Introduction to Herman and Elizabeth Melville's Marginalia in The Works of William E. Channing

Dawn Coleman
University of Tennessee

The recent discovery of marginalia by Herman Melville in Elizabeth Melville's set of The Works of William E. Channing is momentous both for the newly found annotations in Melville's hand and for the possibility it raises that Channing's writings may have had a far-reaching influence on Melville's thought and craft. It may be that one of the author's most important nineteenth-century sources has gone unrecognized despite its careful preservation by the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library. Elizabeth Shaw Melville received the six volumes of essays and addresses by the late Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) from her father Lemuel Shaw as early as 1848, the year they were printed. The front pastedown of each volume bears an undated dedicatory inscription: "Elizabeth, with the best wishes of her affectionate father Lemuel Shaw," or a variant thereof: e.g., "good wishes" in volume four, "kindest wishes" in volume six.

Despite these inscriptions announcing female proprietorship, the set might more appropriately be considered the Melvilles' joint property. As was discovered only in 2013, the set contains marginalia in both Herman's hand and Elizabeth's, to an extent unique among the known volumes in the Melvilles' library.[1] The marginalia is profuse: eight annotations by Elizabeth, two consecutive erased annotations by Herman totaling approximately 30 words, and nearly 450 difficult-to-attribute scores, bars, and parentheses. Of the fifty-nine essays in the set, forty-seven are marked, in some cases extensively. Because Melville may be responsible for a portion of the unattributed markings, especially given that some marked passages bear notable parallels to his published writing in 1849 and after, we must now consider the possibility that he found in these volumes a hefty counterweight to his Calvinist upbringing and a literary source and inspiration as significant as Emerson or Carlyle, one that may have catalyzed his thought as he pondered diverse questions of Christian belief and ethics, his place in literary tradition, and urgent social issues such as poverty and slavery.

Channing as American Man of Letters

Minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston, Channing gained fame as the standard-bearer of American Unitarianism, the denouncer-in-chief of orthodox doctrines such as the equality of Jesus to the Father, the existence of hell, and the crucifixion as a vicarious atonement for sin. Or, put more positively, Channing championed an optimistic version of Christianity that worshipped God as a loving father, reverenced humanity as created in his image, saw in Jesus an exemplar of moral perfection, and called people to ongoing spiritual improvement. His exaltation of human potential prefigured Transcendentalism—Emerson famously called him "our bishop" (Works 10.576)—while his fidelity to Lockean empiricism and Scottish common sense philosophy distinguished him from those who adopted German-inspired intuitionism.[2]

Yet Channing also spoke to an audience well beyond the precincts of Boston. As a prolific writer of essays, sermons, lectures, and treatises, he gained wide recognition as an American man of letters intent on addressing his country's social and political issues; Europeans shortlisted him alongside Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper as one of the few Americans worth reading (Robinson, "William Ellery Channing" 52). Andrew Delbanco traces the tensions that define his work: between religious radicalism and temperamental conservatism, between belief in the common person's divinity and Federalist aversion to the people en masse, between dissatisfaction with institutions and fear of antinomianism. Independent-minded, politically bold, and often appealing to emotion rather than reason, Channing belies the notion of Unitarianism as "corpse-cold" (Emerson, Journals 381) or as a byword for head-in-the-sand Romantic optimism.

At nearly 2500 pages, Works contains a wide range of theological, literary, social, and political writings. Here one finds, for instance, the career-defining sermons repudiating orthodox doctrine: "Unitarian Christianity" (1819; 3.59-103), the pivotal ordination sermon for Jared Sparks in Baltimore that infuriated the orthodox by proclaiming that one must use reason to interpret the Bible; the fire-throwing "Moral Argument Against Calvinism" (1820; 2.217-41), which called belief in the Calvinist God immoral; and "Likeness to God," a paean to human goodness and moral perfectibility. Here, too, are numerous essays and lectures on secular topics: e.g., Milton, Napoleon, American literature, temperance, poverty, war, philanthropy, the education of laborers, and slavery. The seven essays on slavery reveal the progressive radicalism of Channing's antislavery advocacy: the early treatise Slavery, the open letter to Henry Clay opposing the annexation of Texas (1837; 2.181-260), the anti-colonizationist Slavery of 1839 (5.5-106), the eulogy for abolitionist minister Charles Follen (1840; 5:231-60), two addresses on Britain's emancipation of the West Indies (1840; 6.5-90, 1842; 6.375-420) and "The Duty of the Free States, or Remarks on the Creole" (1842; 6.231-373), a full-throated argument for human rights that Delbanco calls the "culminating document of these years, perhaps of Channing's life" (Delbanco 142). In these six volumes of thoughtful, learned, often engagingly written prose, Melville would have found much to pique his interest.

Melville's Inscription in "The Evidences of Revealed Religion"

The only annotations in the set indisputably in Melville's hand appear in "The Evidences of Revealed Religion," originally delivered in 1821 as the venerable Dudleian lecture at Harvard. In this essay, Channing defends Christianity against Enlightenment skepticism regarding biblical miracles while upholding Unitarianism as "rational religion" that called for relying on human reason in matters of faith. To reconcile these apparently contradictory beliefs, he maintains that "the great purpose of God" is to "form and advance the mind," and that the order of nature is but a means to that end; if God wishes to develop the human mind by violating the order of nature, he will do so (3.112). It is an ingenious argument, a savvy steering between the Scylla of traditional fideism and the Charybdis of Humean skepticism.

