Melville's Democracy
Radical Figuration and Political Form
Jennifer Greiman



Ruthless Democracy

On a rainy morning, sometime in May of 1851, Herman Melville wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne with the strangest of excuses for his failure to visit his friend: the ruthless work of democracy, it seems, had detained him.1 Specifically, Melville reports that he has been “completely done up” by his work on the farm—“building and patching and tinkering away in all directions,” planting his “famous” corn and potato crops—and for this reason, unable to drop by “in my pine-board chariot” (Corr., 190). But if he has been kept from such easy familiarity by “my day’s work from sun to sun,” the delay is also owing to the far more extensive labor that he elaborates over the course of this wild, circuitous, and often-quoted letter. That work includes planting more storied crops than corn and potatoes, such as “those seeds taken out of the Egyptian pyramids, which, after being three thousand years a seed and nothing but a seed, being planted in English soil . . . grew to greenness and fell to mould” (sic, 193). It includes planting oneself, as if one was also an ancient seed, “on the green grass on a warm summer’s day” until “your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth” and “your hair feels like leaves upon your head” (194). It includes writing the final chapters of Moby-Dick while being “pulled hither and thither by circumstances” because “the calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought to compose—that, I fear, can never be mine” (191). Ultimately what has detained him, Melville proposes, is his participation in a process through which plants, books, thoughts, and bodies all assume equal weight and urgency as they seed, root, grow, mold, and go to seed once again, all caught up in the work of becoming something else. Melville’s own part in this project is at once agricultural, philosophical, literary, and political, and he calls it “my ruthless democracy”:2

I am told, my fellow-man, that there is an aristocracy of the brain. Some men have boldly advocated and asserted it. Schiller seems to have done so, though I don’t know much about him. At any rate, it is true that there have been those who, while earnest in behalf of political equality, still accept the intellectual estates. And I can well perceive, I think, how a man of superior mind can, by its intense cultivation, bring himself, as it were, into a certain spontaneous aristocracy of feeling,—exceedingly nice and fastidious,—similar to that which, in an English Howard, conveys a torpedo-fish thrill at the slightest contact with a social plebian. So, when you see or hear of my ruthless democracy on all sides, you may possibly feel a touch of a shrink, or something of that sort. It is but nature to be shy of a mortal who boldly declares that a thief in jail is as honorable a personage as Gen. George Washington. This is ludicrous. But Truth is the silliest thing under the sun. Try to get a Living by the Truth—and go to the Soup Societies. Heavens! Let any clergyman try to preach the Truth from its very stronghold, the pulpit, and they would ride him out of his church on his own pulpit bannister. It can hardly be doubted that all Reformers are bottomed upon the truth, more or less; and to the world at large are not reformers almost universally laughing-stocks? Why so? Truth is ridiculous to men. Thus easily in my room here do I, conceited and garrulous, reverse the test of my Lord Shaftesbury.

It seems an inconsistency to assert unconditional democracy in all things, and yet confess a dislike to all mankind—in the mass. But not so.—But it’s an endless sermon,—no more of it. (Corr., 190–91)

Melville introduces the idea of “ruthless democracy” as corollary and counter to the “aristocracy of the brain” that might make a man like Hawthorne both thrill at and shrink from intercourse with “a social plebian” like himself, but the concept is far stranger than a simple assertion of equality among intellects. For one thing, Melville claims this democracy as both “ruthless” and his own—that is, as something he possesses without sentiment or pity which another may “see or hear of” in him. As a concept that is both personal and impersonal in this way—attached to him as a faculty of detachment—it dispenses with moral and social distinctions and enables him to declare, “boldly,” the absolute equality of a common thief with a nation’s founder. What is more, he declares this fundamental equality not as a feeling but as a fact that is true and ludicrous at the same time—indeed, the truth of equality is measured by how ridiculous it appears to a world committed to distinctions (“exceedingly nice and fastidious”) of order, value, and class.3 Such seeming inconsistencies breed further inconsistencies in the concept: the fact of absolute equality is a ludicrous truth that demands one relinquish partiality and preference while still allowing a basic misanthropy, “a dislike to all mankind—in the mass,” to persist. If Melville’s democracy is both unconditional and ruthless, it is also both given as a truth and produced by relentless, pitiless work. That work is “an endless sermon” of declaration and assertion, of telling jokes and truths, of preaching and living. Invoking it in the opening lines of this letter to Hawthorne, moreover, Melville posits ruthless democracy as the principle that joins farming, reading, and writing; seeding, rooting, and thinking; living, growing, and dying; comedy, terror, and fact in an ongoing sermon that, by the time of his death in 1891, had produced nine novels, three collections of poems, an eighteen-thousand-line verse epic, and more than a dozen tales and novellas—in short, an unsurpassed archive of democratic art and thought by an American author.

