For a full account of American interest in Garibaldi and the Risorgimento, see Berthold, American Risorgimento, esp. 175–226.
Article first published online: 27 MAR 2012
© 2012 The Melville Society and Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Volume 14, Issue 1, pages 67–80, March 2012
How to Cite
BERTHOLD, D. (2012), Exceptional Rome. Leviathan, 14: 67–80. doi: 10.1111/j.1750-1849.2011.01545.x
- Issue published online: 27 MAR 2012
- Article first published online: 27 MAR 2012
[I] brave even the imputation of making a mere Rome of words, talking of a Rome of my own which was no Rome of reality. That comes up as exactly the point—that no Rome of reality was concerned in our experience, that the whole thing was a rare state of the imagination.
Henry James, William Wetmore Story and His Friends (2:209)
As a longtime member of the Melville Society, I am honored to participate as a keynote speaker at this astonishingly well-attended conference. I want to thank the organizing committee of John Bryant, Giorgio Mariani, and Gordon Poole for selecting me, and I want to offer a special thanks to our tireless treasurer, Tony McGowan, whose meticulous stewardship and unlimited patience have made the conference economically feasible. Giorgio has been especially tireless in communicating with me by email, and I thank him for staying in touch over the preceding months; but I also have to confess to some concern that arose when he sent what seemed to me a rather urgent request about my title. I had given him the title “Exceptional Rome” some time ago, hoping to stimulate curiosity with a pithy phrase sure to print itself indelibly on the memory. Rome, the Eternal City, the capital of what Melville called the “New Italy,” the linchpin of western civilization, the home of classic architecture, civic virtue, and, most recently, Bunga Bunga. Surely the resonance of “Rome” was enough to make my title memorable. Unfortunately, Giorgio somehow forgot it. So much for the poetics of paper titles. But his question created anxiety that I had been too brief, even somewhat cryptic. So bear with me while I share with you the sights and places I was thinking about when I called this address “Exceptional Rome.”
One such place is a small town in the heartland of the United States: Rome, Illinois. A village of about 2000 people, Rome sits on the Illinois River a few miles north of Peoria, and has changed little in the last century, illustrating the timelessness we associate with all things Roman. Another Rome is dear to my heart because it's not far from where I earned my doctorate at the University of Wisconsin, an exceptional period in every academic's life. Wisconsin was settled largely by German exiles from the revolutions of 1848, and they brought with them a Teutonic sense of humor by naming the local dog park “Room to Roam.” These two Romes are probably new even to the Americans in the audience, but most of them will have heard of Rome, Georgia, an historic town founded in 1835 and home to several colleges. This Rome, like its namesake, has provided the location for many movies, most famously Sweet Home Alabama (2002), Remember the Titans (2000), and Dance of the Dead (2008), an independent zombie comedy. Located at the southwestern tip of the Appalachian mountain chain, Rome, Georgia earned its name honestly, for it is located on seven hills, one of the many similarities to its namesake that motivated Benito Mussolini to donate a reproduction of the Capitoline wolf suckling Romulus and Remus in 1919, where it sits on a block of white Georgia marble in front of Rome's city hall “as a forecast of prosperity and glory.”
Not all American Romes are quite as exceptional as these. Some are rather lonely, isolated places, little more than roadsigns, like the tiny communities in Ohio, Mississippi, and Oregon that one can drive through in seconds. A few are not on any maps at all, like Queequeg's Kokovoko. Obviously, I cannot describe those places, true places though they may be. Rome, Oregon, perhaps the farthest west of any Rome in the world, took its name from a nearby natural wonder, the “Pillars of Rome” near the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon. Early settlers thought that nearby fossil-bearing clay cliffs bore an uncanny resemblance to a ruined Roman temple. It is not on record which temple they had in mind. Finally, I would be remiss not to include the most linguistically correct Rome in the U.S., the town of Roma on the Mexican border in my own state of Texas. Roma is the oldest Rome in the U.S., having been founded in 1785 by the Spanish. Unfortunately, it was on the wrong side of the Rio Grande and became an American Roma after the Mexican War. The American government has honored the city by declaring its entire downtown a National Historic Landmark.