Midway through this essay, Melville made an "x" and a checkmark in the right-hand margin and wrote accompanying notes in the bottom margin (3.123). At some point, someone—perhaps Melville himself—erased these lines, in several places quite thoroughly. The recovered inscriptions show Melville challenging Channing's claim that the discrepancy between Jesus's humble birth and his founding of a world religion points to his divine mission; he does so by suggesting that Muhammad ("Mahomet") and the establishment of Islam form a parallel case. Incisive in its comparativism yet inaccurate in its details, this comparison reveals Melville's reliance on outdated information. He seems to have drawn here not on the sources we have long known he turned to for his knowledge of Islam—namely, the fiftieth chapter of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789) and Thomas Carlyle's "The Hero as Prophet" in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), both of which describe Muhammad's illustrious (not humble) origins—but rather Pierre Bayle's Historical and Critical Dictionary (1710).

In the twenty-page entry on "Mahomet," Bayle describes Muhammad as having poor parents and as overcoming early obstacles; he claims that an "infinite Number of Authors have written that this false Prophet was of mean extraction" (2092nC). Bayle also draws a parallel between the obscure origins of Christianity and Islam and notes that this similarity might be evidence of divine sanction were it not for Islam's early dependence on force of arms. That Melville seems to have depended on Bayle's reasoning points to his having written his annotations between April 1849, shortly after purchasing Bayle's Dictionary, and June or July 1850, when he borrowed Carlyle's On Heroes from Evert Duyckinck. Carlyle—as well as Washington Irving in The Life of Mahomet (1850), which Melville may have also read—details Muhammad's birth into a noble family and early advantages, emphasizing the distinctive circumstances that prepared him for a position of inter-tribal leadership.

If Melville wrote his inscriptions soon after reading Bayle, then read Carlyle or Irving (or returned to Gibbon), he may well have thought better of his comparison and erased his inscriptions himself. The possibility that Melville served here as his own editor has ramifications for other readings of his marginalia as well, making more plausible the idea that he, not Elizabeth or one of his daughters, might be responsible for the erasures and excisions in other volumes in his library.

Elizabeth's Critical Eye

Other than this erased commentary in the third volume, the set's inscriptions are all in Elizabeth's hand, which tends to be neater than Herman's, with more clearly formed letters and longer, properly looped ascenders and descenders. Her eight inscriptions in this set, all unerased, reveal that although she seems to have been the more regular churchgoer than Herman, she read Channing with an active intellect and a willingness to dissent from and correct this most esteemed of ministers.

Three of her eight inscriptions appear in "The Future Life" (4.217-36), a sermon bearing the subtitle, "Discourse Preached on Easter Sunday, 1834, After the Death of an Excellent and Very Dear Friend." As both Easter Sunday sermon and eulogy, this visionary, speculative piece centers on affirming faith in immortality, a message Channing elaborates by refuting skepticism about the immaterial world—in one scored passage, "We have more evidence that we have souls or spirits, than that we have bodies" (4.219)—and by vividly presenting the future life, purporting to use as his guides "Scripture and Reason" (4.220). The essay has relatively few scores and markings compared with others in this volume, a silence one might interpret as disapproval or reserve given the tenor of the three inscriptions. When Channing argues that memories of this life must persist in the next, in order to create a continuity of self and to justify rewards and punishments, Elizabeth wrote a question mark in the side margin and, in the bottom margin, a comment indicating that she remained unconvinced: "? A question not so readily settled" (4.226). Two pages later, when Channing ventures that we may be encircled by the spiritual world at even the present moment, if only we could see it, and that departed loved ones in heaven may be able to view the affairs of earth, she scored these surmises and protested, "Vain vain speculations!" (4.228). A few pages later, when Channing presents as a reasonable extrapolation from the principles governing this life that the newly deceased meet in heaven those who have served as their spiritual mentors and friends, she scored the passage and wrote in the bottom margin, "O tell us ye who have gone before!", as if the minister's assurances were no comfort at all—as if only a voice from the dead could confirm such wild conjectures.

Several of the volumes' other inscriptions also dissent from Channing's arguments, though less sustainedly than those in "The Future Life." In "Christianity a Rational Religion," Channing attempts to cast Unitarianism as an essential part of the rational development of human religiosity over time by claiming that in bygone eras people received their religion from others, like children memorizing the catechism, and had little personal interest in their supposed beliefs, "But that day is gone by" (4.63). Elizabeth underlined this phrase and wrote in the margin, "alas not yet!", a demurral that shares Channing's dismay with unthinking belief but that despairs of his optimistic appraisal of humanity's intellectual development. A similar dissatisfaction with hasty generalizations tinges her marginal query in "Ministry for the Poor," Channing's sermon at the first anniversary celebration of the Benevolent Fraternity of Churches, an organization designed to minister to those living in poverty. Maintaining that the real danger to the poor is not material deprivation but the intellectual and spiritual degradation and misery apt to accompany it, Channing asserts, "The Greenlander and Laplander dwelling in huts and living on food compared with which the accommodations of our poor are abundant, are more than content" (4.268). Elizabeth scored this sentence and wrote, "Yes, but why?" Here she refused to assent to the implicit assumption that accepting a starvation diet was right and natural and that her impoverished compatriots who complained about scanty food were whining about nothing. She might even be said to turn Channing's assumptions against him, with her "but why?" raising the possibility that barely adequate shelter and a paltry diet had dulled the Greenlanders' and Laplanders' sensibilities and that their lack of complaint was a symptom of material need rather than divine sanction for their poverty.

