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Damien Schlarb, Melville’s Wisdom: Religion, Skepticism and Literature in Nineteenth-Century America

Caroline Hildebrandt
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Damien Schlarb, Melville’s Wisdom: Religion, Skepticism and Literature in Nineteenth-Century America, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2021, 272 pages, ISBN: 9780197585566, £47.99/$55.41.

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1“If romantic literature is the aesthetic expression of Christianity’s encounter with modernity, Herman Melville’s writings is a modern literary exegesis of wisdom literature,” Damien Schlarb asserts in the conclusion to his book Melville’s Wisdom (179). Schlarb aims at appraising anew Melville’s antebellum writings and his early poetry (the Battle-Pieces collection) to delineate the author’s “intellectual impulse within modernity to re-engage the Bible with the express goal of articulating its function as a storehouse of cultural and moral guidance for a new age while divesting it of institutional authoritarianism” (180). To Schlarb, modernity suffers from an inner paradox, which is the “simultaneous displacement and affirmation of biblical language and religious culture”, a paradox that Melville navigates, according to Schlarb, by returning again and again “to the shores of biblical wisdom” (3)—that is, engaging with the wisdom books of the Bible. Schlarb focuses more particularly on the presence of the Book of Job, the Book of Proverbs, and the Book of Ecclesiastes in Melville’s writings, which the author references more than any other set of biblical texts. To Schlarb, they act as moral authority and guide in a time of crisis in Melville’s writings. Melville’s writings articulate a literary commentary on the Bible, exploring the links between religion, skepticism and literature. Melville thus helps “forge modern literature into a new mode of exegesis” (180), a mode of exegesis which refuses Enlightenment Manichean dichotomies between truth and untruth, while also avoiding “quasi-religious enthusiasm” (180). It also eschews scientism, and “modernity’s undiscerning transfer of religious fervor from dogma to the institutionalized knowledge regimes of market enterprise, jingoism, and technology” (181)—or what Schlarb calls “techno-euphoria” (183). The wisdom books provide Melville with a certain type of ethics, while also working as epistemic and literary vehicles for Melville, a set of notions which Schlarb explores throughout his book. Schlarb’s project aims at reconsidering how we think about Melville’s engagement with the Bible, how we inscribe him in literary and cultural history, and how we perceive literature’s ability to address issues of theology and the history of the Bible. His central claim is that “Melville responds to the moral, spiritual and representational challenges of modernity by developing a contemplative reading attitude toward the Bible and religion”—an attitude which is shaped by the moral framework of the wisdom books (18).

2In his introduction, Schlarb starts by offering several historical recontextualizations, first of all of the wisdom books themselves, in order for his reader to understand the context in which Melville was steeped. As “moral advice literature,” the wisdom books of the Bible teach “an ethos of evenhanded inquiry” (4). The aphorisms, riddles, and allegories, which constitute the genres of these books, “proceed from experience to address readers whose faith has been shaken by their life in the world”—wisdom thus addresses skepticism (4). Because of their formal and thematic literariness, which have been deemed by clerics “overtly fictitious,” the wisdom books became “productive interlocutors for literary writers” (5), most of all for Romanticists, both English and American. Yet Melville, even more than other American writers, comments as much the Bible’s texts as its exegetical and textual history (5), which makes his use of the wisdom books worth a particular enquiry.