All of these American Romes as well as others in Iowa, Indiana, Alabama, Maine, Pennsylvania, and New York contribute to a grand total of twelve Romes and one Roma. I am not counting the towns of Romulus in Alabama, Michigan, and New York, nor the American lakes and ponds and crossroads that bear the name of Rome. I do not know if the U.S. has the most “Romes”—Germany has a large share of the 500 Romes worldwide—but most of those places were once part of the Roman empire, and have historic, geographic, and in some cases linguistic associations with Italy's Rome. Nor do they make the claim to “newness” so essential to American national identity. In all fairness, I must confess that many other European cities have their counterparts in the U.S. There are eighteen U.S. cities named Athens, fourteen named Paris, and another fourteen named Berlin. It will give Irish nationalists comfort to know that the U.S. has ten towns named Dublin and only six named London—but there are nine Bostons to compensate. And I must take some regional pride in noting that my home state of Texas has one city named after each of these places, so you can visit Paris, Roma, Boston, Athens, Dublin, and London without ever leaving the Lone Star State. Who said Texas is not cosmopolitan?
At one level this is game-playing, a product of the ready accessibility of databases and websites on the internet. But this geography lesson is meant to raise a question: if America is so new, so distinctive, so exceptional, why can it not come up with more original names for its cities? Why are there so many Romes, or Parees, or Athenses, or any other city from what Donald Rumsfeld scornfully called “the Old Europe”? Why did those early citizens, trekking west from New England and south from Virginia reinstantiate Rome again and again as they moved into the Ohio River Valley, the rich flatlands of the Old Southwest, and eventually as far as the arid soils of eastern Oregon? Were they, like Whitman's “friendly and flowing savage” in “Song of Myself,”“waiting for civilization, or past it and mastering it?” (Whitman, Complete Poetry and Collected Prose 231).
This question, I believe, is at the heart of Melville's writings, a question of American identity in a country postioned between the civilizations of Europe and the ever-moving frontier of the North American wilderness. From his declaration in Typee that “the white civilized man [is] the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth” (NN Typee 125) to his portrait of the instinctively moral yet deeply asocial Handsome Sailor, Billy Budd, Melville interrogates the relationship between nature and civilization, and does so against an increasing regard for the example of Rome. With the lone exception of John Marr and Other Sailors, every one of Melville's books uses the words “Rome” or “Roman” at least once, and the number grows from five in his first three novels to over twenty-five in the next three. The frequency reaches its apogee in Clarel, where I count seventy-nine instances of the two words. This way of measuring Melville's obsession is crude, I know, but if you combine it with all of his allusions to Roman myth, history, politics, emperors, architecture, battles, statuary, and many other such referents, you could grow so weary that, like Ishmael in the first chapter of Moby-Dick, you might consider emulating Cato and fall upon your sword. Or perhaps you would listen to the honeyed words of Cicero, whose bust decorates the law office of the attorney in “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and deem the easiest way of life to be the best; or the Ahabians among you would prove your mettle by giving “bid for bid with the wealthiest Praetorians at the auction of the Roman empire” (NN MD 472). If all roads lead to Rome, whether in Italy or Indiana, so, too, do all Melville novels and stories, an ample justification for this conference and the transatlantic linkages we will eagerly construct over the next few days.
America's multiple Romes, most of them founded and named before the Civil War, spring from the dichotomous impulse to understand the U.S. as simultaneously connected to its European past and yet, like Billy Budd, somehow fresh and innocent, an orphan with enormous potential both to attract and to destroy. Insofar as nations are imagined communities, their place names expose their national fantasies, even when they are not consciously acknowledged. Melville's matrix of Roman allusions demonstrates how much he pondered the identity between America and Rome, and how the comparison of the two led him to a critique of each one's claim to exceptional status.
