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Herman Melville and Atlantic Relations

During troubled times over Hawaii, Oregon and the West Indies, Melville maintained a sympathetic attitude to Britain - not least to the Chartists, writes Charlotte Lindgren.

Englishmen and Americans frequently react ambivalently toward one another because they are at once so alike and so different. Sharing a common language and culture, their ideologies became separated in the latter part of the eighteenth century, not so much by revolution as by individual circumstances of space.

While the enclosure of land, industrial growth, and an expanding population were urbanizing England, America, already a melting pot of nationalities, had a vast hinterland of unlimited opportunity for those adventurous enough to move westward.

When Herman Melville was born in 1819, the whole western world was undergoing tumultuous changes. Virtually ignored during most of his own century, Melville was to write prophetically, warning that without superior leaders, the freedom of the individual so cherished by Americans could lead to demagoguery, alienation, and deracination.

If Melville was his own Elijah, then Moby Dick was his unheeded portent. Whaling was the most democratic of all American business enterprises, for only American whaling ships operated on a profit-sharing system. So the Pequod, with an obsessed captain pursuing his own nemesis, a crew of ‘meanest mariners and renegades and castaways’ from every nation, and an orphaned wanderer its only survivor, was a perfect microcosm of American society. As he sees the ship sinking into the waves, Ahab cries, ‘its wood could only be American’.

But Melville is also typically American in sharing Thoreau’s belief in the wisdom of the ‘majority of one’. Strongly pro-British and proud of his Scottish ancestry, he was irritated by American chauvinism which kept alive the bitterness created by the Revolution of 1775 and the War of 1812. The two nations were constantly bickering over trade in the West Indies, Newfoundland fishery rights, protective tariffs, and above all, establishment of boundaries.

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