This book argues that democracy is at once Melville’s perennial theme and the political, aesthetic, and philosophical problem that connects his writing across five decades. It is at stake in the “tacit common-sense law” and “unanimity of feeling” through which the Typees work collectively to preserve their green home in Typee (1846) and in the “murmurous indistinctness” that passes through the crew at the execution of martial law in Billy Budd (1891). It is the name Melville gives to mutiny in Omoo (1847); to hell in Redburn (1849); and to the “great democratic God” that exalts every mariner, renegade, and castaway in Moby-Dick (1851).4 Connecting mutuality and mutiny, heaven and hell, peace and war, democracy is changeable and capacious, carrying with it the potential to transform one thing into what would seem to be its opposite. Indeed, so forceful are its transmutative powers that democracy belongs to the human and the inhuman alike in Melville’s writing, exceeding the limits and capacities of human agencies while demanding constant effort and arts to maintain.5 In Pierre (1852), democracy appears as a chemical agent through which natural processes and human activities become indistinguishable from each other, while in Battle-Pieces (1866), Clarel (1876), and Timoleon (1891) democracy’s history must be measured on geologic scales and comprehended in the temporality of volcanoes, landslides, and the “brutal claim” of matter itself.6 But even when Melville roots his thinking about democracy in organic processes, vast scales of time, and the activities of all manner of nonhuman things, it remains for him a matter of action and articulation: it is work, and it requires both politics and art to sustain.

As “ruthless democracy” first names a character trait that he claims along with the “endless sermon” in which he is caught up, so in Melville’s writing from the 1840s to the 1890s democracy shapes his characters and plots as well as the very experiments in narrative and poetic form that often subordinate character to characteristics and plot to descriptive figuration. Further, if the “endless sermon” continues in his prose and poetry long after this letter’s final postscript, it also precedes the letter and includes it. In other words, while Melville most clearly reveals the contours of his aesthetic practice in the letters that he writes to Hawthorne over the course of 1851, those letters belong to the project they describe. They materialize and perform the aesthetic work that, Melville explains, emerges from the double commitment that ruthless democracy demands: on the one hand, to a principle of absolute equality among the beings and powers of the world, and on the other, to a process of endless transformation. In an April 1851 letter, Melville describes “the man who, like Russia or the British Empire, declares himself a sovereign nature (in himself) amid the Powers of heaven, hell, and earth. He may perish; but so long as he exists he insists upon treating with all Powers on an equal basis.” Such a sovereign nature stands at once equal to all power and implicated in the processes of decay and transformation to which all entities, powers, and beings are subject. Powers meet on equal ground because, he continues, this equality is simply obvious: “there is no secret,” he continues, because gods and states and the universe itself are like “the Freemason’s mighty secret . . . a triangle, an apron, and a mallet—nothing more!” (Corr., 184). To stand as an equal with all the powers of the earth demands an aesthetic commitment to truth and transience at once, and several months later, in thanking Hawthorne for his praise of Moby-Dick, he submits even himself to the transience that equalizes all powers: “This is a long letter, but you are not at all bound to answer it. Possibly, if you do answer it, and direct it to Herman Melville, you will missend it—for the very fingers that now guide this pen are not precisely the same that just took it up and put it on this paper. Lord, when shall we be done changing?” (Corr., 213). What emerges from these letters is a philosophy and practice of writing in which Melville makes equality both manifest and forceful by showing the ludicrous truth behind the secrecy of symbols and by recognizing the ongoing work of transformation and transience, of differencing and pluralization, on the most basic levels of the seed, the root, the body, and the self.