Since we will be hearing plenty about Rome in other papers, I want to focus now on the first word of my title—“exceptional”—and its related term, “exceptionalism.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word did not enter the language until 1846. Its root, “exception,” carried no demonstrably positive or negative connotations, and simply meant different or unusual. For example, the common phrase “I’ll make an exception for you” could be either favorable or ironic, depending on the tone of voice. In its adjectival form, however, “exceptional” quickly came to mean “special” or “valuable,” and for over a century this connotation has prevailed, as in the phrase “Melville and Rome is an exceptional topic.” It has taken on significant literary and political weight in the last thirty years, roughly since the 1980s, and was given nominative form in the much-debated term “exceptionalism.” Not until 1993 did the OED accept this form of the word into its lexicon, where it is defined as “the theory that the peaceful capitalism of the United States constitutes an exception to the general economic laws governing national historical development, especially to the Marxist law of the inevitability of violent class warfare.” This particular sense of the word was coined in 1929 in an article in the Daily Worker, the official newspaper of the American Communist Party, in a debate between Jay Lovestone and the paper's editors. (I wonder how many of today's advocates of American exceptionalism know that their favorite word was coined by a Communist.) Lovestone lost the debate and was drummed out of the Party, but the word has been infatuating academics for the last twenty years both in its particular application to the United States and, more generally, in its positive connotations of what the OED calls in a second definition, “loosely, exceptional quality or character,” a circular definition if ever there was one. Certainly Rome must be exceptional to have seduced so many American pioneers to name their villages and cities after it; or were they trying to speed up the process of turning nature into civilization by conferring Roman values on their own meager western outposts? And if so, were these values positive or negative? Republican or Imperial? Authoritarian or revolutionary? Caesar or Brutus?
The roots of a specifically American exceptionalism are not hard to find. They originate in John Winthrop's warning to the Puritan passengers aboard the Arbella that their New England community “shall be as a city on a hill,” a phrase taken from Matthew 5:14, “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” Such a visible position, Winthrop argues, demands the utmost piety and highest standards of devotion to God if New England is to become, as the title of his sermon advises, “A Model of Christian Charity” to other countries. Otherwise, he fears, “we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world” and “be consumed out of the good land whither we are agoing” and, presumably, returned to England. Such consequences are a far cry from being “the light of the world,” a self-serving phrase that Winthrop elides from his allusion. As a comparatively mild jeremiad, Winthrop's sermon was both cautionary and encouraging, and by using this metaphor from Christ's Sermon on the Mount, Winthrop leavens his many admonitions from the Old Testament with the optimism and hope of the New Testament. Although Jesus was probably referring to Jerusalem, Winthrop's allusion came to mean Boston, and by the time of the American Revolution the somewhat more cosmopolitan and enlightened founders of the new nation cited Rome as their model city on a hill. According to Eran Shalev in Rome Reborn on Western Shores, one ardent revolutionary, Joseph Warren, actually gave the annual Boston Massacre oration dressed in a toga (119). Shalev finds hundreds of examples of early patriots identifying their cause with republican Rome's, most obviously by publishing their opinions under such pseudonyms as Cassius, Cincinnatus, Brutus, or Caesar, creating a new oratorical voice that Shalev playfully calls “Cato Americanus” (151).
Clearly, the Romanization of Winthrop's “city on a hill” had begun, giving it secular and transnational connotations divorced from its biblical and New England origins. In the late twentieth century, Winthrop's phrase took on new life in American politics. Ronald Reagan used it as the title of a famous speech in 1974 and inserted it in speeches throughout his career, often revising it to “shining city on a hill” in order to incorporate the imagery of light that Winthrop so carefully excluded. By repeating this amplified version of the phrase in his optimistic, America-first oratory, Reagan altered Winthrop's words from a warning against impiety into a celebration of uniqueness, especially when he coupled it with the claim that America was humanity's “last best hope on earth” (“We Will Be a City Upon a Hill”). Such overblown rhetoric has become so commonplace in American politics that few batted an eye when George W. Bush baldly stated in 2000, “our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world of justice and inclusion and diversity without division,” a blatant assertion of American exceptionalism and divine right (“The Nation; A Sampler”). Winthrop's caution against pride and self-satisfaction becomes, in the rhetoric of Reagan and Bush, an example of both.
A second, but secular, point of origin of American exceptionalism occurs, ironically, in a foreign language. In his influential 1829 analysis of American prospects, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that “the position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one” (“The Example of the Americans Does Not Prove That a Democratic People Can Have No Aptitude and No Taste for Science, Literature, or Art; Volume II, Section 1, ch. 9, np). Scholars repeatedly cite Tocqueville as the godfather of American exceptionalism. But as so often happens, his context is usually ignored. The “position” Tocqueville describes is more like Winthrop's jeremiad than Reagan's triumphalism; it is, in fact, closer to the Daily Worker's confession that particular social conditions in America make it exceptional. Tocqueville argues that America is exceptional not for some imagined divine mission to redeem the world, which even Winthrop shied away from, but for its lack of interest in art, belle-lettres, and theoretical science. Europeans blamed this apparent anti-intellectualism on democracy, but Tocqueville considered it a result of America's reliance on Europe, particularly England. By drawing on the mother country's centuries-old store of art, science, and literature—not to mention its very language—Americans were free to focus on agriculture, trade, and commerce. “I cannot,” Tocqueville concludes, “consent to separate America from Europe, in spite of the ocean which intervenes.” Like those early revolutionaries who modeled themselves on Cato and Caesar debating political theory in the forum, Americans were, in Tocqueville's formulation, dependent on European civilization, not “past it and mastering it,” as Whitman implied.
