New England Puritan Ghosts: Why Hawthorne “Got” Melville


My town sits on a particularly rich literary and intellectual “trade route.”  Most notably Moby Dick was penned here in the mid-nineteenth century (see my post Moby Dick as Theology.)  Moby Dick wasn’t the commercial success Melville had hoped for, but Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom it was dedicated, understood and appreciated it.

I have ruminated about why Hawthorne “got” Moby Dick, when most of the critics of the day saw merely a dark muddled fish story interrupted by frequent wordy digressions on whaling.

The answer I think, and this is hardly a new theory, lies in their common New England heritage and the ever-looming memory of the two centuries long Puritan experiment, by their time for all practical purposes over.  Hawthorne, of course, wrote the enduring iconic Puritan novel, The Scarlet Letter, which every American schoolchild must read.  That The Scarlet Letter is more about Hawthorne’s nineteenth-century neighbors than about his seventeenth-century Puritan forbears should not let us underestimate its importance in defining Puritanism in the popular imagination (any more than Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, another school favorite, should, although it too is less about the Puritans than it is about its own context, the social hysteria of 1950’s McCarthyism.)

The third canonical school text on Puritanism is Jonathan Edwards’ notorious Enfield sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a brilliant but scary depiction of the fires of hell and the tenuousness of human life.  To those of us who have actually read other Edwards’ sermons, the choice seems largely to have been made on the basis of dramatic impact, and not to get too paranoid, another piece of literary ammunition to discredit the Puritans.  At least “Sinners” is an actual Puritan text.

But even Edwards’ ritual enemies often admit he is a towering intellectual figure.  Recently I have been reading in and about him, and the first thing that struck me is that a mere 100 years separates Edwards Freedom of the Will (1754) from Moby Dick (1851), both written here in the Berkshire Hills but in different intellectual worlds.

Much changed here in that hundred years.  For one thing, when Edwards lived, Pittsfield didn’t exist as a city, but was part of the much conflicted frontier, the “howling wilderness” as Edwards was to describe nearby Stockbridge, to which he came in 1750.  I like that the local community college has a “Jonathan Edwards Library,” but Edwards died in 1758 and Pittsfield wasn’t founded until 1764.  But it is the Berkshire Community College so the title is apt.  I once delivered a community forum lecture on Puritanism there and, while the students were attentive and eager to engage, their knowledge of Puritanism in general and Edwards in particular was spare, and largely formed by the aforementioned canonical school texts.

Pittsfield was named after the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder, who so influenced the future of North America by his efficient administration of the Seven Years’ War.  The first minister of Pittsfield’s First Church of Christ was Parson Thomas Allen, Harvard trained but influenced by the New Divinity of the Edwardsian disciples that developed Edward’s themes after his death.  (I was the eighteenth minister of that church.)  By Melville’s time in the mid-19th century my eighth predecessor John Todd (1800 -1869) was the incumbent, but there is no record of Todd and Melville crossing paths that I have found.  Todd thought of himself as being in the Puritan succession, but the grand granite meeting house he built in the Gothic revival style points more to the prosperous 19th century Congregationalism of the beginning of the Gilded Age than to the Puritans.

All thoughtful New Englanders in these times had to engage the legacy of the Puritans.  Edwards himself in the mid-eighteenth century was dealing with a changing world far removed from the world of the 17th century founders.  It was his genius to cast the theological preoccupations of that world into the new thought-forms of the Enlightenment.  He wasn’t the only bright young man in his time to read Locke and Newton and have his eyes opened, but he seems to be the only one who didn’t turn away from the old verities, rather he used the new learning as tools to express the old truths.

But by the mid 19th century it was more the novelists than the theologians who were grappling mightily with the themes of the founders.  So Melville’s fish story plumbs such deeps as election, predestination, and theodicy.  Where Edwards found human freedom in the affections, Melville finds the demonic in human obsession.  Hawthorne’s village soap opera explores old themes as well: covenant and community, morality and hypocrisy.

That is why Hawthorne “got” Melville.  He understood what Melville was trying to do, because he was trying to do it as well: make sense of this rich and ambiguous religious and intellectual legacy that had so shaped the American mind and soul for better and for worse.

That Puritanism, real and imagined, continues to be a template for American ideas, even in our own time, is as true as a quick look at the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism proffered by the W. Bush era neoconservatives as a defense of the Iraq war demonstrates.

Which is to say that the ghosts of the founders’ faith linger.  Perhaps a more nuanced reading of their actual beliefs and positions would result in a more nuanced approach to the issues they raised.


Ruminations on “Moby Dick” as Theology

My always astute friend Jim Gorman once suggested that my book, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement (its subject matter being an unlikely topic coming from the generally optimistic American Protestant Mainline), might have something to do with the fact that I live in gloomy New England, and more specifically in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, where Herman Melville lived during the years he wrote Moby Dick.

In fact, Melville lived right here in my town of Pittsfield at the time, on a farm named “Arrowhead,” a few miles from where I am sitting.  “Arrowhead,” which is still very much here, is now a museum, and the home of the Berkshire Historical Society. It is well worth visiting.

Many years ago I gave a lecture at “Arrowhead” on theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, another Berkshire resident, and I recall being struck by the irony of speaking about theology’s best 20th Century interpreter of human sin in the home of fiction’s best 19th Century writer of sin’s power and perplexity.