Writing both about and in the midst of a process of change that equalizes powers, materializes symbols, and transforms even the fingers and character of the writer, Melville carries his ruthless democracy into a full-blown aesthetic practice. Because there is no philosophy or political theory, no thought or context or portrait in Melville’s work that is severable from the strangeness and specificity of his aesthetics, the egalitarian principle and transformative process of democracy join Melville’s most radical thinking with his strangest formal experiments in characterization, categorization, juxtaposition, figuration, and more. Thus if democracy does not always appear in expected or familiar ways in his work—as representations of self-governance or popular sovereignty or individual freedom—its meaning is nevertheless precise and its operation is forceful: Melville’s “ruthless democracy” is the “endless sermon” that joins literary art to politics, philosophy, work, and life in the ongoing, creative process of being equal and becoming different.

Ruthless, Radical: Melville and Democratic Theory

Given the significance that his letters to Hawthorne occupy in Melville scholarship and given his decades-long commitment to the “endless sermon” that he describes in them, it is hardly surprising that “democracy” has been a foundational term in Melville criticism since the field’s inception. But for all the term’s persistence over a century of Melville studies, “democracy” has come to signal a variety of tendencies in his life and work (and the relation between these) while serving an incongruous set of critical and political aims. Launching the Melville revival with his 1921 Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, Raymond Weaver also launched the study of democracy in his life and work. Weaver slyly conflates the author with the protagonist of Pierre to describe Melville’s ambivalent relationship with his family history, using the narrator’s arch commentary on Pierre Glendinning: “And believe me, you will pronounce Pierre a thorough-going Democrat in time; perhaps a little too Radical altogether to your fancy.” The radical democracy that Weaver attributes to Melville serves the needs of biography and literary history at once, enabling him to craft an egalitarian persona for Melville while making claims for the exceptional literary status due to both author and work: “Radical he came to be, indeed: it was the necessary penalty of being cursed with an intelligence above that of the smug and shallow optimism of his country and his period. Democratic he may have been, but only in the most unpopular meaning of that once noble term. He was a democrat in the sense that Dante or Milton were democrats.”7 With this, Weaver established a series of tensions that became recurrent tropes for subsequent studies of Melville and democracy—those of author and work, radical and democratic, exceptional and common—to craft this portrait of a Melville who was “cursed” with an uncommon intellect and numbered among the “aristocracy of the brain,” but who nevertheless rejected the aristocratic pretensions of his family.

Two decades later, in The American Renaissance (1941), F. O. Matthiessen reframed the tension between what Melville had called “political equality” and “the intellectual estates” in his letter to Hawthorne, arguing that Melville joined radical aesthetics to political democracy to create, along with Emerson, Hawthorne, and Whitman, a “literature for our democracy” and a “culture commensurate with America’s political opportunity.”8 For Matthiessen and his mid-century colleagues, that project of political and cultural creation was ongoing and so deeply shaped by the era’s competing politics of anticommunism and antifascism that both Richard Chase, in Herman Melville: A Critical Study (1948), and C.L.R. James, in Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (1953), could identify countertotalitarian politics in Melville’s body of work from opposing positions.9 For Chase, the countertotalitarian project meant deriving a “new liberalism” from Melville’s model of “a continuous act of imaginative criticism” and rejecting “facile ideas of progress and ‘social realism.’10 For James, by contrast, it meant discovering the “miracle” of Melville’s writing in the precision with which “he painted a picture of the world in which we live . . . the totalitarian madness which swept the world . . . the great mass labor movements and colonial revolts . . . the world the masses of men strive to make sense of.”11 But despite identifying near-opposite political imperatives in Melville’s work, their accounts strangely concur on two points: Melville’s commitment to “democracy” and the necessity of separating the author from his characters. Chase calls the conflation of Melville with his protagonists “a grievous mistake,” and James cautions against ascribing any political philosophy to Melville himself from the views of his characters, while taking it as a matter of course that he was “an extreme, in fact, a fanatical democrat.”12 Melville’s earliest and most influential twentieth-century readers have thus taken for granted the obvious significance of “democracy” to his writing, with little agreement about whether the term signifies anything certain about his personal beliefs, political preferences, or even the cultural and political function of his radically democratic art.