Winthrop, America's founders, and Tocqueville, in other words, all considered America exceptional in relation to other countries, placing the new country in a transnational arena of comparison that grants each nation peculiar traits that make it, in its own way, exceptional, and yet dependent on other nations. This is the transnationality that inspired so many Americans to call their cities Rome, Paris, Athens, or Dublin, none of them prefixed by the word “New.” They sought identity through history and community, maintaining their links with Europe even as they forged new communities in the west. What helped make America exceptional was not its difference from Europe but its connection to and even reliance on Europe, just as Tocqueville argued. Europeans seem to understand this relationship better than Americans. In a collection of essays analyzing American exceptionalism, German scholar Hans Guggisberg states the matter concisely: “As an agent of national identity and as an incentive to the writing of national history, American exceptionalism is problematic in many ways, but it is in itself not exceptional” (Guggisberg, “American Exceptionalism” 276). Nationalism and exceptionalism go hand in hand, and both are, as it were, in the public domain.
In current U.S. politics exceptionalism has become a litmus test of patriotism, religious faith, and political vision, a controversy sparked by President Barack Obama's answer to a question posed by a French journalist in Strasbourg in 2009. When asked if he believed in American exceptionalism, Obama replied more like Tocqueville than Reagan: “I believe in American exceptionalism,” he said, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism” (quoted in Chait, “The Exceptionalism Myth” np). Heresy! Of course, Obama's foes have attacked this statement as unpatriotic. In a recent article in The American Spectator, Herman Cain, a former candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, wrote that “unfortunately, some politicians have either forgotten or chosen to ignore the glory of our founding” (Cain, “In Defense of American Exceptionalism” np). Last April, Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin—not Rome, Wisconsin, I daresay—affirmed the importance of exceptionalism as a core American belief that applies to all people, everywhere, a belief rooted in “the truth that all human beings are created equal” (quoted in Goodman, “Contentions” np). America promotes an idea, Ryan explains, not its history or its culture. By ignoring history, Ryan conveniently elides slavery, gender inequity, racial discrimination, and the trail of broken treaties with Native Americans that denied equality to a majority of Americans for nearly 150 years. As I like to remind my students, twelve of America's first eighteen presidents owned slaves, a far cry from inclusive equality, and Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that “all men are created equal,” did not bother to free his slaves at his death. The hypocrisy that Winthrop warned against seems one of the most exceptional characteristics of early American politics, and it continues today in debates about immigration, voting rights, taxation, and military adventurism. In the current climate of conservative reaction, politicians are jumping on the bandwagon of American exceptionalism much as they previously purveyed anti-communism or subsidies for ethanol.
Melville, of course, recognized this dilemma. Most fundamentally, he understood the competition between nature and civilization for the soul of humanity, so memorably phrased in Captain Vere's admonition to the drumhead court that its allegiance is not to Nature, but to the King. Melville knew about nature firsthand from his years of seafaring on those oceans that Vere calls “inviolate Nature primeval” (Chicago BB 110), and he continued to learn about civilization, especially Roman civilization, from his observations and his reading. By 1877 he had decided that the high point of civilization occurred during the second and third centuries of Imperial Rome, a view he found in Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In a letter to his brother-in-law John C. Hoadley, Melville included a draft of his poem “The Age of the Antonines”—the title is borrowed from Gibbon—and praised the period for its peacefulness, stoicism, social order, and rule of law. It was, he wrote, the “summit of fate and zenith of time” which he hoped would return (NN Journals 453). He did not publish the poem until 1891, by which time he had revised the last two lines to identify his own country explicitly with Rome: “Ah, might we read in America's signs / The Age restored of the Antonines” (NN Poems 287, 809). This alteration, following as it does Melville's profound musings on Rome in Clarel, conflates the two meanings of “exceptionalism” that jostle for attention in current scholarly and political debate: Does it really mean a nation has a unique role to fulfill on earth? And does that role have moral force, presumably for good, but possibly, as many contend, for evil? Was Rome—and is America today—a virtuous republic or a repressive empire? And more important, is America something new, or is it, as its dozen or more “Romes” imply, simply another failed republic, destined to empire, decline, and fall?