Elizabeth also dared to give the wrong answer to one of Channing's rhetorical questions. In "The Present Age," Channing welcomes the ongoing growth and development of humankind, despite the new risks and challenges, and asks, "The child, when it shoots up into youth, exchanges its early repose and security for new passions, for strong emotions, which are full of danger; but would we keep him for ever a child?" In neat, upright script, in the left-hand margin, Elizabeth wrote, "Yes," followed by a period. Not one to wish for a halt to humanity's growth—her "alas not yet!" suggests an impatience for change—she shot down Channing's analogy by stepping outside the flow of his argument to affirm a parent's longing to hold forever to the child as a child. Might she have written this response after the death of Malcolm, or of Stanwix, when she had seen what adulthood could come to?

The set's other two inscriptions in Elizabeth's hand reinforce the sense that she was no superficial skimmer of pages. The first is in "Self-Culture," a call for perpetual spiritual growth originally delivered as a lecture to workingmen in commemoration of Benjamin Franklin. One of Channing's most-circulated writings, it is, as Daniel Walker Howe writes, "a seminal discourse" and "a minor classic of American culture and the Protestant ethic" (Howe 135). In the course of exhorting young men to self-improvement, Channing professes to be "shocked" by newspaper accounts of trials "adapted to the most uncultivated minds, and intended to turn into matters of sport the most painful and humiliating events of life" (2.395). Elizabeth wrote in the margin, "See N. Y. Herald," a reference to the daily New York Herald, a pioneer of the penny-press known for its sensational, attention-grabbing stories. A layperson, she could name names and flesh out critique as Channing could not without violating ministerial decorum. Nor was she above proofreading. In "Spiritual Freedom," an 1830 election sermon upholding spiritual liberty as the foundation for "civil and political liberty" (4.68), Channing preemptively denied that he was saying "that we should make no effort for spending such as we deem the truth of God" (4.89). Elizabeth crossed out "spending" and wrote "spreading" in the right-hand margin, with a trace of over-writing that hints that she may have thought at first to replace "spending" with "preaching." Such care suggests a vigilant reader, one who notices the ill-chosen or misprinted word and cannot let it slide.

Long an enigmatic figure in Melville studies, Elizabeth appears here with new clarity as an independent thinker. Although the volumes' ample marginalia, some of which are presumably hers, suggests a reader who found in Channing much to appreciate, her critical annotations prompt one to recall another intellect who shadows these volumes: their original purchaser, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw. With her father in the background, Elizabeth bears a family resemblance to Harriet Beecher Stowe, another opinionated daughter of a powerful, controversial public figure. Claiming the authority of her paternity, Stowe would quote Portia in The Merchant of Venice as the epigraph to a meticulously documented antislavery letter to the editor of the New York Observer: "I grant I am a woman—but withal / A woman well reputed, Catos daughter" (Hedrick 229). Though leading a far more private life than Stowe, Elizabeth, too, could claim the title of "Catos daughter." Whether or not this knowledge buoyed her self-assurance as a reader, it seems fitting that the judge's daughter who married Herman Melville was unafraid to disagree with one of the country's most prolific and admired writers.

The Conundrum of Attribution

Many of the volumes' marked passages resonate tantalizingly with Melville's characteristic preoccupations: the status of the writer in America, human dignity, individual freedom, slavery, the importance of affirming truth regardless of consequences, and the ethical dimensions of Christian thought. One might wonder how Melville could have had these essays on a shelf in his home for forty years and not have read them. The wealth of material relevant to his interests, coupled with the copious markings, invites scholars to search here for possible source texts for his writings from 1848 forward. Yet aside from the annotations, the set's marginalia do not allow for decisive attribution. That both hands appear in the set introduces the possibility that both hands might appear in any given essay. Faced with the volumes' many scores, one feels like Whitman pondering the grass: Whose?

In theory, one could make reasonable conjectures as to authorship based on the chirographic attribute that forensic analysts call line quality, a holistic appraisal of such features as line thickness, slant, steadiness, and pressure. To sort out who marked which passages, an interpreter might hazard that, like their respective scripts, the relatively neat, thin pencil lines are Elizabeth's, and the thicker, more uneven ones, Herman's. One might also note that, in another volume Elizabeth owned and annotated, Frederick William Faber's Hymns (1867), she scores close to the text block and employs in-text parentheses, a form of marking that, while appearing regularly in the Channing, is not found among Herman's other marginalia.

