DENNIS BERTHOLD American Risorgimento: Herman Melville and the Cultural Politics of Italy Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2009. 291 pages.
Article first published online: 27 MAR 2012
© 2012 The Melville Society and Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Volume 14, Issue 1, pages 50–56, March 2012
How to Cite
Poole, G. M. (2012), DENNIS BERTHOLD American Risorgimento: Herman Melville and the Cultural Politics of Italy Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2009. 291 pages. Leviathan, 14: 50–56. doi: 10.1111/j.1750-1849.2011.01514.x
- Issue published online: 27 MAR 2012
- Article first published online: 27 MAR 2012
In 1986, William Shurr noted that Melville's “affection for Italian culture” was “a subject so far untouched by scholarly inquiry” (“Melville's Poems” 369). Dennis Berthold has explicitly taken up the challenge (American Risorgimento 16). A disarmingly modest scholar, Berthold explains that he needed to develop a transnational perspective as he worked on American Risorgimento, finding himself continually challenged to deepen and broaden his studies beyond what he could have imagined at the outset. He pointedly avoids the dangers of transculturalism, realizing that interaction with other cultures entails a recognition and critique of imperial designs. He confesses his need to rely on the aid of Italian-speaking colleagues who summarize texts for him. Berthold treats his research and writing as a personal learning experience, develops a method as he moves along, and relies gratefully on the help of a long list of colleagues, not only in the usual sense of their furnishing references or making minor corrections but also because they teach him things he did not know. Berthold's humility, a sort of docta ignorantia, put this reader in a positively open attitude toward the book. I was encouraged to engage with his work as a voyage of discovery, to let him share with me what he had learned along the way, as he developed his thesis that Melville is an exemplary nineteenth-century author for transnational studies and that Italian culture, politics, and history had a decisive influence on his thinking and writing.
Berthold's copious reading in critical and literary texts fully documents his subject matter, which is not the Italian Risorgimento but America's Risorgimento and the phases of Melville's changing attitudes toward Italy and American politics. To give an example, the Divine Comedy that interests Berthold is not Dante's Italian original but Cary's translation, rife with explanatory notes. Melville, attentive reader that he was, abundantly annotated his copy. In Berthold's words, Melville “established … dialogic relationship with Cary's Dante, as he did with many other authors, and thereby involved his works in a conversation at once global, historical, classical, and politically contemporary” (American Risorgimento 77).
In Chapter 3, the sub-section “The Risorgimento Context of Moby-Dick,” in particular the sub-sub-section colorfully titled “The Vesuvian Inkstand: Moby-Dick's Semiotics of Italy,” marks a bold break with the prudent scholarship and textual philology of the previous pages. Berthold's reading of Melville's major work is daringly metaphorical. Up to this point, Berthold's Melville had been seen in all his ambivalence, his struggle with faith and doubt, the effort to find a viable common ground between the Rights of Man and the need for authority, to reconcile the opposing concepts of “public” and “people.” When it comes to Ahab though, Berthold cuts the Gordian knot: Ahab is a “counterrevolutionary” (American Risorgimento 123) and an antirevolutionary (124), who uses popish ritual to dominate the crew. Berthold later contrasts “revolutionary Ahab” with “conservative Jack Gentian” (252), but the inconsistency is more apparent than real: Ahab is antirevolutionary toward the crew but something of a revolutionary when he seeks to “strike through the mask.” In Starbuck's words, he is “a democrat to all above” but “look, how he lords it over all below!” (NN MD 169).
That Ahab is a “tyrant” (American Risorgimento 124) is the axiomatic point of departure for Berthold's dazzling excursus on Moby-Dick, its politics, and the proliferation of Italian references, explicit or suggested, that invest the romance with meanings. This interpretation is both original and debatable. Certainly, readers who see Ahab as a political radical are going to be at odds with Berthold's reading. Still, these pages are for me a high point of the book. They send me back to Moby-Dick with a changed mindset, not convinced that Berthold has got it just right (after all, did not Ahab, in the last moments, order the red flag of radical republicanism to be nailed to the top of the mainmast?), but provoked to rethink the book, Ahab, and the whale with his urgings at my back.
The similarities between Ahab and Moby Dick—“I leave a white and turbid wake,” the captain declares (NN MD 167)—serve to heighten their opposition: if Ahab's rage “drives him to challenge natural order,” whales “live within history to combine strength with elasticity, masculinity with femininity, power with gentleness” (American Risorgimento 128). In his own way, the whale is no less a mixture of contradictions than Ahab. I would add, though, that if Ahab runs on rails toward his fate, Moby Dick too, although a creature of nature, is predictable, due to effect a second coming at a given time and place, the Season on the Line. Berthold sees the mark of Italy on the whale no less than on Ahab, who metaphorically bears the weighty crown of Lombardy. In a way that I find at once arbitrary and intriguing, Berthold feels that “the whale, with its many-layered Roman tail, moves through a universe of contraries as does The Divine Comedy, capable of smashing whaleboats and gently feeling a sailor's whisker, of raging in seas of bloody foam or paradisiacal circles of calm (as in ‘The Grand Armada’)” (128).
