consider taking up and reading the 1991 authoritative edition of Melville's Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, edited by Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle, which includes Walter E. Bezanson's "Historical and Critical Note" (pages 505-613) and "A Critical Index of the Characters" (pages 613-637).

However, the text of the 1991 authoritative edition of Melville's Clarel is also available in the 2019 Library of America edition of Herman Melville's Complete Poems, edited by Hershel Parker (pages 153-646, with notes on pages 949-975).


According to the database WorldCat, Vincent Stack Kenny (born in 1919) completed his doctoral dissertation Herman Melville's Clarel at New York University in 1965. So Kenny's 1973 book Herman Melville's Clarel : A Spiritual Autobiography is the revised and updated version of his doctoral dissertation. The director of Kenny's NYU doctoral dissertation, Gay Wilson Allen, author of Melville and His World (1971), contributed the "Foreword" to Kenny's book (pages ix-xiii).

But what does Kenny mean by describing Melville's 1876 centennial poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land as his spiritual autobiography? Kenny means simply that he sees Melville's long poem "as a clear reflection of the author's life and work" (page 6). Kenny claims that Melville's "primary purpose was to record his own spiritual and psychological inventory" (page 6). Of course, Melville had undertaken to make similar records in various earlier quasi-autobiographical publications, so Kenny will work in references to those similar records from other works by Melville as he proceeds. In addition, Kenny works in certain biographical information about Melville from his letters and other sources. Even so, Kenny's fine book is not a biography of Melville. Rather, it is a thorough discussion of his work.

In my estimate, Kenny's most valuable contribution "involves a series of eight possibilities [about directions the impressionable young Clarel might be influenced to take with his life], each one posed by a character, or a set of characters, each one representing a solution to the religious and psychological problem of faith" (pages 151).

Now, there was a body of literature in the nineteenth century known as faith-doubt literature. From one standpoint, Melville's centennial poem Clarel appears to fit into this body of literature, because the impressionable young man Clarel certainly seems to fit into the faith-doubt construct. That much seems clear. However, throughout the poem, Melville works with a head/heart contrast. But more often than not in Melville's poem, faith seems to mean faith in propositional statements expressed in narratives such as the gospels and in creeds - in short, the head. Consequently, in the faith-doubt literature of the time, doubt seems to mean doubt about certain propositional statements - in short, the head. But where is the heart?

In the eight possibilities identified by Kenny, Melville instructively provides exemplars for the young and impressionable Clarel to be attracted to and to take to heart as possible role models for him to identify with at his age. But we are not told Clarel's exact age.

Now, I would point out here that all eight possibilities identified by Kenny involve either degrees of love and enthusiasm or degrees of hate (the root of which may be a form of love). In Dr. Henry A. Murray's lengthy "Introduction" to the 1949 Hendricks House edition of Melville's 1852 novel Pierre, or, The Ambiguities (pages xiii-ciii), Murray calls attention to the discussion of love in Plato's dialogues and in the New Testament (e.g., page lxi). Love energizes us. Love is the fuel of our enthusiasms and manias in life, including, of course, our enthusiasms for exemplars we identify with such as the historical Jesus as portrayed in various New Testament portrayals.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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