Robert K. Wallace’s Douglass and Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style

The “style” in the subtitle of Robert K. Wallace’s Douglass and Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style refers to a line from Herman Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno.” Melville writes of a couple of ships have just come to shore: “To be brief, the two vessels, thanks to the pilot’s skill, ere long in neighborly style lay anchored together.” Wallace explores a proximity between Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass not unlike that of the ships. Early in their public lives, the men lived not far from each other in three cities: New Bedford, Albany and New York.

Did they ever meet? There is no evidence they did. But Wallace sets out to show that the men knew each other’s work. The thesis is simple to prove when it comes to Douglass’s awareness of Melville. In his newspaper the North Star, Douglass published a portion of Melville’s book Typee. Also included in the paper in the 1850s were references to both Melville’s novel Moby Dick and his novella “Israel Potter.”

It is harder to show Melville’s knowledge of Douglass’s speeches and writings. Wallace tries with a detailed, clear analysis of the men’s work. Looking at Douglass’s famous lecture about “Self-Help” alongside Moby Dick, Wallace suggests the former profoundly influenced the latter. Douglass gave his lecture in New York in 1849 when Melville was living in the City too. The day after Douglass gave the speech, a local paper, the Herald, quoted some of his words: “Colored people are now beginning to exercise their gifts. They are now in a position to be heard. But we have no organization among ourselves, in the Ishmaelitish situation in which we are.” Did this reference to Ishmael, the outcast son of Abraham, later shape both the name and perspective of the narrator of Moby Dick? Wallace thinks so: “When Melville’s narrator invites his reader to ‘Call me Ishmael,’ he identifies with Douglass and other black Americans in the ‘Ishmaelitish situation’ while also declaring his own separation from the mainstream white American culture.”

The fictional Ishmael may have lived apart from this culture while on a racially integrated ship; Melville, however, was caught in the mechanics of white supremacy. His father-in-law, Chef Justice Shaw in Massachusetts, enforced the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The law directly threatened ex-slaves like Frederick Douglass by sending them back south. To get beyond the reach of the law, Douglass had to purchase his own freedom with money from friends in England.

Still Melville, in spite of his morally compromised position, managed to address a black readership in his time. Wallace, a Melville scholar, makes some of his most interesting points when discussing how the author accomplished this task. Wallace says Melville developed “a double vision” that allowed him to talk to white and black audiences at the same time. Wallace further explains: “Melville symbolizes his own double vision in ‘The Sperm Whale’s Head’ in Moby Dick, imploring his reader to develop the imaginative equivalent of the whale’s optical ability to see in ‘exactly opposite directions’ in one combining act of vision.”

To expand upon this idea: in “Benito Cereno,” a story about a slave insurrection, this double vision comes together like two ships moving into shore. They arrive with different crews, navigated separately, but come together, “thanks to the pilot’s skill.” Melville, writing with his unique sense of mystery, gives the vessels one pilot, like a lowercase god.

Originally posted on 10.29.2008