Dante's Comedy certainly is present in Moby-Dick. Berthold rightly points to Dantean imagery in the “paradisiacal circles of calm,” that magic moment in “The Grand Armada” when the beguiled whalers contemplate concentric circles of whales at rest and at play. Italian readers of Moby-Dick, in my experience, readily make the connection, especially to Cantos 25 and 33 of Paradiso, a connection confirmed by the Dante scholar Piero Boitani in a significant essay titled “Moby-Dante?” Another borrowing worthy of mention would have been from the Ulysses episode in Canto 25 of the Inferno: like Ahab, Dante's Ulysses uses his rhetorical arts—nothing flamboyant like Ahab's show, just an orazion picciola—to convince his crew to follow him in a mad, forbidden quest beyond the Pillars of Hercules, and they all similarly end up being swallowed by a God-sent whirlpool. No Italian reader of Moby-Dick would fail to make this association. There is actually an Italian saying, “Fare un buco nell’acqua” (make a hole in the water) to indicate a futile undertaking. Vittorio Gassman's 1992 theatrical piece Ulisse e la balena bianca (“Ulysses and the White Whale”) is only one such work that treats the theme.
No less challenging is Berthold's assertive judgment on Isabel in Pierre: “As Melville's first full-scale representative of Medusa, Isabel is at once victim and victimizer, attractive and repulsive, paradisiacal and infernal, mythic and real, a chaotic representative of the alluring dangers of revolution itself” (American Risorgimento 135). Intuitive and metaphorical rather than, say, philological, a reading like this fascinates me and, again, sends me back to the novel with the suspicion that I have been missing something and the desire to learn. Berthold's idea is that Pierre, unlike Melville, has read too little of the Divine Comedy: he has not gotten beyond Inferno and has failed to understand Dante's message of redemption and salvation. Pierre's ethical, moral, and theological unreliability invests the romance with irony, a condemnation of the main protagonist. Here Berthold is on solid ground. Pierre's dramatic, explicit confrontation with Dante (and with Shakespeare's Hamlet) is crucial to an understanding of his existential dilemma and, above all, his ideological confusion: “‘No, I will not open Flaxman's Dante! Damned be the hour I read in Dante! more damned than that wherein Paolo and Francesca read in fatal Launcelot!’” (NN Pierre 42; qtd. in American Risorgimento 137).
Berthold's sources for the history of Italian unification evidently suggest the negative effects of imposing the Piemontese civil code on the South, where it provoked the so-called “Brigand Wars” of 1861–1865. Certainly of no less importance were the economic policies of a state-financed industrial capitalism of the North, so disastrous for the South and Mezzogiorno (Daniele and Malanima). The Naples arsenal was dismantled and shipped to the North, and a new tax and tariff system squeezed capital out of the South to be invested in Northern companies, a change Melville alludes to in “Naples in the Time of Bomba,” mentioning the new tyranny of “despotic Biz” (50, l. 174). Again, through the Italian experience, Melville was reflecting critically on the causes, policies, and consequences of the American Civil War and Reconstruction. The “Brigand Wars” were a form of popular, anti-capitalist resistance in the former Kingdom of Naples, mainly a peasant-based movement, furnished with arms and money by Bourbon refugees, including the deposed King Francis and high-ranking officials, especially General Tommaso Clary as bursar in the Vatican. The Southern peasants had not read Marx, but they well knew from long experience, going back to the short-lived Parthenopean Republic of 1799, that they had everything to lose under bourgeois rule. If similar “Brigand Wars” were avoided after the American Civil War, much of the merit goes to General Robert E. Lee's prudent surrender at Appomatox and above all to his urgings against guerrilla warfare, an eventuality feared by the North. Groups had already formed, some of which, like Jesse James and his followers, turned to banditry.
Melville's conservative turn, after his disaffection with Young America, coincides, Berthold argues, with the increasing presence of Machiavellian concepts, even paraphrases, in his works. For this part of his discussion, Berthold focuses on several shorter works, especially “I and My Chimney,”“Cock-A-Doodle-Doo,”“The Bell-Tower,” Melville's satire of revolution in “Charles’ Isle and the Dog-King,” and other sketches in The Encantadas. One important touchstone here is Melville's opinion, critical to the point of scorn, of Kossuth, the Hungarian liberal revolutionary, whose tour of the United States in 1852 was spectacular, in both senses of the term. Berthold sums up the point Melville had reached in the evolution of his political attitudes, as follows: “By 1855 his short stories had dismantled this view [that ‘political republics should be the asylum for the persecuted of all nations’] with a transnational vision that condemns both monarchies and republics for their inability to construct a humane and democratic social order” that would successfully combine “order and freedom”(American Risorgimento 157).
