Date of this Version
This essay discusses two works by American writer Herman Melville: Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre (1852), with emphasis on the uses of economic metaphors and on the issues of labor and alienation in the production of whale oil and of literature. Its argument is that Melville considered the mythology of American capitalism positively in the earlier work, and negatively in the later one. Moby-Dick explores the economic relations of the (capitalist) production of whale oil and converts them to metaphors for metaphysical truths. Pierre explores the economic relations involved in the production of literature and exposes the extent to which a mythology of imaginary relationships de-politicizes the image of nature and the uses of language.
Specific parts examine the chapters “The Mat-Maker,” “The Monkey-Rope,” “The Doubloon,” and “A Squeeze of the Hand” from Moby-Dick, and Pierre at his book and the dream of Enceladus and the Mount of Titans in Pierre. There is also discussion of Ishmael’s democratic rhetoric and the role of Ahab in making Moby-Dick a less-than-radical critique of the system of capital. Reference is made to concepts or definitions of ideology and mythology developed by Victor Turner, Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, and Karl Marx.
This essay first appeared in Ideology and Classic American Literature, Sacvan Bercovitch and Myra Jehlen, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 313–336. It was excerpted in Herman Melville: Moby-Dick: Icon Critical Guides, Nick Selby, ed. (Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd., 1998) and in Herman Melville: Moby-Dick: Columbia Critical Guides, Nick Selby, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999). Length = approximately 10,000 words