In practice, these peculiarities of penmanship and annotative style cannot determine authorship definitively. Line quality has little meaning apart from letter formations, and the typical distance between score and text block is too variable a factor on which to peg attribution. Complicating matters, few instances of Herman's marginalia from before 1850 survive to serve as points of comparison, and we must consider as well the possibility that Herman was neater here than elsewhere, adjusting his style to harmonize with hers.

A look into the one essay we know he read and annotated, "The Evidences of Revealed Religion," demonstrates the difficulties of attribution. Certain features of this essay's marginalia seem to point to Elizabeth: scores close to the text block and a set of pencil parentheses (3.129). Other features muddy the waters: the scores are of medium thickness and relatively straight but not perfectly so, a hint of casualness that points toward Herman. One might be tempted to cut the knot by declaring that because Herman's lengthy annotation appears on page 123, the rest of the markings in this essay are also most likely his. Then again, the set is technically Elizabeth's, and she has written in it as well.

Does the content of the marked passages solve the riddle? Not entirely, but one finds nothing to rule out Herman as the marker. Beyond the inscription discussed above, the essay contains seven scores and two sets of parentheses. The essay's first two scores suggest sympathy for Channing's resistance in this essay to programmatic skepticism or Deism, while also, when the sentences are read in isolation, being susceptible to other interpretations. In the first marking, a score runs alongside a sentence criticizing the current tendency to dismiss miracles out of hand: "This sweeping conclusion is a specimen of that rash habit of generalizing, which rather distinguishes our times, and shows that philosophical reasoning has made fewer advances than we are apt to boast" (3.108). With this critique of the present age, Channing the Romantic leaves open a space for mystery and resists a stark materialism in a manner compatible with Melville's flirtations in Mardi and Moby-Dick with religious and spiritual interpretations of the world. But read out of context, Channing's critique of the philosophical reasoning of the age need not be seen as a defense of supernatural possibilities, but merely as a general indictment of faulty logic.

The second scored passage in this essay also seems to endorse Channing's case for the possibility of miracles, again made via a critique of the mental shortcomings of the age: "It is the mark of a weak mind, to make an idol of order and method; to cling to established forms of business, when they clog instead of advancing it" (3.112). Again, this philosophical critique of narrow-minded rationality bears a twofold reading. It corresponds with Melville's explorations of diverse metaphysical approaches to the world in Mardi and Moby-Dick and speaks to his literary pursuits, in which he defied "established forms of business" to pursue his own vision. Or as Ishmael says, praising the defiance of measured forms, "a careful disorderliness is the true method" (Moby-Dick, 361).

Another marked line in "The Evidences of Revealed Religion" also suggests that Melville found in this essay solace for the consequences of artistic nonconformity. Channing extols Jesus as the exemplar of many virtues, but a reader's pencil parentheses enclose just one phrase: that he joined "an intense devotion to his work, and calmness under opposition and ill success" (3.126). What could be more inspiring to Melville after the publication of Mardi? Identification with Jesus may seem hubristic but partakes of the Unitarian emphasis on him as an accessible role model for ordinary striving mortals. It would also accord with Melville's markings in his New Testament and Psalms, which, as Brian Yothers notes in the critical introduction to that volume, show Melville identifying with a Jesus characterized by non-conformity and a rich "emotional life that includes loss and frustration."

A determination to rise above artistic setbacks may also have motivated the scoring of another line, in which Channing writes of Christianity that "its most distinguishing trait was its superiority to injury" (3.125)—if, that is, Melville regarded negative reviews as a form of injury. Or perhaps Melville here began to contemplate Moby-Dick and to conceive of a whale-ship captain who, far from being superior to injury, would be mastered by his desire to avenge it. Channing in the next sentence claims that the right of revenge typified other belief systems in the ancient world and that the practice of "returning curses with blessings and prayers" was a distinctively Christian contribution to civilization (3.125). Melville stresses this same point in White-Jacket, writing, "He on whom we believe himself has enjoined us to turn the left cheek if the right be smitten," which "passage embodies the soul and substance of the Christian faith; without it, Christianity were like any other faith" (320). Dramatizing the opposition between Christian forgiveness and ancient codes of honor, Moby-Dick sets pious Starbuck against "ungodly, god-like" Ahab, who, painted in the colors of Osiris, Prometheus, and Perseus, seeks to repay insult with insult, injury with injury: who, on the third day of the chase, hurls at Moby Dick his "fierce iron, and his far fiercer curse" (79, 569).

Melville may even have returned to this essay in later years. One of the essay's longest marked passages bears a striking parallel to the Epilogue of Clarel. Channing writes, to quote just a portion of the passage, "As men advance in civilization, they become susceptible of mental sufferings, to which ruder ages are strangers. Imagination and intellect become more restless" (3.129). Clarel echoes and transfigures this sentiment in its penultimate stanza:

Degrees we know, unknown in days before;
The light is greater, hence the shadow more;
And tantalized and apprehensive Man
Appealing—Wherefore ripen us to pain?
Seems there the spokesman of dumb Nature's train. (498.18-22)

Whereas Channing proceeds to reassure readers that they can find peace in the eternal truths of Christianity, which are providentially suited to modernity, Melville offers more guarded solace: "Even death may prove unreal at the last, / And stoics be astounded into heaven" (Melville, Clarel 499.25-26). Freed of the preacher's obligation to speak with certainty, Melville offers not conviction, but a liberal-minded hope that envisions a capacious redemption that includes even unbelievers.