3The nineteenth century, Schlarb stresses, witnessed the emergence of the textual category of wisdom in Bible studies, as a response by perplexed theologians who felt “adrift in the maelstrom of historical criticism,” which notably feeds on a German tradition of critical inquiry of the biblical texts known as Higher Criticism. Schlarb traces the arc of American Biblical Exegesis and historical criticism back to Cotton Mather and his Biblia Americana (1693-1720) down to the Transcendentalist movement and the dawn of literature as a secular scripture, while integrating the transatlantic dialogue with Scottish realism, German neology, the impetus of Unitarianism and the struggles of a waning Calvinism in the face of the liberal forces of modern theology. This recontextualization helps him put back in context the connection between literature and religion, skepticism and wisdom, in the United States. Schlarb does not fail to question Melville’s own knowledge of the finer points of theology, which he eventually locates in the author’s own frequentation of the All Souls Unitarian Church in New York and his numerous markings in the religious essays of the time, but also his own allusions to German Higher Criticism in his 1857 Journal as he was travelling to the Holy Land. Schlarb also stresses how Melville’s own journey responds to an overall “travel mania” back to the Holy Land which “revitalized interest in the Old Testament” (8)—again anchoring his focus on the Old Testament in the episteme of the period. This also tallies with the New York City context of religious and skeptical publications, with which Melville was familiar. Yet Melville’s skepticism is a “restless oscillation [which] constitutes a particular form of religious skepticism, one shaped by earnest inquiry and contemplation” which, to Schlarb, are already present in what he terms the “wisdom ethos” (9).

4Having in mind our contemporary postsecular outlook (on which he comes back in his conclusion), Schlarb takes time to lay down the connections between skepticism, secularization and the American Renaissance. He again traces the nineteenth-century mindset back to British deism which was marked with a skeptical and rational methodology that denied the existence of final truths and challenged criticism of tradition (11). Yet, Schlarb underlines, the discourse about skepticism and atheism in the nineteenth-century United States revealed more particularly the use of these categories in the political parlance of the day: religious language and religious controversies became “the lexicon for articulating political demands.” Calls for moral and social reforms were “articulated and circulated as matters of belief” (11). “True” skeptics and free inquirers were also present and wedded “rationalist epistemology to civil religion,” that is, “expectations of a political framework that would foster social liberalism.” Yet public skepticism did not challenge religion in any significant political matter (12).

5Doubt, Schlarb stresses, was not secularism—“free inquiry constituted a habit of mind more than a creed,” and terms like “Christianity” or “religion” were “broad denominators” that “came to signify a spectrum of divergent beliefs,” ranging from free inquiry to atheism and skeptical materialism (12). Free inquiry was in a sense the private corollary response of middle- and upper-class Americans to the change that historical criticism of the Bible had fostered in the theological seminaries—that is, free thinking is a form of skeptical theology. It still tries to grapple with faith itself, a stance Schlarb sees at work notably in the Free Inquiry Societies of the time and their productions. Schlarb eventually stresses the affective quality of skepticism, which also constituted a host of sentiments in response to the transformative forces of modernity at work all around. Such types of skepticism were offshoots of the Protestant philosophical and scientific thought. The danger, however, according to Schlarb, was not to understand their limitations and overriding investment in tradition—being cognizant of theological controversies without knowing firsthand “the finer points of theological discussion” (13).

6Melville, then, Schlarb contends, “did not stand alone in his doubt, nor was the manner in which he expressed skeptical sentiments uncommon.” Religion and theology were discourses used to navigate the crises of modernity, and the wisdom books provided writers with a “flexible lexicon” to that end. Yet, where Channing and Emerson, for instance, turned from Unitarian theology to literature, Melville “used literature as an aperture through which he might get at theology” (13). The skeptical ethos becomes “a literary hermeneutic practice by running it through the language of the wisdom books,” but this practice remains tethered to experience—a reciprocal process which to Schlarb mimics the experience-based cosmology of wisdom. Melville used skepticism as a methodology to build something more, leading him from a “hermeneutics of suspicion to one of contemplation” (13).

7Following Dewey Phillips’ own conceptualization after Paul Ricoeur, Schlarb offers to read Melville under the lens of a “hermeneutics of contemplation,” a way of reading that “apprehends ‘examples of irreducibly religious meanings’ and considers whether they can be covered fully by ‘naturalistic explanations’” (Phillips 30 qtd in Schlarb 16). He locates it in Biblical wisdom, for “wisdom passes on knowledge ‘not through authoritative pronouncements but through didactic reflection and arguments’” (16)—that is, contemplation. Schlarb distinguishes this hermeneutics of contemplation from that of suspicion, among other trends, which, to him, “confuses conceptual critique of religion as ideology with interpretations of religious phenomena” (16).

