Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Sermonizing, Literature and Currency

One of Melville's most stirring literary contemporaries was Henry Ward Beecher, a preacher at a Brooklyn mega-church frequented by the high and mighty of the 19th century. Beecher was not just a preacher: he was an icon, a scion, a bit of a rascal, and a movement all his own, credited with enormous influence among first abolitionists, then suffragettes, and later advocates of immigration. Presidents came to him, and his sermons could break people with their withering, influential criticism. It is worth a look at Debby Applegate's well-titled book, The Most Powerful Man in the Country, for a bit more on Beecher. His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote one of the best-selling works of all American fiction, published the same year as Moby Dick, and his father was credited with launching the Second Great Awakening, a religious movement that helped define the century for the country. Henry Ward Beecher's sermons were printed and disseminated like dime-store novels; he was born in Litchfield, a town along the road between Melville's place in Pittsfield and Melville's haunts in New York.

I call Beecher a literary contemporary of Melville's, even though his only true claims to fame were his sermonizing and his indiscretions. To what extent were Beecher's sermons literature, and to what extent philosophy, religion, essays or politics? Clearly, they were dramatic, they were embellished, they were fanciful and imaginative, and, even more certainly, they were deeply entertaining. Beecher's Brooklyn church likely offered higher-brow acting than the new, rowdy theatres over on Broadway. Beecher's sister wrote a novel, a best-seller, and it was perhaps preachier and less entertaining than any sermon he ever wrote. America's nascent literary life was in many ways more diverse and less compartmentalized than you see today; we do not mistake our church for entertainment or our novels for religion anymore. There was something about America at the time that made it hard for us to separate our sermons, our essays, and our fiction: as in Moby Dick, they all jumbled together sometimes.

Melville's book includes fictitious sermonizing in the amazing Father Mapple's sermon. Ishmael's visit to Father Mapple's church is a very clear early sign that we will be seeped in the divine in the upcoming pages. The story of Jonah is greatly embellished by Father Mapple, who adds far more color than is present in the simple biblical story. In Father Mapple's hands, for example, Jonah is ready to overpay for his journey, in a manner which gives great reason for suspicion. Focus on the payment issue; Ishmael has already waxed on the beauties of being paid for his sail, and he will soon be negotiating his price, and much of what comes next will focus on the intersection of commerce and divinity. Likewise, the captain and the boat crew, bare sketches in the Biblical version, let us into their heads in Father Mapple's sermon as they speculate on Jonah's sins and prepare to mob and toss him. There are plenty of models for Mapple, and I do not want to propose Henry Ward Beecher as somehow the singular model, but they both were of a type, they both embellished and fictionalized the word of God for the entertainment and edification of their congretations.

As we read Father Mapple's sermon, I'd suggest remembering two key things that won't be obvious in the text: First, Melville was not befriended by these sermonizers; he lived in fear of them and he earned their wrath with his depiction of missionaries in his early books. The scenes of Ishmael and Queequeg that bookend the sermons were dangerous ones in a world where these preachers roamed. Second, there will be a pair to this sermon later on, when a not dissimilar sermon is delivered to hungry, attacking sharks in "Stubb's Supper" in one of the funniest passages in all of Moby Dick. Mark Father Mapple well; even if this is the last you see of him in body, he will reappear in spirit.

Another point to mark here on these preachers is the outsized roll they and their sermons play in American culture of the time. Melville's astonishing collection of literary techniques (the book is almost a show-room of them) and his melding of fact, fiction, and the in-between seem presciently modern. However, America produced few worthy 19th century examples of the classic form mastered by Dickens, Austen and others. American literature produced Irving's tales, Poe's oddities, Whitman's revelries, and Beecher's blasts. The strange brew of Moby-Dick perhaps seems a bit less out of place in this wild world than it does in the more compartmentalized British world of 19th century novel writers.

That statute of Henry Ward Beecher in the photo is one I passed most every day I had literature classes in college; he loomed above us on the way, staring us down as we walked up that hill, taking his measure of us as we nervously took our measure of him. More than once I thought of Father Mapple as I climbed that hill, as Father Mapple was my own pre-established image of a 19th century American preacher.

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