The final scored passage in this essay sounds an intuitionist note, allowing a glimpse of the Channing who inspired the Transcendentalists:

There is another evidence of Christianity, still more internal than any on which I have yet dwelt, an evidence to be felt rather than described, but not less real because founded on feeling. I refer to that conviction of the divine original of our religion, which springs up and continually gains strength, in those who apply it habitually to their tempers and lives, and who imbibe its spirits and hopes. (3.135)

In the final, crowning point of his argument, Channing claims that evidence for the truth of Christianity lies in the hearts of those who put its precepts into practice and who share its defining affective states, or "spirits and hopes." Strikingly absent is any argumentative appeal to the inner conviction of those who believe doctrinal propositions. It is those who act and feel in accord with Christianity, he writes, who know consolation, happiness, and peace.

At first blush, such sentiments might seem foreign to Melville, one of the most unsparing, religiously skeptical writers of nineteenth-century America. Yet Melville seems to have shared, however inconsistently, Channing's view that Christianity found its best argument in the feelings of those who had internalized its teachings. As James Duban writes of Clarel, "heart-based faith is the key to the poem, and arguably to Melville's most personal religious belief," a claim he develops by demonstrating the parallels between the Epilogue to Clarel and an exegesis of Proverbs 4:23 in an 1849 issue of the Unitarian Christian Inquirer and by calling attention to the strain of individualistic piety in Melville's annotations of the New Testament (Duban 426).[3] For instance, Melville endorses the authority of a private, personalized belief in responding to Romans 14:22, "Hast thou faith? Have it to thyself before God"; with the inscription across the top of the page, "The only kind of Faith—one's own"; and in penning the quotation from Charles de Saint-Évremond on his New Testament's rear flyleaf, "Who well considers the Christian Religion, would think that God meant to keep it in the dark from our Understandings, and make it turn upon the motions of our hearts" (Duban 431). This claim for the primacy of the "motions of our hearts" in affirming Christianity is precisely Channing's point when he writes that Christianity rests on "evidence to be felt rather than described, but not less real because founded on feeling." The governing idea of both is that Christian faith offers a form of truth that one knows by experiencing it as a way of being.[4]

Channing and the Serenia Chapters of Mardi

Channing's influence on Melville reveals itself perhaps most clearly in the Serenia chapters of Mardi. Many of the ideals of this island kingdom seem to come straight from the pages of Channing's Works. As T. Walter Herbert explained long before Melville's hand was discovered in this set, Serenia is a "Unitarian paradise" whose inhabitants practice a rational religion whose ethical precepts, while true to the original teachings of Alma (that is, Christ), do no more than echo the moral teachings of nature (Herbert 79). Herbert underscores the debt to Unitarianism in this section of Mardi by noting similarities between the depiction of Serenia and specific passages in Channing's Works, including several from "Christianity a Rational Religion" (4.32-33, 4.38, 4.41), one of which turns out to be marked in the Melvilles' set (4.32). Similarly, Robert Milder writes that the Serenian creed reads "as though Melville were catechizing voyagers from William Ellery Channing's Unitarian Christianity (1819)" (Milder 45). And Melville might well have been: this sermon contains eleven marked pages, including several that, like the Serenian teaching, emphasize right action over right belief (e.g., 3.95, 3.97).

Other Channing sermons, too, appear to have informed Serenian philosophy, sometimes with remarkable similarities in wording. For instance, Channing writes in "The Christian Ministry," "The minister should look with reverence on the human soul as having within itself the germ of heaven" (3.270), and in "The Character of Christ," in a sentence directly before a marked passage, he praises Christ's generous view of human nature in language that shares this "germ" metaphor: "amidst clouds of ignorance and plague-spots of sin, he recognised a spiritual and immortal nature, and the germs of power and perfection which might be unfolded forever" (4.27). So the Serenian elder explains that the islanders do not regard "man" as perfect: "Yet, against all good, he is not absolutely set. In his heart, there is a germ. That we seek to foster" (Mardi, 627). Similarly emphasizing the good within human nature, Channing writes in two passages in the introduction to the set, both scored, "We must start in religion from our own souls. In these is the fountain of divine truth. An outward revelation is only possible and intelligible, on the ground of conceptions and principles, previously furnished by the soul" (1.xviii) and, further on, "There are great truths, which every honest heart may be assured of. There is such a thing, as a serene immovable conviction. Faith is a deep want of the soul" (1.xxix). In like fashion, and exemplifying this "serene" conviction, the Serenian elder explains to the travelers, "But are Truth, Justice, and Love, the revelations of Alma alone? Were they never heard of till he came? Oh! Alma but opens to us our own hearts" (626). Such correspondences are but a sampling; many more marked passages in Channing are fictively incarnated in particular Serenian beliefs, including the exemplary life of "Alma," spiritual egalitarianism, care for the poor, and the perfectibility of human nature.