8Contemplation, in Melville’s texts, is a “dialectical activity”—it focuses on the “moral and explanatory dimensions of religious experience and language while confronting challenges by competing nineteenth-century epistemologies and religious skepticism” (16). This dialectical move helps Melville reach what Schlarb, after Ricoeur, calls a “second naiveté”—a spiritual immediacy that can only be reached through interpretation (15). Criticism, Schlarb reminds us, is now an intrinsic part of belief; hermeneutics is a necessary part of religious practice, and a second naiveté can only emerge “from the hermeneutic activity of positing and critically reflecting on religious meanings” (16).

9Schlarb’s prism to assess Melville’s poetics eschews religious labelling but rather seizes a Melvillean “integrity,” both moral and intellectual, found in the wisdom books—an unwavering commitment to truth-seeking which fuses both dimensions and fosters an attitude of earnest engagement in the face of moral danger, with the sense that a search for truth is itself divinely condoned. Schlarb lists four general arguments.

10Firstly, Melville’s writings showcase a career-long project of “recovering the language and the ethics of biblical wisdom”—to preserve what he calls “the bloom” in his 1857 Journal. For this project, Schlarb argues, Melville requires a “postsecular language,” capable of “portraying religious meanings as well as their critical examination.” This is possible only in the medium of literary language, which can provide such a reflexivity. Melville’s originality lies in his juxtaposing biblical texts with new explanatory systems and epistemologies, while also conjuring the specter of skepticism (18).

11Melville’s poetics then displays a type of dialogism, which tallies with the notion of a “second naiveté.” It brings together both representation and critical reflection as contemplation. To do so, Schlarb explains, Melville juxtaposes texts and epistemologies, yet the wisdom books inject a “moral vector” into what would otherwise be a “debilitating multi-perspectivism” (20). Melville operates a sort of repetition with difference: he renders a “moral problem in the language of biblical wisdom, only then to double-back on the biblical text and juxtapose it with alternative methods of knowledge-seeking.” And even after having rejected the Bible’s literal meaning, biblical language and the wisdom tenets remain as “formal or ethical platforms” for the contemplation of meaning (20).

12Hence Schlarb’s third claim, which is that Melville’s writings yield theological insights. His fiction and early poetry expand the repertoire of exegesis, through literature, by “crossing the nadir of skepticism” to reach a stance from where one can consider religious meanings critically, while also still sensing their ability to facilitate sense-making. This adjustment through sense-making, consideration—contemplation—is contained in wisdom literature.

13This brings Schlarb to his fourth point, which is a proposal for a historiographical recontextualization of Melville’s work within a larger, transnational history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century religion and the Bible. In this history, “religion is seen not as a fortress besieged by marauding hordes of skeptics” but as a “constantly evolving organism” which feeds from these competing voices, and vice versa.

14Schlarb builds his reading of Melville’s antebellum corpus based on three moral problems, which to him constitute the three vectors of Melville’s contemplative attitude: matters of suffering, judging, and reading (24). Schlarb tracks overt and covert references to biblical wisdom in Melville’s texts and situates them in their thematic and exegetical histories, as well as the textual history of Melville’s work. This frame allows him to read Melville’s texts as commentaries of either these three moral problems and corresponding wisdom texts, while helping us consider the literariness—the aesthetic quality—of his exegesis.

