The Perils of Religious Stagnancy: Herman Melville’s “Clarel”

In today’s post, I will briefly discuss my interpretation of the character of Nehemiah in Melville’s epic poem Clarel, and I will contrast him with David Fenimore Cooper’s “parallel” character, David Gamut, in The Last of the Mohicans. At first glance, Nehemiah seems to be a typical stock character that serves as a foil to the character of Clarel. While the poem’s eponymous character dons the role of the believer undergoing a crisis in faith—Nehemiah plays the role of the obnoxious blind believer who follows religious doctrine and religious scripts in an uncritical and naïve fashion. When Clarel first encounter’s Nehemiah, the self-proclaimed “sinner” makes his reliance on the Bible and religion overt. As he is holding a the holy scriptures near his chest, Nehemiah states the following:

“Consult it, heart; wayfarer you,

And this a friendly guide, the best;

No ground there is that faith would view

But here ’tis rendered with the rest;

The way to fields of Beulah dear

And New Jerusalem is here.” (Melville 29, emphasis mine)

Note that to some extent, there is a slight ambiguity in these verses. As Nehemiah holds the scriptures near his chest, he states that “this a friendly guide, the best.” On one hand, we are aware that Nehemiah does become Clarel’s guide through the lands of Jerusalem, and thus, he can be referring to his own capabilities of sauntering knowledgeably through the premises of the holy lands. On the other hand, the word guide carries heavy pedagogical, and to some extent, religious connotations. Keeping in mind that Nehemiah has the scriptures in hand, it is possible to read this verse as an offering to be not only a guide through the physical premises of Jerusalem, but also “the best” spiritual guide. It is no secret that Nehemiah is a religious fundamentalist, and his religious views serve as a stark contrast not only to Clarel’s views, but also to the views of Rolfe, another religious skeptic who questions religion through debate and through historicizing. Throughout the remainder of the narrative, Nehemiah’s positioning of the Bible as the best guide is certainly put to the test.

I think it is at first easy to compare Nehemiah with David Gamut due to their reliance on holy scriptures, their desire to shove their beliefs down other characters’ throats, their use of music to spread the holy word, and their supposed presence as stock characters within their respective narratives. However, there are important differences between the two. In The Last of the Mohicans, Gamut’s religious views are always mocked by other characters, particularly by Hawkeye, for they are deemed impractical within the premises of the wilderness. Nehemiah, on the other hand, in spite of his overly zealous views, does manage to convey some degree of respect with his religious views; after all, bear in mind that there are in Jerusalem, a physical space in which spirituality certainly has some degree of practical agency. This is particularly seen in the instance in which a Turk views Nehemiah as someone worthy of admiration because he is free of sin—and a man free of sin is worthy of praise no matter what religious doctrine they adhere to:

The Turk went further: let him wend;

Him Allah cares for, holy one:

A Santon held him; and was none

Bigot enough scorn’s shaft to send.

For, say what cynic will or can,

Man sinless is revered by man

Thro’ all the forms which creeds may lend. (Melville 29)

The biggest difference between Nehemiah and Gamut is their purpose and their willingness to change in the narratives. Nehemiah is without a doubt a static character. He lives and dies as a man who truly believes in the ideas transmitted by the scriptures, and his faith always guides his actions and his views. Gamut, on the other hand, goes through a series of dramatic changes in Mohicans. Although at first he is a religious idealist, he slowly but surely leaves aside religious doctrine in order to delve into the pragmatism needed to survive in the wilderness. I think that there is also much to be said with the fact that Nehemiah dies and Gamut survives. When approaching this notion from a Darwinian perspective, Gamut was willing to adapt in order to assure his subsistence; Nehemiah’s unbending religious will, on the other hand, ultimately leads him to his downfall:

The visions changed and counterchanged–

Blended and parted–distant ranged,

And beckoned, beckoned him away.

In sleep he rose; and none did wist

When vanished this somnambulist. (Melville 256).

True, Gamut was indeed annoyingly adherent to his religious beliefs during the first half of Mohicans, but this adherence ultimately proved to be an aid rather than a hindrance. Whenever Gamut relied on the scriptures or song to defend him against peril, they always aided him in a humoristic fashion. For instance, his penchant for singing in the face of danger was perceived by native Americans to be exceedingly bizarre, or even brave. After all, it does take bravado to sing in the face of death.

However, as can be seen in the verses above, Nehemiah’s belief pushes him to the verge of insanity, to the extent in which the magical realm of belief fuses with the world of the real. Nehemiah’s faith goes on to embrace a hallucinatory edge that ultimately pushes him to his death, for in his nightly “visions” he sees a New Jerusalem rising from the sea, and he promptly sleepwalks to his demise. In due course, this creates a rather harsh message on behalf of Melville. While Cooper, to some extent, was parodying zealous religious belief with the character of Gamut, this character always embraced a sense of light-heartedness and flightiness that made this critique gentler in comparison to Melville’s. Melville’s depiction of a zealous believer ultimately reinforces the perils of stagnancy when it comes to the battle between knowledge and belief. And at least when focusing on the character of Nehemiah, knowledge certainly wins out.

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Herman Melville’s Clarel (Northwestern University Press)

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