The Serenia chapters reveal that Melville responded to Channing dialogically, as in his erased annotation in "Evidences of Revealed Religion." The Serenian creed has much in common with Channing's own but reworks it with telling variations. This section has, for instance, relatively few references to God ("Oro") compared with the Channing volumes, anticipating the way in which, as Herbert has argued, Melville sets Ahab's monomania against Ishmael's free-wheeling philosophizing "to arraign the notion of theocentric authority itself" (Herbert 90). The Serenia section also places a greater emphasis than Channing on love as a foundational virtue, with Channing gravitating to cooler terms, like benevolence and charity. Of course, the most striking challenge to Unitarianism in this section of Mardi is the fact that all of the travelers except Taji, the protagonist, are content to stop in Serenia. For reasons unexplained, Taji rejects the seemingly perfect faith: "Then, then! My heart grew hard, like flint; and black, like night. . . I prayed not, but blasphemed" (Mardi 639). Herbert posits that the cause of this refusal lies in Melville's dissatisfaction with the Serenians' consigning to spiritual death those who, with "no aptitude for Mardian lives of thought. . . die unregenerate," and with the guide's explanation that the perishing of such people is "the last mystery which underlieth all the rest" (Mardi 634; Herbert 77). Yet here, on the point perhaps most objectionable to Melville, the Serenian philosophy veers slightly from that of Channing, who in these volumes never writes that individual, sinful souls will perish. Rather, in "Immortality," he affirms the endlessness of every human soul while maintaining that those who did not cultivate their souls on earth cannot enjoy eternal bliss. Avoiding any talk of hell, he warns his readers, in a passage scored in the Melvilles' set, "Dream not of a heaven into which you may enter, live here as you may. To such as waste the present state, the future will not, cannot, bring happiness" (4.181). What then awaits the sinner? Channing does not specify, instead reiterating in his peroration, in a marked passage, that one can attain eternal happiness "only through our own reaching forward to new virtue and piety" (4.182). The Serenian belief that heedless sinners simply perish seems less indebted to Channing's thought than to that of other, less optimistic Unitarians. For instance, the Unitarian minister Orville Dewey, who baptized the Melville children, implied the death of the sinner's soul in an 1846 pamphlet: "The moral inquirer is on the ocean; and to give himself up to doubt, indifference and inaction, is to perish there" (Dewey 37).[5] If Channing is the prime Unitarian source for the Serenian creed, he is not perhaps the only one.

Viewing Melville's apparent divergence from Channing in the Serenia chapters from a different angle, Duban writes that Babbalanja's heavenly dream-vision evinces Melville's dissatisfaction with Serenian optimism. There Babbalanja hears "‘strange sounds . . . of gladness that seemed mixed with sadness:—a low, sweet harmony of both'" (Mardi 633; Duban, Major Fiction 35). Duban reads this heavenly melancholy as signaling Melville's "tragic view of existence," or, more pointedly, the belief in the inevitability of human fallibility famously articulated in "Hawthorne and His Mosses": the "‘Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free'" (Major Fiction, 36). Milder, too, finds in Babbalanja's vision evidence of Melville's dissent from Channing's creed, though he associates the strain of sadness in the heavenly harmonies not with residual sympathy for the pessimism of orthodoxy but with a "negative romanticism" shared with writers such as Carlyle, Byron, and Arnold, in which spirituality centers on "self-contemplative suffering," especially the aching awareness of divine absence (Milder 46). Milder thus reads the ending to Mardi as signaling a qualified assent to Unitarian teachings: "Melville could accept the Unitarian rationalism of Serenia only by enveloping it in an aura of supernal grief that transmuted it from a daylight gospel of works to a nocturnal mystery-religion evoking a sense of awe" (47). As Milder has it, though Melville held Serenian philosophy—and Channing's writing—in high regard, he felt the need to round it out with a vision of the world marked by poetic and tragic grandeur.

However, the fact that Channing himself was drawn to such grandeur in the form of Milton's Satan (cf. "Remarks on the Character and Writings of John Milton," 1.15-16) should warn us against glossing over his writings as a bland compilation of Unitarian optimism. Indeed, in "The Future Life," the speculative sermon that Elizabeth critiqued, Channing advances the idea that because heaven means union with Christ, those who go there must continue to feel for and with those who remain on earth: they must know with new strength "what it is to sympathize with human sorrow, to rejoice in human virtue, to mourn for human guilt" (4.227). Rejecting the idea that heaven is an "Elysium, whose inhabitants perpetuate their joy by . . . hiding themselves from the pains of their fellow-creatures" (4.229), he maintains that its inhabitants experience, through sympathy, a "sorrow, [that] is far from being misery" because it is "enlightened by comprehensive views of God's perfect government" (4.230). This sorrow "will give a charm and loveliness to the sublimer virtues of the blessed, and, like all other forms of excellence, will at length enhance their felicity" (4.230). Read in light of this anomalous Channing sermon, Babbalanja's vision seems not a correction to Channing, but rather an attempt to incorporate the more mystical elements of the minister's thought.