Rather than defining a clear set of critical methodologies for reading Melville’s work or establishing biographical details about his beliefs, “democracy” has instead functioned as the name that a century’s worth of scholarship has given to a set of questions and problems that Melville’s writing continues to raise concerning the relationship of politics and culture; of biography and work; and ultimately of aesthetics, history, and representation. Is democracy principally a cultural or political descriptor in reference to Melville and his work? Does it lie, that is, in Melville’s “intensely democratic urge to absorb and fuse contradictory elements in American culture,” as David S. Reynolds argues? Or does it lie in the tensions of a “political egalitarian” who wrote and thought as a “cultural aristocrat,” as Robert Milder claims? If, as generations of scholars have suggested, Melville’s work must be read in relation to his biography and rooted in personal history and belief, is the story of democracy then one of defeat, as Michael Rogin characterizes it, the triumph of fathers and monarchs over “Melville’s dream to speak for American democracy”? Or is the story of Melville’s career instead that of his embrace of an imperial autonomy and authorial sovereignty, as Wai Chee Dimock claims? Finally, if “democracy” can be read as a feature of Melville’s writing that is independent of biography, where does it appear? Are the democratic elements of his prose and poetry embedded in the culture and politics of the nineteenth century and measured in Melville’s thematic engagements with “nascent capitalism, aristocratic nostalgia, literary elitism, constitutional monarchies, populist economics, workers’ rights, mob violence, and socialist revolutions,” as Dennis Berthold claims? Or does democracy appear instead in those moments of Melville’s writing that sound the very limits of representation, as a principally “aesthetic interest” that, Nancy Fredericks argues, “corresponds to his political commitment to represent the unrepresentedness or marginal status, of . . . social groups”?13

If scholarship has long centered the problem of democracy in Melville studies, placing the concept firmly at the foundations of his work, it has nevertheless yielded little in the way of consensus about the term’s exact meaning. And certainly, as metacritical accounts of the Melville revival and Cold War canon-building have shown, this is owing in part to the specific political imperatives that come with changing critical movements and historical moments.14 But it would be a mistake to attribute the shifting signification of democracy to perennial blindspots of historicism, presentism, or ideological presupposition on the part of Melville’s critics, just as it is a mistake to assume ambiguity or ambivalence about democracy on Melville’s part. Instead, the very absence of consensus on where Melville’s ruthless democracy appears, whether it succeeds or fails, and what it ultimately means tracks very closely with his own sense and use of the term. Indeed, taken together, the consistent critical attention to democracy coupled with the absent critical consensus on its meaning point to some of Melville’s most significant and concrete insights about democracy. To borrow his own formulation, the significance of democracy across Melville’s writing lies in what is most true and ludicrous about it: the very tension between its obviousness and its instability, its fundamental and ubiquitous presence joined with the constantly shifting forms and meanings that mark it as evanescent and fragile, all of which place unrelenting demands on those who participate in its processes of endless transformation.