Moby Dick remains one of those books that you can come to again and again to find more and more about the human condition, not to mention whaling practices (which is why so few actually get through it.) I once mentioned to my old friend Roger Linscott, now sadly gone, that I had read Moby Dick(more than once), and he came as close as a gentleman can to calling me a liar. I have often thought Moby Dick has not been given the attention it deserves by theologians, so I was pleased today when I read Australian Theologian Ben Myers always thoughtful blog Faith and Theology. His post, “A note on Unwritten Books,” is a busy scholar’s daydream about the books he would like to write if he ever has the time.

Here’s what he had to say about one of them: “A book on Melville’s Moby Dick as the great anti-theodicy, Nature’s shattering reply to Paradise Lost. (Frankly, it baffles me that more theologians have not written on Moby Dick – though Catherine Keller is an outstanding exception.)”

It baffles me, too.

I really do hope that he, or someone, writes that book, and if someone does, I’ll be the first one lined up to read it (My English teacher friend Bob Barsanti from Nantucket will be right there with me, I’m guessing).  We need for Melville what Elton Trueblood did for Abraham Lincoln in his 1973 book, Abraham Lincoln: Theologian Of America’s Anguish.  Like Melville, Lincoln was unchurched, but I consider his Second Inaugural Address to be one of the greatest theological writings in our nation’s history.

For those of you who didn’t spend whatever youthful fortune you may have had to acquire a theological education, theodicy is that branch of theology that addresses (or tries to) the problem of evil in the world, and how God can be justified in the face of it.  A good recent example is David Bentley Hart’s astute The Doors of the Sea, which he wrote after the great tsunami that wreaked havoc in Asia a few years ago. By calling Moby Dick “the great anti-theodicy,” and “Nature’s shattering reply to Paradise Lost” I am guessing that Ben Myers shares my wariness about theodicy in general, and all attempts to say too much about why God does what God does. I hope he might say more about that.

Ironically, we have as our appointed Old Testament reading for this week Psalm 55, where in verse 8, God says,

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

”I am guessing from Myers’ limited comment, and from my familiarity with Moby Dick, that he might agree with that sentiment, and therefore with me.

Ironies abound here in Pittsfield about Melville. One irony is that he lived on Holmes Road, named after the novelist Oliver Wendell Holmes (and not the famous jurist of the same name, who was his son), who was arguably the most popular and highly esteemed novelist of his day. Does anybody but miserable English Ph.D. candidates in search of a suitably obscure dissertation topic ever read Holmes today?  I suspect not. So here was Melville, who it must be admitted was not entirely unknown, for he had written some exotic best sellers many years before about his travels in the South Seas as a young man, laboring away in near obscurity over a book that was, at publication, almost universally panned.  That book is now considered by many, including me, as a top candidate for the “Great American Novel” (I think Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has a claim as well.)

“The Great American Novel,” I might add, is as hard to locate and pin down as Ahab’s white whale, and has taken on some of the same mystique among those of us who still read books.

Another irony, it seems Melville was hardly known here in Pittsfield at the time.  I served for 22 years as the Pastor of the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, which had been the town’s founding Puritan Church in 1764 (you couldn’t get a town charter in the theocratic Massachusetts Commonwealth without establishing a Congregational Church.) Today it is a just another lively but perennially struggling mainline church with a beautiful (but too big) building to maintain, but it was not always so.

By 1850, when Melville bought “Arrowhead,” First Church had long been disestablished (in 1833), but still remained the community’s premier religious institution. Puritanism as a movement was pretty much gone by 1850, and what replaced it in Pittsfield was a “carriage trade” church at the outset of the Gilded Age. Puritanism had been economically successful in New England, and the new generation of the privileged wanted to show off their newfound wealth (unlike their Puritan forbears.) First Church Pastor John Todd had commissioned a grand granite Gothic Revival church to be built in 1853 to replace the white clapboarded Bullfinch Meeting House (damaged by fire in 1851). There were many prominent, even famous, citizens, now forgotten, in the membership of First Church, but Melville was not among them, as he was not a churchgoer. I have found no mention of him during those years in either the church or town annals. It was as if he never lived here.

This is not too surprising, as he was known by the few who knew him a loner. He was also seriously broke and most likely depressed, although depression hadn’t been discovered yet, at least not by that name. He was also certainly a great disappointment to his family, and especially to his wife, who was the daughter of a very distinguished jurist, later to become the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. By most accounts the marriage was not a happy one in the Pittsfield days. There were rumors of madness, alcoholism, and spousal abuse. The only bright spot seemed to be his friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who championed him, and to whom Melville dedicated Moby Dick.

Still, even the popular and influential Hawthorne couldn’t get him back into solvency. The first run of Moby Dick (there were only three thousand copies printed) didn’t sell out. He never had a commercially successful book for the rest of his life.

He live at “Arrowhead” for thirteen years, and it was here that Moby Dick was written. They say his vista from the windows of “Arrowhead” looking north toward snow-covered Mount Greylock gave him the visual inspiration for the great white whale.

Moby Dick to my mind is one of the most incandescent and perplexing books ever written. Parts of it are magical and riveting; others are tedious. But it raises questions about the way our world is that have seldom been matched in their depth of insight.  Theological issues and images bristle throughout.

John Todd may have been the preeminent churchman of his time in Pittsfield, and Oliver Wendell Holmes the preeminent author, but Melville, perhaps despite himself, may well have been the most astute theologian.

But that book remains to be written.