Musings on Melville, Obama, America and The World

Milverton Wallace

I was searching my mind recently for that famous quotation from Melville, the one about America belonging to the whole world. I couldn't find it even in the dusty corners of my memory.

But instinct happily took me to a rereading of C.L.R.James' wonderful book, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The story of Herman Melville and the world we live in and - bingo! - I learned that the quote was from Redburn, one of his lesser known but very important books, because it is there where he first tried out themes that became central to Moby Dick.

Up to this point, Melville had been arguing in his writings that the US should disengage from a fractious and backward Europe and from the rest of the world as well. But at this point he changed his thinking, because his mind was sketching the vast canvass that would become Moby DIck, in which the Pequod is a floating assembly of all the nations under American leadership.

Here's the quote (slighted contracted) about America and its place in the world:

"Settled by the people of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own. You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world....Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world...Our ancestry is lost in the universal pageantry; and Caesar and Alfred, St.Paul and Luther, and Homer and Shakespeare are as much ours as Washington, who is as much the world's as our own. We are the heirs of all time, and with all nations we divide our inheritance."

Well now, it seems to me that Melville, writing in 1850, had a better understanding of the 21st
century than most of our politicians and pundits. He also gives the best answer to the question as to
why people in every corner of the globe are deeply interested in America and care passionately about
who will be its next president!

In this context, for sure, Barack Obama's recent visit to the Middle East and Europe, criticised in the
John McCain camp and elsewhere, was not without deep meaning for America.

* Milverton Wallace is a journalism professor who transplanted some years ago from Jamaica to England, where he writes and teaches a new generation of journalists entering the digital age.