15Chapter 1 thus focuses on the moral problem of “seemingly unwarranted human suffering” in the face of apparent divine injustice—that is, theodicy—and the way to reconcile faith and experience. The wisdom text focused on in this first part is the Book of Job. In the light of Job, Schlarb reads Moby-Dick anew, focusing on the characters of Ishmael, Ahab and Pip, which he reads as cases of dramatization of Job’s own trajectory. “Bartleby” next takes a “broader, thematic approach to Job, by rendering tragic suffering as epistemology,” while “The Encantadas” explore suffering as topography—Job’s suffering creates a “penitentiary realm” in which “the outcasts of the world are plunged into despair.” Job enables Melville to explore suffering from the perspective of the sufferer and depict the “antinomian problem of evil,” while teaching him that the pursuit of wisdom demands to “remain steadfast in the face of moral adversity while being willing to have one’s beliefs upended by experience” (24-25).

16Chapter 2 then deals with the Book of Proverbs and the problems of “persuasion and judging the correct way to live” (25). Schlarb explores the didacticism of Proverbial aphorisms, notably “the assumption that fear of God, as a default ethical stance, helps alleviate contingency and enable sound judgment,” a didacticism which can be perverted, as showcased in “The Lightning-Rod Man.” In Melville’s texts, references to Proverbs also serve to “indict those social and political structures that divorce individuals who wield power from the consequences of their actions”—a focus which also enables Schlarb to read Mardi as well as The Confidence-Man. The latter novel also allows Schlarb to engage with apocryphal Solomonic wisdom. The problem of jurisprudence, circling back on the problem of evil and God’s potential authorship of it, has Schlarb end up this second chapter with Billy Budd.

17This latter note colors chapter 3, in which Schlarb deals with Melville’s use of the book of Ecclesiastes. The book, according to Schlarb, oscillates between materialism and skepticism in an attempt to parse out the antinomy of evil in the world and God’s potential culpability for it. Moderation emerges as a via media between secular and spiritual life, that “allows believers to enjoy worldly existence without succumbing to materialism,” a practice which requires “self-examination and moral self-upbraiding” against “the enticements of materialism” (26). Here, Schlarb comes back to Moby-Dick and Ishmael’s famous pondering on Ecclesiastes 1:2 and the consequent ethics of moderation stemming from the passage. Schlarb explores further the need for such moderation of the self in Redburn and Pierre. Eventually, these tensions (the spiritual vs. the material) are explored anew in the Battle-Pieces collection, seeing the war as a spiritual crisis as well as a military one.

18Schlarb’s book builds bridges between several fields, be it literary studies and biblical studies, but also the history of the Bible and of religions, without reducing one field to another. This method of “cross-pollination” provides his readers with fertile critical tools with which to appreciate the way Melville fictionalizes discussions of pertinent exegetical issues.

19Schlarb’s “contemplative” perspective follows a recent turn in literary studies—“post-critique”—in the wake of Rita Felski, Heather Love, and Toril Moi, notably. These theorists have advocated a practice of hermeneutics as an open-ended and reparative practice, a working through suspicion in an effort to produce meaning and a distrust of ideological reading techniques insofar as they predetermine the outcomes of interpretation (16). Schlarb’s focus on contemplation must be understood with these critical stances in mind—it is no passive nor idealized reading of Melville, but it recognizes in Melville’s engagement with the Bible a defiant attitude, located in an “intellectual integrity” which “not only is prepared for bad surprises,” but also “refuses to turn away as they unfold” (17).

