Herman Melville’s Politics of Imperialism: Colonizing and De-Colonizing Spaces of Ethnicity


Melville and Imperialism

How to Cite

Blumenthal, R. A. (2006). Herman Melville’s Politics of Imperialism: Colonizing and De-Colonizing Spaces of Ethnicity. Vanderbilt Undergraduate Research Journal, 2. https://doi.org/10.15695/vurj.v2i0.2745


There is, in Herman Melville’s works, a constant struggle to situate the narrative within the context of a racial and ethnic “Other.” Melville’s narrators—almost invariably white, Euro-American males—appear at times in tense opposition to, and at other times in social harmony with, the African, Native American, Polynesian, and Oriental presences in his texts. In essence, Melville situates these non-white characters against the dominantly-raced narrator as racial “Others.” This ethnic “othering” entails a dangerous politics of racial separation, hierarchizing, and colonization, yet simultaneously allows for and even encourages a social critique of nineteenth-century white American imperialist attitudes toward non-white peoples. Indeed, this is what makes Melville such a difficult figure to decipher both literarily and historically. By marking these races as alien and “other,” indeed by striving to “mark” them at all, Melville at once conducts a constructive anthropological study as well as sets the destructive foundation for a race-driven, American imperialist project aimed at alienated and “othered” races. Indeed, Melville constructs for his readership a difficult paradox; his texts on the one hand call for white intervention and colonization of ethnic and racial spaces, and on the other, they illuminate the counter-productivity of such colonization. What, then, was Melville’s relationship to the ongoing imperialist project of nineteenth-century America? To reach an answer to this question we will examine Melville’s political relationship to two Pacific Ocean land groups (the Marquesan Islands and the Sandwich Islands), establish a pattern to his paradoxical imperialist and anti-imperialist philosophies, and finally, construct a model of his international, inter-ethnic political philosophy.