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Thomas International Center
March 2006


Ralph McInerny


De Profundis



Herman Melville is the most theological of American writers, even more so than his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. Because Melville enjoyed such great popularity after the appearance of his early South Sea island adventures, it is surprising to find that Moby Dick was a commercial failure. The stock of the author plummeted precipitously, and for the rest of his life he struggled to emerge once again from obscurity. That was to happen only posthumously.  His last novel, Billy Budd, was not published during his lifetime. In the meantime he published poetry that was little read..

His Civil War poems have received mixed reviews from later critics, and his long epic poem, Clarel, even more mixed reviews. For all that, this long poem has been the subject of a great deal of comment. Set in the Holy Land, it presents a number of different types addressing the issues of religious faith. Melville's favorable attitude toward Catholicism is often noted. Two cantos in Part Four of the epic are entitled "Rome" and "The Dominican" and Catholicism does indeed get sympathetic representation. Was Melville knowledgeable about Catholicism? A check of his reading turns up extremely little in this regard. He was a contemporary of Orestes Brownson in America and of John Henry Newman in England, but apparently read neither man. He did visit Rome, he acquired some sense of the religious practices of Catholics, but one finds little theological depth in what he wrote about the faith.

Of Melville can be said what can be said of his contemporary Emily Dickinson: he was a victim of Protestantism, more particularly Calvinism. But where could he turn when difficulties arose? Religious doubt brought him to despair and the brink of madness and he wrote from the depths of his anguish. He read and was influenced by Matthew Arnold and, in the end, he too was a reluctant agnostic. Catholicism was seen by him as fideism -- one abandons reason and makes the plunge. The motto of the aging Melville was: Be true to the dreams of your youth. One wishes his youthful dreams had been otherwise.


Ralph McInerny