Here again, Rome was a beacon of nationhood for Americans. They had closely followed the successes and failures of the Risorgimento, Italy's long quest for national unity, and suffered alternate bouts of hope and despair for a free and independent country, especially after the French conquest of the second Roman Republic in 1849. When Garibaldi invaded Sicily and Naples in 1860 and brought most of Italy under the House of Savoy, Americans rejoiced and made Garibaldi a national hero. Abraham Lincoln asked Garibaldi to command the Union Army, but because the president would not immediately abolish slavery, the general refused the offer. When the Risorgimento achieved its final goal in 1871, the unification of the entire peninsula with Rome as the capital, Harper's Weekly, the most popular illustrated magazine in America and one that Melville regularly read, published a striking cover that encapsulated the Roman legacy in nineteenth-century America. Just as America divided between North and South and finally reunited, so Italy melded its north and south into a single country for the first time since the Middle Ages.1 In the Harper's Weekly cover, the enduring arch of Roma unites a northern Piedmontese soldier on the left and a southern Garibaldini on the right in a vision of peace and power like Melville's dream of the Antonines. By placing each soldier above its opposite leader—Garibaldi on the left and King Victor Emmanuel on the right—the illustrator implies a harmony between the forces of revolution and order that constitutes a united people. The shields of each formerly independent Italian state frame the illustration and silently pictorialize the American national motto “e pluribus unum,” and the caption—“United Italy. Like Phoenix will rise from its ashes to immortality”—projects the American-Italian dream of a unified nation into myth, a political transcendence that emanates from the ruins of ancient Rome dimly perceived in the picture's background.
The Harper's Weekly cover announced a new Rome, a new Italy, and a renewed postbellum United States, an association that is simultaneously nationalistic, trans-historical, and transnational and one that lies at the heart of nineteenth-century America's admiration for Rome. Although neither the U.S. nor Italy completely fulfilled its ideals of national unity and renewal, each shared a common vision of creating order from chaos, civilization from the vagaries of nature, and of basing their civitas on the exceptional example of classical Rome. I am sure that each of America's Romes considers itself, in some way, special, even as its name identifies it with a foreign capital. Exceptionalism is a commonplace, and those critics and politicians who confer upon it excessive explanatory power risk missing the very qualities that make nations both distinct and interdependent. An unreflective appeal to exceptionalism from either the left or the right runs head-on into the realities of transnationalism, and these two conflicting ideologies merge in the mind and art of Herman Melville.
From the beginning, Melville generated his fiction from his transnational experiences, as Tommo's ready acceptance of many Marquesan customs demonstrates. The Marquesas are Tommo's experiential equivalent of Vere's “Nature,” and for most of the novel nature offers the consolation, pleasure, and healing powers conventionally ascribed to it from the pastoral tradition. At the same time, however, civilization is never far from Tommo's bedazzled mind, and he struggles to understand the exceptional culture of the Typee Valley and the deeper motives of its inhabitants. In an astonishing confession in chapter 24 Tommo admits that “I saw everything, but could comprehend nothing” (NN Typee 177). Typee proves too exceptional for him, a culture so unusual that he cannot begin to understand it even though he lives within it. Importantly, this lack of understanding is not only because Typee is remote and strange; it is also because Tommo carries with him cultural expectations that occlude both his vision and understanding. He does not, in fact, see everything, and he does actually comprehend some things, but experience and understanding become so jumbled in his mind that no reader should come away from the novel thinking that he or she has learned much about Marquesan culture. Melville's turn toward romance in Mardi, disastrous as it seemed at the time, reveals his self-awareness that reportage alone could not do justice to experience. It must be coupled with imagination and invention to probe to a deeper “axis of reality” (NN PT 244). It is testimony to Melville's intellectual breadth that he could indulge the spread-eagle exceptionalism of Manifest Destiny in White-Jacket, calling Americans “the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time” (NN WJ 151), and then undermine it in Moby-Dick where the globe-encircling commerce of New England's whaling industry ends in an American apocalypse.
