One of the best guides to understanding the character of Melville’s Ahab is C.L.R. James, from his 1953 Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In. In this work, James explores Melville’s works through the lens of mid-century totalitarianism. James begins with the profound contrast between Ahab and Starbuck – which is in essence a conflict in the American spirit. Starbuck represents sober capitalism, pragmatism, and prudence. Ahab, on a great mission, is quick to reject the economic principles of capital for his vision. This leads James to suggest that in his time, Ahab would have been investigated by the FBI for subversive activities. He sees totality, not the petty concerns of daily life. “Ahab was a part of this striking growth of material progress, of trade and of money. By his energy, his skill and his devotion to his work, he becomes captain of his own vessel like so many other gifted and energetic young men. In fact, he is a master of his difficult craft. But having become a captain, Ahab finds himself in continual revolt against his work, his personal life, and the opinions of the people around him.” (MRC 6)
This is Ahab’s danger, according to James, who is “the most destructive social type that has ever appeared in Western Civilization.” (MRC 9). To quote James at length here: “For generations people believed that the men opposed to rights of ownership, production for the market, domination of money, etc. were socialists, communists, radicals of some sort united by the fact that they all thought in terms of the reorganization of society by the workers, the great majority of the oppressed, the exploited, the disinherited. . . . Nobody, not a single soul, thought that in the managers, the superintendents, the executives, the administrators would arise such loathing and bitterness against the society of free enterprise, the market and democracy, that they would try to reorganize it to suit themselves, and, if need be, destroy civilization in the process.” (MRC 9) Indeed, James explains, Ahab is in revolt against the very Promethean spirit that his profession embodies. “Fire, power, mechanical creativeness, he doe snot reject. He knows that they have made him what he is. He rejoices in that. But as long as it means an inhuman existence such as he has lived, he will defy it.” (MRC 10) What makes this so insidious is Ahab’s individualism and alienation from his crew. This makes him an alienated tyrant and very dangerous. His loss of a leg pushes Ahab to full rejection of the world and civilization. Bear in mind, Ahab always had a fragile relationship with civilization to begin with. He spent most of his life at the sea and barely knows his wife. This is reflected in his relationship with his workers. “The crew are not human being but things, as he called them, ‘manufactured men.’ For him their permanent condition is sordidness. For a moment he has lifted them out of themselves by the crusade for achievement of his purpose. And even then he brided them with a doubloon and grog and ritual.” (MRC 16)
James feels that this is the perfect representation of a Hitler or a Stalin, indifferent to the potential and abilities of the people he uses and consumed by a hatred for the world and a desire to destroy it. If we accept James’ argument we should approach Ahab with caution the same way we might approach Lucifer in Paradise Lost. The suggestion is that we should fear totality, because it risks the very Promethean spirit that promises equality, solidarity, and freedom.