Melville, Anti-Transcendentalism, & Democracy: Moby-Dick as a Cautionary Tale

On the eve of the Civil War, Herman Melville wrote in a letter that he was disillusioned with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transcendentalisms, myths & oracular gibberish.” Not short of two years later would Melville publish what would arguably be his greatest work, and in it take on the task of deconstructing Emerson’s transcendentalist ideas in a cautionary tale that would warn against the danger of both the tyranny of one and the passivity of many within a democracy. In his novel Moby-Dick, Melville crafts a narrative that serves as a call for action, creating in Ahab a character that is representative of the failures of transcendentalism and in Ishmael a martyr for democratic ideals who oscillates between the part of observer and interpreter in a way that intends to revolutionize not just the text, but also the roles of the reader and the American novelist.