Nature, civilization, time, and history all merge in Pierre, which takes place in upstate New York near a town Melville knew well—one of the twelve American Romes I deliberately saved for last. There's no record that Melville ever visited Rome, New York, about 100 miles northwest of Albany where he grew up, but he certainly knew about it. The city is built around Fort Stanwix, the revolutionary site of the battle where Melville's maternal grandfather Peter Gansevoort distinguished himself by defending the fort against the British. He won fame as the “hero of Fort Stanwix” and was revered by his family, including young Herman, who used him as the model for Pierre Glendinning's grandfather and named his second son Stanwix. Today the fort is a National Monument, and as reconstructed in 1976 it holds an honored place in the city as it did in Melville family history. The place name “Fort Stanwix, Rome,” odd as it sounds, embodies the transnationalism that modifies any simple claim of American exceptionalism. Melville, whose vibrant historical memory repeatedly yoked remote allusions into startling new patterns, surely could not remember his heroic grandfather without thinking of Rome, in all its historic resonance. Later in life, he owned a copy of a painting that shows the General wearing the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization named for Cincinnatus, the Roman general who left his plow to fight for the republic and then returned to his farm when the war was over. The Society of the Cincinnati is still active and remains the only hereditary organization sanctioned by the U.S. Government. In rebelling against his family's past, Pierre rebels against the Roman traditions of military valor and civic virtue as well as the transnational and cosmopolitan values that tradition represents. The consequences, as we all remember, are disastrous.
When Melville finally visited Italy in 1857, he carried with him transnational memories that linked Rome with America. Behind his telegraphic journal jottings lay the vast authority of the Roman Empire, a specter of unity and civic power that haunts his travels. At Salonica, Greece, he notices a Roman triumphal arch with the eagle still conspicuous, and he contrasts it with the surrounding misery of cheap wooden structures and abject poverty (NN Journals 55). Passing under the aqueduct of Valens in Constantinople, he observes how “In these lofty arches, ivied & weatherbeaten, & still grand, the ghost of Rome seems to stride with disdain of the hovels of this part of Stamboul” (62). On first entering Rome itself after four-and-a-half tiring months of solitary travel, he confesses that the city “fell flat on me” (106); soon, however, he experiences the power of “Gigantic Rome” (107): the enormous equestrian statues on “Monte Cavallo” before the Quirinale Palace (107); the colossal statues of the twelve apostles at the Basilica of St. John Lateran (108); a massive painting of Samson in the Rospigliosi Gallery (110)—all merit the adjective “gigantic.” Naples he enjoyed for its lively crowds, Florence for its incredible museums, Venice for its unique locale, but Rome preyed on him like a recurring dream. It was, he knew, “nothing independent of associations” (106)—but what associations! Keats, Shelley, Marius, Edward Gibbon, Tiberius, Beatrice Cenci, Cesar Borgia, Machiavelli—all these specters arose before his mental eye as his literary allusions materialized in places, statues, and portraits.
Yet Melville could not forget his home country. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson calls traveling a “fool's paradise,” for it cannot help us evade the necessary confrontation with our selves, the “giant” that accompanies us wherever we go (Emerson, Essays and Lectures 278). Melville's giant is America itself. I count twenty-six occasions in his journals when he explicitly compares a foreign scene to one in the United States: Ben Lomond, the Bosphorus, the Dead Sea, and Lake Como all remind him of Lake George (NN Journals 50, 65, 83, 121); the pyramids form an irregular line like the White Mountains of New Hampshire (76), and their inner chambers are like the “Mammoth Cave” in Kentucky (75); the marble shards on the Acropolis look “like blocks of Wenham [Massachusetts] ice,” and the Parthenon's ruins look like the “North River breaking up” (99). He dedicated Pierre to “Greylock's Most Excellent Majesty,” the whale-like mountain he could see from his study window (NN Pierre vii); when he saw the Roman Colosseum, it reminded him of the “Hopper of Greylock,” a deep valley on the western slope of the mountain (NN Journals 106). This particular transnational comparison fuses past and present, artificial and natural, local and foreign, and once having noticed it, he could never look out his study window at Arrowhead again without remembering the Colosseum. This habit of associating the natural phenomena of America with the architecture of Europe is similar to naming cliffs along the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon the “Pillars of Rome,” where nomenclature bridges nature and civilization, New World and Old, in a geography of transnational identity and mutual exceptionalism.
