Herman Melville’s bitter visit to Jerusalem

It was 1856 and the American writer Herman Melville was going through one of his periods of depression: his books were not selling as well as he expected and he complained of headaches. The solution? Advised by his wife (some point to his father-in-law), Moby-Dick’s “father” went on a trip to Europe and the Middle East, a journey that included a bitter visit to Jerusalem

Surprisingly, one of the books that was not having acceptance at that time was nothing less than the novel about the white whale, which would later become one of the great works of universal literature.

Melville had had great critical and sales successes with “Typee” (1846), which he published when he was just 26, and its sequel, “Omoo” (1847), but since then his career has been in and out.

By 1856, Herman was no longer the young adventurer of the seas who had translated his own experiences into successful books and had practically decided to stop writing.

In an essay on this journey, journalist Jeff Wheelwright recounts that it was his father-in-law, the renowned jurist Lemuel Shaw, father of his wife, Lizzie, who “proposed and largely financed” the writer’s trip because “he cared, along with everyone in the family, for Herman’s physical and mental health.”

In addition to beautiful countries such as Greece and Italy, the journey included a stage in what was then Ottoman-controlled Palestine, with stops in Jerusalem and other cities with a strong biblical content, such as Jericho and Bethlehem.

It was not a random choice: for Melville, whose spirit was in a moment of tribulation due to the failure of “Moby-Dick”, it was a question of putting to the test his ideas marked by fire by the influence of his Christian father and, more than anything, his Calvinist mother.

“While the slant and depth of his religious convictions have long been debated, no critic doubts that Melville was obsessed with the implications of religion,” Wheelwright notes.

Thus, he continues, “Athens, Rome, and the other places on his to-do list” during his trip “were all very good, but Palestine was where the writer intended to test his understanding of faith in the landscape where Judeo-Christianity had emerged.

After leaving the United States on October 11, 1856, Melville -who had turned 37 years old a few weeks before- disembarked in Glasgow and from there went to Liverpool, where his great friend and mentor Nathaniel Hawthorne was serving as American consul.

(Hawthorne was aware of his friend’s state of mind after the flop of “Moby-Dick.” In 1851, Herman had written to him in a letter: “what’s the use of trying so hard on something as ephemeral as it is, for your sake? own essence, a modern book? Even if I wrote the Gospels in this century, I would die in misery.”).

A Jerusalem of “dust and flies”

After seeing his friend in England, Melville sailed for the Mediterranean. After passing through the Greek islands, he explored Constantinople for a few days, which in those years was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, “and was greatly stimulated – says Wheelwright – by the mosques, fortifications, esplanades and barges” of what is today Istanbul .

Alexandria, in Egypt, was his first contact with the Middle East proper. The pyramids, Wheelwright continues, moved the American writer, who left some confusing entries in his diary about what, in his opinion, would be the origin of the monuments.

When he finally reached Jerusalem, Melville was – unlike the pyramids – little in awe. If he had not known beforehand that it was the famous city, “I might not have recognized it: it looked exactly like barren rocks,” he noted in his diary.

Melville, stated American author David Sugarman, “hoped for a place that felt closer to God than New York City or Massachusetts, a place of high sentiment and spirituality.”

Instead, Sugarman speculated in an article published in the American Jewish newspaper Tablet, the creator of “Moby-Dick” found “dust and flies” in Jerusalem.

(“To be fair,” says Sugarman, Jerusalem wasn’t much of a thing in the 1850s. Accounts from that time describe it as having “little infrastructure, terrible corruption, a lack of hospitals, and an absence of social services and order.”)

Several entries in Melville’s journal indicate disappointment and disgust: “the color of the whole city is gray” and Jerusalem “looks at you like a cold gray eye of a cold old man,” the travel journal reads. Then he wondered: could “the desolation of the earth be the result of the fatal embrace” of God?

Evidently, Melville was not in the mood to appreciate his Biblical tour, the visit to the places that for Calvinists like his mother were the scene of the sacred scriptures, the only sources of religious authority from which the doctrine derives.

Wheelwright recalls that Melville traveled to the Middle East at a time when interest in the Holy Land had dramatically reawakened among many intellectuals, including travelers such as Mark Twain, the young Teddy Roosevelt, Chateaubriand, Thackeray, Flaubert and Gogol.

“This was not a joyride,” Wheelwright’s article says. Though poor, sandy, and virtually lawless, “The Holy Land guaranteed an adventure.”

Melville did not register that shock, limiting himself to the bitter entries in his diary. However, two decades later, in 1876, he published an epic poem entitled “Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land” in which, through a fictional character, he reviewed his religious dilemmas.

Possibly the longest poem in American literature at nearly 18,000 lines (it’s longer than “The Iliad,” for example), “Clarel” tells the story of a young seminarian with the same name as the book’s title and whose faith is faltering. .

He arrives in Jerusalem, “wanders among the holy places,” summarizes Wheelwright, makes friends with three other Americans and an Englishman, and Clarel falls in love with an American girl, Ruth, “whose Puritan father has converted to Judaism and transferred to the family to Palestine.

It is a work that “is not for everyone,” says the columnist. As they wander through the desert, the characters “discuss and question, in no particular order, reason and faith, the twists and turns in the evolution of monotheism” and God’s tolerance of human suffering.

“Clarel” was released without shame or glory in the United States. Melville enjoyed a last gasp of popularity in England thanks to a revival of his novels, and published two more volumes of poetry (“John Marr and Other Sailors,” 1888, and “Timoleon,” 1891, based on his experiences on the ship). sea).

On September 28, 1891, he died in New York of heart disease and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, accompanied by very few obituaries in the newspapers.

His trip to Jerusalem and the biblical cities would remain as a footnote, as a curiosity when Melville’s stature grew hand in hand with the prodigious revaluation of “Moby-Dick”.

In Jerusalem, Melville confronted his own theology, the mixture of his father’s and mother’s Calvinist and Christian teachings. In the Holy Land he explored his problems in accepting or rejecting the inherited Christian doctrine while he absorbed the prevailing Darwinism of those years.

Or it will simply have been a “negative” case of the Jerusalem Syndrome, the particular mystical attack or psychosis outbreak that affects so many tourists who are overwhelmed by the historical and spiritual weight of the region.

Originally posted on IsraelEconomico (https://www.israeleconomico.com/cultura/la-amarga-visita-a-jerusalen-del-padre-de-moby-dick/).

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Herman Melville’s bitter visit to Jerusalem