Even Taji, who rejects Serenia's rational religion for the life of questing, finds a limited sanction in Channing, who, more than many Unitarian ministers of his day, tolerated unbelief. Upholding "religious liberty, the rights of private judgment, [and] the free action of the individual mind" (2.282), Channing refused to condemn the unbeliever. In "The Evidences of Christianity" (1838), a score runs alongside his declaration that attributing "unholy motives to a man of pure life [who does not believe], is to judge rashly, and it may be unrighteously" (3.325; cf. 3.322). Himself branded an infidel by the orthodox, Channing refrained from wielding the same verbal weapons against others, adopting instead a latitudinarian acceptance of theological differences: "Mere acts of understanding are neither right nor wrong" (3.319), a line enclosed in pencil parentheses. What mattered most was right action, not right belief. Ecclesiastical leader though he was, Channing implicitly condoned religious skepticism.

Channing on Slavery

Advancing a progressive moral vision not widely shared by other Unitarians in the late 1830s and early 1840s, Channing's antislavery writings present potential new source material for Melville's commentary on the nation's most pressing moral issue at mid-century. Of the seven writings on slavery collected in this set, four are marked. The two most heavily marked, the third and fourth sections of "Slavery" (1835) and "Remarks on the Slavery Question" (1839), each have a half dozen or so marked pages; the eulogy for Follen, three; the 1842 address on British emancipation, just one. The essays on slavery are thus marked more lightly than many others in the set, such as "Self-Culture," with twenty marked pages, or "The Great Purpose of Christianity," with sixteen.

Several marked passages in the antislavery essays have virtually nothing to do with slavery, offering general philosophical insight rather than political reasoning. For example, a score runs alongside the maxim, "Great effort from great motives is the best definition of a happy life" (2.88); no subsequent scoring accompanies Channing's explanation that slaves, lacking freedom, also lack the motivation to work as diligently as free agents and that forcing their labor is a great wrong. Similarly, the sole marking in the lecture commemorating British emancipation is a set of parentheses around the rhetorical question, "Can great truths, after having been once developed, die?" The reader's concern would seem to be more with the durability of moral teachings in human history than with slavery per se. The pattern of marking suggests a reader willing to pick up and read antislavery arguments but not particularly roused by specific critiques of the institution.

Still, the possibility that Melville read these essays invites consideration of parallels between his writing and the passages directly addressing slavery, above all those that are marked. The longest marked passage, nearly a page, comes in "Slavery" (1835), which reads in part:

The blight which falls on the soul of the wrong-doer, the desolation of his moral nature, is a more terrible calamity than he inflicts. In deadening his moral feelings, he dies to the proper happiness of a man. In hardening his heart against his fellow-creatures, he sears it to all true joy. In shutting his ear against the voice of justice, he shuts out all the harmonies of the universe, and turns the voice of God within him into rebuke. . . . The cry of the oppressed, unheard on earth, is heard in heaven. God is just, and if justice reign, then the unjust must terribly suffer. . . . [The oppressor] may disarm the slave. Can he disarm the slave's Creator? . . . Can he always still the reproving, avenging voice in his own breast? (2.55-56)

Does this passage, which details the inexorable, joy-killing rebuke of the slave-owner's conscience and threatens divine judgment even if slaves are disarmed, serve as a source for Melville's own representations of slavery? Perhaps so, in Benito Cereno's intractable melancholy in Lima following the blacks' re-enslavement and Babo's execution. Read against Channing, Cereno's dejection indexes not merely the trauma of a deracializing subjugation, but also the "blight" and "desolation" that falls on the soul of one who "harden[s] his heart" against suffering and "shut[s] his ear against the voice of justice." Cereno shows no remorse after his release, no awareness of the justice of the slaves' claims. Indeed, he can call himself, with extravagant self-regard, "not only an innocent man, but the most pitiable of all men" (Melville, PT 115). And in line with Channing's contention that, since God is just, "the unjust must terribly suffer," Cereno speedily deteriorates and dies.

The marginalia in "Remarks on the Slavery Question" reveal the heterogeneity of the reader's response to Channing's antislavery arguments. Penned as a rebuttal to Henry Clay's famous anti-abolitionist speech of January 1839, this pamphlet presented Channing's most ardently antislavery stance to date; even William Lloyd Garrison "found little to criticize" (Mendelsohn 267). In three of the six marked passages, the reader takes note of philosophies and principles arising from the slavery question yet abstracted from it. In one, double pencil scores sit next to a declaration of faith in deliberative discourse and in Americans' spirit of inquiry: "discussion, even if stormy, often winnows truth from error, a good never to be expected in an uninquiring age" (5.8). In another, pencil parentheses surround Channing's defense of free speech: "What avails our liberty of speech, if, on a grave question of duty, we must hold our peace?" (5.28). In the third, a checkmark sits alongside the observation, which Channing presents approvingly, "One of our national passions is pride in a vast extent of territory" (68).

