Herman Melville Meets Donald Trump

I spent a day reading Call Me Ishmael, Charles Olson’s mid-century meditation on Melville, Moby-Dick, and the American idea.

Halfway into it, I took a break, washed the dishes and listened to the news. That’s how Donald Trump joined Olson and Melville in my head.

The connection is not far-fetched; Trump’s pathologies are native to American political culture, and Melville would have recognized his type:

Americans still fancy themselves such democrats. But … to Melville it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people. Ahab is no democrat. … Like Ahab, American, one aim: lordship over nature.

Of course, Trump lacks Ahab’s valor and integrity. He is a dissembler, a self-dealer, a grifter. Melville knew that type as well, carefully dissected in The Confidence-Man, his last novel. Americans like a con man—we always have.

Just three years after Olson’s Call Me Ishmael appeared, Aaron Copland composed Old American Songs, which included this cynical 19th c. American tune, “We’re all dodgin’!” (“dodgin’” as in “on the dodge” or “dodgy”). The tone is one of cussed self-celebration:

Yes the candidate’s a dodger,
Yes a well-known dodger.
Yes the candidate’s a dodger,
Yes and I’m a dodger too.

He’ll meet you and treat you,
And ask you for your vote.
But look out boys,
He’s a-dodgin’ for your note.

Yes we’re all dodgin’
A-dodgin’, dodgin’, dodgin’.
Yes we’re all dodgin’
Out away through the world.

Trump is a perfect 19th century American, possessed of an Ahab-like cripple-soul, a grifter’s gift for the artless dodge, and a small-heart’s thrill in the pain of others. Given how deeply and fully American he is, the real surprise is that such a man—so powerfully broken, so powerfully needy—did not ascend to the presidency many generations ago.

In its assessment of the American character, Olson writes, Moby-Dick “is more accurate than Leaves of Grass.” Why? “Because it is America, all of her space, the malice, the root.” Our long history draws as much and more from Melville’s darkness than from Whitman’s light.

That Trump may win reelection is not such a wonder.

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