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.