20As such, Schlarb also takes part in the conversation fostered by secular and post-secular studies in the literature of the American Renaissance and in the humanities more generally. Literary histories of the American Renaissance, as Schlarb reminds us, often cast the movement as a cultural movement in which literature “replaces” the Bible as the textual locus for spiritual meanings (14). Literature would thus be a function of secularism and ultimately displace scripture (Lawrence Buell, F.O. Matthiessen), while ultimately being forced to fall back on religious language to reflect critically on the world (M.H. Abrams). These literary histories often present the relationship between Romantic writers and the Bible as antagonistic but they eventually stress the “afterlife” that scripture keeps in literature as “spiritual imaginaries” and lingering frameworks (Viola Sachs, Philip Gura, Giles Gunn). Likewise, the secularization narrative in the humanities postulates a priori a steady procession from faith to secularism in Western cultural history (14). Yet here too, reconsiderations are at work, in the wake of which Schlarb proposes to locate his prism. Secularization can thus more productively be conceived of as a discursive “historical formation” (Tracy Fessenden), a reconsideration likewise performed by other scholars who have paid attention to overlooked aspects in the field, such as the spiritual (Harold Bush, Brian Yothers). The Bible, thus, did not disappear, and a narrative of the “progress of secularization” glosses over a more complicated story about literary attempts at “salvaging and restructuring the moral quality of biblical language” (15), among which Schlarb locates Melville. Schlarb compares this last reappraisal to the twenty-first century literary turn to postsecularism and its search for a “re-enchanted world” as a response to the prospect of total computation and surveillance (180). Yet, Schlarb notes, Melville’s would be a skeptical and contemplative reenchantment of wisdom, one which “reverently seeks after that enchantment while contemplating the consequences of its absence” (17).

21Melville’s Wisdom thus engages with numerous fields and traditions of reading Melville, among which we can also count the most recent publications on the topic of Melville and religion (Ilana Pardes, Jonathan Cook, Brian Yothers, Dawn Coleman). Schlarb takes time to put these in perspective with the long-standing tradition of this particular field in Melville studies (William Braswell, Nathalia Wright, Bruce Franklin, Lawrance Thompson, T. Walter Herbert, to cite only a few) (22). His discussion of how Melville explores the relationships between the Bible, its exegetical history, skepticism, secular scientific discourse, and literature expounds and complicates these existing scholarly paradigms. He deepens Melville’s use of the Bible without reducing it to an antagonized practice. Following Cook and Yothers, Schlarb recognizes in Melville a weaving of these discourses which elucidates their mutual influences and frictions, a “moderation” of “various secular and sacred discourses,” which “neither devolves into relativism nor peters out into religious despair” (22). His focus on the Old Testament wisdom books also responds to a more recent focus in Melville studies on Melville’s engagement with the New Testament (Brian Yothers 2008, 2015). These considerations bring Schlarb to attend to both synchronic and diachronic dimensions of Melville’s engagement with wisdom. His claim is that biblical wisdom informs the way Melville responds to modernity, while showing how his texts comment on the meaning of wisdom in literature, always bearing in mind his double focus on Melville—a nineteenth-century author of fiction but also an exegete in his own stand.

22One might be amazed at the density of Schlarb’s book and the critical span his reflection displays. Schlarb’s reader will have to think conjointly, within a brief page range, with Northrop Frye and Mikhail Bakhtin, down to Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu—to cite only a few of the thinkers summoned. Schlarb’s reader will thus trace with him the arc of critical theories at large; but this actually only mirrors, on a meta-critical level, the attitude Schlarb attributes to Melville—and we cannot but contemplate the historical and philosophical wisdom here proposed. Schlarb is nonetheless aware of the density of his project and offers an introductory reading chart, built with variable levels of reading difficulties, to help beginners in Melville and religion make their way to the shores of biblical wisdom.

23All in all, Schlarb’s is a compelling proposition—one which assesses Melville as a proto-postmodern exegete, while painstakingly anchoring his reading of Melville in his time. His complex critical tapestry is what is required to do justice to Melville’s own complexity and the double focus of his hermeneutical project—a project which wishes to address the present, Melville’s and ours, while contemplating what past wisdom has to offer. Truly, we must still learn that there is nothing new under the sun.

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Caroline Hildebrandt, « Damien Schlarb, Melville’s Wisdom: Religion, Skepticism and Literature in Nineteenth-Century America »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2022, consulté le 14 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Caroline Hildebrandt

ENS de Lyon

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