Ultimately, if studies of Melville’s engagement with democracy do not agree on whether democracy is a matter of culture or politics, biography or philosophy, history or aesthetics, this is because, for Melville, democracy is something more foundational—it is a matter of being equal and becoming different. As such, democracy appears in Melville’s work as both a principle (of equality) and a process (of change) so fundamental to life that it belongs to art, philosophy, politics, culture, and history all at once—not to mention cetology, geology, chemistry, physics, and farming. Reading Melville’s work for the presence and force of democracy does not carry one through the text to biography or history or even to a consistent political philosophy because there is no single source to which Melville himself turned in writing his endless sermon. He derived his ruthless democracy as much from his work and his world as from his eclectic readings in revolutionary history, political philosophy, natural history, aesthetic theory, prose, poetry, and scripture. In this, Melville’s May 1851 letter to Hawthorne is again instructive: “ruthless democracy” grows as much out of his wry readings of Shaftesbury, Solomon, and Goethe as it does from the grassy thoughts that he grows along with corn, potatoes, and those ancient seeds that sprouted millennia and continents away from the Egyptian tomb from which they were taken.


1. Melville’s letter was transcribed and published by Julian Hawthorne in 1884, but the original has not been located and the date is uncertain. The editors of Melville’s Correspondence give a date of June 1, 1851, but Hershel Parker dates the letter to early May, before Sophia Hawthorne gave birth to their daughter, Rose, on May 20 and before Melville traveled to New York City in early June (Corr., 188–89). See Hershel Parker, Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 1, 1819–1851 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 841–44.

2. Like Timothy Powell, I am drawn to Melville’s startlingly precise phrase, “ruthless democracy,” for all of the ways that it captures the paradoxes and tensions of Melville’s complex account of democracy as something at once personal, historical, and theoretical. See Timothy Powell, Ruthless Democracy: A Multicultural Interpretation of the American Renaissance (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

3. The editors identify Melville’s reference to Lord Shaftesbury’s “Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour,” in which he asserts that truth must be tested to withstand “raillery” (Corr., 189).

4. T, 201; BB, 66; O 36, R, 276; and MD, 117.

5. I borrow the term “inhuman” from Michael Jonik as a means of characterizing the force of the natural, the animal, and the material that are always present in the human across Melville’s work. Michael Jonik, Herman Melville and the Politics of the Inhuman (Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 6–7.

6. P, 9; PP, 284.

7. Raymond Weaver, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic (New York: George H. Doran, 1921), 37.

8. F. O. Matthiessen, The American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1941), xiv–xv.

9. See Donald Pease’s introduction to C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In, ed. Donald E. Pease, xiii–xiv (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2001).

10. Richard Chase, Herman Melville: A Critical Study (New York: MacMillan, 1949), vii, 20–21. Pease provides a thorough account of the diverging politics of this generation of critics, detailing Chase’s anticommunism and use of Melville to advance conservative politics and contrasting both Chase’s and Matthiessen’s with James’s radical reading of Moby-Dick, in particular (Introduction to James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, xiii, xxix, and xxxifn7).

11. James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, 3, 75.

12. Ibid., 75.

13. David Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 275–76; Robert Milder, Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 63; Michael Rogin, Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 221; Wai Chee Dimock, Empire for Liberty: Melville and the Politics of Individualism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 24; Dennis Berthold, American Risorgimento: Melville and the Cultural Politics of Italy (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009), 24; Nancy Fredericks, Melville’s Art of Democracy (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 4. This is a mere gloss; a more comprehensive list of the key claims about Melville and democracy would include Eric Sundquist’s work on revolution and slavery in “Benito Cereno” in To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Nancy Ruttenberg’s account of innocence and popular voice in Billy Budd in Democratic Personality: Popular Voice and the Trial of American Authorship (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998); Timothy Powell’s study of multiculturalism in Melville’s work in Ruthless Democracy; Jonathan Elmer’s work on Melville, race, and sovereignty in On Lingering and Being Last: Race and Sovereignty in the New World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008); Ivy Wilson’s reading of the artful shadows of democracy in “Benito Cereno” in Specters of Democracy: Blackness and the Aesthetics of Politics in the Antebellum US (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); and countless other studies with which the chapters that follow are in close dialogue.

14. Brian Yothers’s Melville’s Mirrors: Literary Criticism and America’s Most Elusive Author (Rochester, NY: Camden House Press, 2011) offers the most comprehensive examination of Melville criticism; also see Chris Castiglia’s introduction to “Melville and His Critics,” Leviathan 13, no. 1 (2011): 5–9.