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What’s So Bad About Reconciliation?

Herman Melville understood both the horrors of slavery and the bonds between countrymen. Should he be canceled?

Credit: Dominionart

There is a theory of the ultimate fate of the universe, lesser known than the “The Big Bang,” referred to as “The Big Crunch.” Developed by Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann in 1922, it predicts that the expansion that began with the Big Bang will ultimately reach its limit and the universe will collapse back into itself.

While the weight of current evidence is against it, the theory remains a useful metaphor for analyzing what Charles Mackay called extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds, such as the belief that spending public funds on the removal of monuments depicting soldiers of the Confederacy—most of which had stood long in obscurity and functioned mainly as perches for pigeons—would somehow improve the lives of black Americans.


Money well spent, say proponents of the movement, which has resulted in the removal of over twenty monuments from Florida to California. While this is clearly the case with memorials to genuinely bad men such as the one in Memphis that honored Nathan Bedford Forest—first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and a delegate to the 1868 Democratic National Convention—what about monuments to the end of slavery and to reconciliation, universally recognized as improvements over America’s racist past? 

Sorry, they’ve got to go too. In Boston, a monument known as the Emancipation Memorial depicting Abraham Lincoln and a kneeling black man poised to rise after his chains had been broken was removed and placed in storage in December of 2020, even though it had been originally funded in 1876 by former slaves. Abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem for its dedication, and the mayor of Boston praised the statue as “an epic lesson to future generations” of the great act that it commemorated, “the emancipation of four millions of slaves!”

There were quibbles from the first; Frederick Douglass found the work “admirable” but noted that it didn’t “tell the whole truth of slavery.” This criticism was repeated more than a century later, long after the nation had made progress in civil rights that Lincoln and Douglass could barely have imagined; the slave “can never rise and stand, never come to consciousness of his own power,” wrote historian Kirk Savage in 1997, even though that is exactly what real people had done all around it, notwithstanding the static nature of the metal in which it was cast. The sculpture was deemed paternalistic, but isn’t it more paternalistic to think that an image from the nation’s past somehow impedes the progress of those living in the present?

The unwillingness of those far removed from America’s legacy of slavery to forgive enemies they never met is troubling, and leads one to believe that those who do so are grasping for a grudge they can wield against present-day enemies. If 19th century supporters of the Union cause could forgive their rebellious countrymen—who would have killed them if they could—how can anyone alive today claim a right to continued umbrage on their behalf?

If we take that approach, there will be many big names that will have to be torn down like those memorials. One of the biggest, surely, would be Herman Melville.


Melville was a Northerner, born in New York, and a firm supporter of the Union cause who “deplored slavery,” in the words of Elizabeth Hardwick, one of his many biographers. In the final days of the Civil War, inspired by the fall of Richmond, Melville began to work rapidly on Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, which turned into a collection of seventy-two poems that he dedicated “To the Memory of the Three Hundred Thousand Who in the War For the Maintenance of the Union Fell Devotedly Under the Flag of Their Fathers.” Despite this dedication to Union soldiers only, the poems contain expressions of sympathy for soldiers of the Confederacy, both those of high rank (General Robert E. Lee) and ordinary enlisted men.

Melville refers to slavery as “man’s foulest crime” in one of the early poems (“Misgivings”) but chides the Union soldiers for the overconfidence that led to their defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, which he refers to by the name preferred by the Confederates, the Battle of First Manassas. “So they gayly go to fight,” he wrote of the Union soldiers, “Chatting left and laughing right.” He similarly reports on the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, a humiliating defeat for the North, as preceded by Union soldiers marching past porches “rich with ladies cheering royally.”

Melville makes an explicit call for reconciliation in “Rebel Color-Bearers at Shiloh,” subtitled “A plea against the vindictive cry raised by civilians shortly after the surrender at Appomattox.” He calls the unarmed Confederate soldiers “martyrs for the Wrong” but then goes on to say:

Perish the Cause! but mark the men—

Mark the planted statues, then

Draw trigger on them if you can.

The color-guardsmen

drop their flags,

And yield. Now shall we fire?

Can poor spite be?

Shall nobleness in victory less aspire

Than in reverse? Spare spleen her ire,

And think how Grant met Lee.

Melville was forty-two years old when the Civil War began, too old to see action on the battlefield, but he was familiar with the horrors of slavery. In Redburn, a lesser-known semi-autobiographical work, he recounts a conversation with Jackson, a bully but the best seaman in the crew, who tells tales of his time on a slave ship where the bodies were “stowed, heel and point, like logs and the suffocated and dead were unmanacled” and thrown overboard. In Liverpool, he saw a black man walking arm-in-arm with a “good-looking English woman” and noted regretfully that they “would have been mobbed in three minutes” in New York; he concluded that “in some things we Americans leave to other countries the carrying out of the principle that stands at the head of our Declaration of Independence.”

So should Melville be sent to the basement where writers whose views no longer comport with current orthodoxies are now consigned, simply because his heart was large enough to encompass feelings for defeated enemies who were also his countrymen? Or can we learn from his example that disagreements between fellow citizens can and should be subordinated to larger principles, such as shared nationality?

If reconciliation is now to be considered a bad thing, it is perhaps time to allow the ever-expanding universe of retrospective umbrage to collapse in upon itself, in a Big Crunch.


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