Some theorists of American exceptionalism, such as Donald Pease, have come to understand it in a broad comparatist context. In The New American Exceptionalism, Pease analyzes the idea in the context of Stalinism and the Cold War and sees it as a gesture of rebellion against Marxist ideology. Liberals, Pease explains, embraced the idea to defend the U.S. against “the negative exceptionalism of the imperial Soviet” (11), a characterization that takes for granted that exceptionalism has both positive and negative manifestations. Recognizing that the term covers a wide range of meanings, Pease appreciates its “semantic indeterminacy” (9) that connects facts with fantasy, precisely the effect of the transnational comparisons in Melville's travel journals.
In 2002 the historian David Noble proclaimed the “End of American Exceptionalism”; writing only seven years later for the same series at the same press, Pease proclaimed a “New American Exceptionalism.” What I am proclaiming, based on the example of Rome and the critical practice of Melville, is that exceptionalism, in some form or other, has always been with us, for good or ill. Although it certainly takes ideological forms as it is doing in the U.S. right now, exceptionalism has deep historical and cultural roots. In some countries, it may go back thousands of years and stem from legends, myths, and prophesies used to justify national formations and a sense of destiny. In the U.S., its lineage is far more recent, and gains gravitas by identifying with the exceptional history of Rome. What Melville perceived, and what I believe is critical to understanding exceptionalism as practice and theory, is that it is a constructed belief stemming from particular historical conditions, but also satisfying widespread social and political urges toward national identity. As a malleable concept it serves many ends, from the fanciful European names given to American towns and villages to a self-justifying jingoism that echoes around the globe in today's political debates. But it is never uniquely American.
Within the broad field of American studies, I call for an “Intercultural American Exceptionalism,” a transnational hermeneutic that can help us understand the cultural formations in any nation and avoid essentializing exceptionalism as necessarily evil or virtuous or, in Melville's formulation from the “Age of the Antonines,” either religious or pagan. Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset urges the same idea in his data-driven study of the concept, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, an analysis that largely strips the term of ideological significance. Giorgio Mariani makes much the same point in a recent article where he argues that mythologizing America as either peaceful or violent, modeled on Christian charity or on imperialist conquest, polarizes our sense of a complex nation and creates enemies instead of understanding. Melville could not have agreed more, and during his lifetime he struggled to create an American literature from the chaos of his country's revolutionary past, its cataclysmic civil war, its uncertain future, and his own economic dislocations, nautical adventures, and eclectic reading. Students of cultural approaches to literature can learn from Melville, for he grew from an ardent literary nationalist into a worldly cosmopolitan and so replicated the process that has dominated American literary scholarship over the last fifty years. In 1870, when Melville picked up a copy of Emerson's The Conduct of Life (1860), he “read it aggressively,” according to Hershel Parker (Herman Melville 2: 710), in order to measure how his philosophical nemesis had developed over the years. At one point, a typically Emersonian passage describes the folly of foreign travel. Disdainfully addressing the reader who thinks travel can expand the mind, Emerson asks, “Can we never extract this tape-worm of Europe from the brain of our countrymen? … You do not think you find anything there which you have not seen at home?” (Emerson, Essays & Lectures 1022). Melville, who had traveled much farther than Emerson not only in space but also in philosophy, acidulously wrote in the margin, “Yet possibly, Rome or Athens has something to show or suggest that Chicago has not” (quoted in Parker, Herman Melville 2: 710). I happen to think Chicago is an exceptional city. My son lives there, and my wife and I enjoy visiting him and taking in the museums, the lakefront, and the restaurants. But Chicago is not the world, any more than America or Europe or any single country or continent is the world. Chicago is one of many exceptional cities in the world, and has its own special character, but Chicago, and America, and all of us, need to acknowledge and learn from Athens, or Paris, or—especially at this wonderful and amazing conference—from that most exceptional of cities, empires, and civilizations: Rome.
- American Risorgimento: Melville and the Cultural Politics of Italy. Columbus : The Ohio State UP, 2009. .
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