These three markings might suggest a reader unmoved by Channing's specific antislavery arguments, but two other marked passages in this essay indict slavery somewhat more directly: "No matter that our chains are woven of silk. They are as iron, because they are chains" (5.36) and "Pain as pain, is nothing compared with pain when it is a wrong" (5.37). The image of the silk chain in the first line may have inspired the silken cord with key that hangs around Cereno's neck and that serves as a tangible reminder of his enslavement under Babo. The second line, too, may have had issue in Benito Cereno, prompting Melville's meditation on the festering insult of slavery even for those slaves, like Alexandro Aranda's, treated with relative liberality. Still, Melville most clearly represents the idea that pain is intolerable when perceived as a wrong in Ahab's rage against Moby Dick for the loss of his leg, which he perceives as a cosmic injury demanding righteous revenge. The complexity of such possible textual transformations, each a knight's move away from Channing's straightforward condemnation of American chattel slavery, highlights Melville's disinclination to address slavery directly in his fiction. Only the Supplement to "Battle-Pieces" lifts the veil, as Melville denounces slavery with blazing rhetoric stronger even than Channing's own: "Those of us who always abhorred slavery as an atheistical iniquity, gladly we join in the exulting chorus of humanity over its downfall" (Melville, Published Poems 185).

Of this essay's six marked passages, one makes an assertion unpalatable to abolitionists, perhaps the "little" that Garrison found to criticize: that few Northerners "would not joyfully acquiesce" in the eighteenth-century politician Rufus King's plan to compensate Southerners for their loss of property should slavery be ended (5.54). The checkmark next to this declaration may suggest Melville's approval, especially considering both that the set contains only three checkmarks, one of which, on 3.123, is demonstrably Melville's, increasing the likelihood that this one is as well, and that the Supplement to Battle-Pieces evinces a similar concern for harmony between Northern and Southern whites. There Melville writes that Southern leaders were "honestly-erring men" and that Southerners as a whole, "though, indeed, they sought to perpetuate the curse of slavery, and even extend it, were not the authors of it, but (less fortunate, not less righteous than we) were the fated inheritors" (Published Poems 184). Resonantly, double pencil bars surround "We must judge others, not by our light, but by their own" in Channing's Slavery; the passage as a whole counsels Northerners not to be shocked that the Southerner who grew up with slavery and was taught to see it as a necessity does not regard it as a sin (2.52-53). Melville would thus seem to build on Channing's privileging of cordial relations with Southern whites, even at the risk of minimizing the outrage of slavery, when, in some of the Supplement's best-known lines, he states that "such kindliness [to blacks] should not be allowed to exclude kindliness to communities who stand nearer to us in nature" and, more memorably, "Let us be Christians toward our fellow-whites, as well as philanthropists toward the blacks, our fellow-men" (PP 185-86). Like Channing, Melville wished to denounce slavery without condemning slaveholders or further dividing the country.


Because the Channing set contains hundreds of passages, marked and unmarked, on topics that appear throughout Melville's writings, this introduction can only begin to explore the set's significance for literary interpretation. With the recovery of the erased annotation in the third volume, and following through on the implications that finding has for considering Melville as the possible reader and marker of other essays in this set, future study can continue to investigate how Channing's thought might have influenced Melville's published writing.

Yet to regard Channing only as a source for Melville's work might be to underestimate the personal significance of these volumes. That Melville wrote in this set suggests that he found in Unitarian thought, or at least in Channing, an intellectual and spiritual complement to the Unitarian observances he shared with Elizabeth: their wedding in a Unitarian church; their attendance at All Souls in the late 1840s and again after their return to New York in the mid-1860s (infrequent as that attendance may have been in Herman's case); Dewey's baptism of their children; Melville's membership in All Souls and pew rental there in the 1880s; and his 1891 funeral performed by All Souls minister Theodore Chickering Williams.[6]

More intimately still, Channing, like every effective minister, may have shaped Melville's sense of himself and his values. In 1851 Melville wrote to Hawthorne that his "development has been all within a few years past" and that, since his twenty-fifth year, "Three weeks have scarcely passed . . . that I have not unfolded within myself" (Melville, Correspondence 193). Channing may deserve credit for some of this unfolding, especially since the metaphor itself points back to him: e.g., "to unfold it [a rational and moral existence] must ever be the chief duty and end of our being" (1.190); "True religion is a life unfolded within" (4.280); and "There is but one true happiness, that of a mind unfolding its best powers, and attaching itself to great objects" (3.223, cf. 4.181). Reading Channing on the brink of thirty, Melville may have found in these pages not merely a kindred spirit, but also a stimulus to moral, spiritual, and intellectual questing—indeed, some of the very qualities we now consider most definitively Melvillean.


[1] See my "Mahomet's Gospel and Other Revelations" for the details of this discovery, as well as a fuller discussion of the recovery of the two erased annotations in volume 3.

[2] On Channing's philosophical differences from the Transcendentalists, see Wright 34-37.

[3] See Brian Yothers on the influence of Bellows's ecumenicism on Clarel (163-66).

[4] In Melville's Major Fiction, Duban notes the parallel between Melville's inscriptions in his New Testament and the Unitarian belief in "the imitableness of Christ's character and the innate goodness of man" (Duban 33-34).

[5] See Leyda on the baptism of Melville's children (2.662).

[6] See Parker on the Melvilles' wedding (1.153); Braswell on Melville's irregular church attendance (7); Kring and Carey on the membership book kept by Williams, who succeeded Henry Whitney Bellows at All Souls in 1883, and Melville's pew rental in 1887. Melville's name appears in the 1884 book; see Kring's introduction to the essay's republication (Yannella and Parker 5). Since no record of church members from Bellows's long tenure at All Souls survives, Melville's membership before 1884 remains an open question.


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