Berthold's ideological concurrence with Machiavellianism (American Risorgimento 163–64), including the occasional need for guile and ruthlessness, leads him to a critically innovative interpretation of Israel Potter that not all readers will accept. Melville's Benjamin Franklin is not interpreted as a revisionist debunking of an American cultural icon but as the Machiavellian fox, or evangelical serpent, whose duplicity is functional to a greater good, that of American republican statehood. Berthold has no difficulty in showing, with a telling quotation, that for Melville, Franklin is like that no less shrewd schemer, the biblical Jacob, who cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright, gifted with “deep worldly wisdom and polished Italian tact … a tanned Machiavelli in tents” (NN IP 46). But one wonders, as one is often moved to do with Melville, to what degree this approval of Franklin's “touch of primeval orientalness” (46) might be conditioned by irony. If deception is in Franklin's political arsenal, as when he sends poor Israel on risky missions that end up costing him his freedom, it also seems to be a character trait, as when he cons Israel out of a bottle of wine, an act that did not especially benefit the new republic. And one wonders what the old fox was up to in preparing “a shuttle-cock of an original scientific construction” for the Duchess D’Abrantes (65).
Likewise, John Paul Jones is Machiavellian. He allegedly flogs a sailor, Mungo Maxwell, to death (one cannot help recalling Melville's aversion to shipboard flogging) and razes his hometown. Somewhat cryptically, Berthold comments: “Nevertheless, [Jones] is crucial to American nationhood” (American Risorgimento 164). For Jones to be coherently Machiavellian, these acts would have to be shown to be functional to the cause, and not, as they seem, merely ruthless. The Machiavellian example Berthold recalls in support of his reading is Cesare Borgia's treacherous assassination of four allies at Sinigaglia, of which Machiavelli approved as necessary to avoid further war. But was this Melville's idea as well? In “At the Hostelry,” one of the painters, the splenetic Spagnoletto, clearly in the realist camp, refers to the Sinigaglia episode with outrage, seemingly with Melville's ethical agreement. Be that as it may, there is no gainsaying the Italian cast Melville gives to the fight between Jones's Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis, well brought out by Berthold, to the point where the battle metaphorically links the American war of independence with the Italian revolutions.
Apart from “Naples in the Time of Bomba” and passages in “At the Hostelry,” where the concern with Italian politics is explicit (with implications for the drift in America toward a dis-United States), one wonders what if any political implications may lurk behind some of the other “Italian” lyrics. Berthold offers a political reading of “In a Bye-Canal” that may not convince all readers: the “‘loveliest eyes of scintillation’” that the narrator spies, and spy on him, through a lattice, partake—in Berthold's interpretation—“of the unwholesome spying Melville experienced in the Austrian-dominated city” (American Risorgimento 191). “Pisa's Leaning Tower” and “In a Church of Padua” suggest similarly political readings.
In a well-articulated chapter on Clarel, Berthold argues for the centrality of one of the two Italian characters in the poem, the hunchback Celio (the other is the gullible Franciscan, Salvaterra), towards whom Clarel feels a warm attraction. Celio's “Italian turn of thought” and skepticism make him a supporter of a Cavourian rather than a Garibaldian Risorgimento, a “pragmatic blend of revolutionary idealism and monarchical authority in order to achieve national unity, however tenuous” (American Risorgimento 234, 249) that was reflective of Melville's own ideological position at the time.
Four mistakes should be noted. Pizzo, commonly known as Pizzo Calabro, where Gioachino Murat was executed by a firing squad, is not “near Naples” (American Risorgimento 38) but 286 kilometers away. Although Melville's steamer from Messina to Naples made a stop there, there is no indication in his Journal that he “visited the site of Murat's execution,” which took place in the castle high on the hill. In De Vulgare Eloquentia Dante does not distinguish “Italian dialects by the way they pronounce sì” (76); he distinguishes Italian, Provencal, and French by how they say “yes”: sì, hoc, and oil (mod. Fr. oui), respectively. Finally Andrea Ciccarelli, cited on page 66, is a male, a professor at Indiana University.
American Risorgimento is a major critical study of Melville's intellectual formation, attentive to the evolution of his positions over time. Berthold has effectually taken up the challenge William Shurr launched, producing a nuanced, sharply argued, richly documented, and elegantly expressed account of Melville's fascination with Italian culture and the ongoing influence of Italian events on the political history of the United States.
- “Moby-Dante?” In Dante for the New Millennium. Ed. Teodolinda Barolini and H. Wayne Storey. New York : Fordham UP, 2003. 435–50. .
- “Il prodotto delle regioni e il divario Nord-Sud in Italia (1861–2004). Rivista di Politica Economica 3–4 (March-April 2007): 266–315. and .
- “At the Hostelry” and “Naples in the Time of Bomba.” Ed. Gordon Poole. Naples : Istituto Universitario Orientale, 1989. .
- Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston and Chicago : Northwestern UP and the Newberry Library, 1982; cited in the text as NN IP. .
- Moby-Dick or the Whale. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston and Chicago : Northwestern UP and the Newberry Library, 1988; cited in the text as NN MD. .
- Pierre or The Ambiguities. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston and Chicago : Northwestern UP and the Newberry Library, 1968; cited in the text as NN Pierre. .
- “Melville's Poems: The Late Agenda.” In A Companion to Melville Studies. Ed. John Bryant. New York : Greenwood Press, 1986. 351–74.