In the winter of 1856-1857, Herman Melville traveled to Europe and the Levant, and spent approximately nineteen days in the Holy Land. He was one of many luminaries who took the same routes and tours, and stayed at the same hotels; Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt followed suit over the next thirty years. Melville, burnt-out at 48 from a string of failed novels and overexertion, embarked on his journey as a form of recuperation. His journals from the five-month trip, which spanned three continents and nine countries, reveal that it was in the Holy Land that the author reached a turning point, and his journey was every bit as immersive emotionally as it was physically. To be sure, Melville was not entranced by the Holy Land per se, as his travel journal reflects: “No country will more quickly dissipate romantic expectations than Palestine—particularly Jerusalem. To some the disappointment is heart sickening.” But the trip certainly had an impact on him.
Nineteen days of contemplation in the Holy Land would be brought to life nineteen years later, with what Melville considered his most personal work: Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, published in 1876. Longer than Paradise Lost by nearly double, and arguably less accessible, Clarel remains the longest poem in American literature. The novelist had achieved overnight success in 1846 for Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, and notoriety for the commercial flop Moby Dick in 1851. Yet he had also enjoyed moderate success for his volume of poems treating the American Civil War that was published in 1866. It was not enough success, however, to support his family. Working as a customs inspector in New York, Melville devoted his evenings to writing Clarel. In Clarel, Melville tried his hand at iambic tetrameter in creating his own epic poem. Clarel was the eponymously named protagonist of the epic. A seminary student, facing a spiritual crisis, Clarel journeys to the Holy Land to rediscover his faith. And there lies the parallel not just between Melville’s personal spiritual journey, but America’s. In the wake of the Civil War and the scientific breakthroughs of the 1870s (such as Darwin’s), Americans were plunged into a crisis of faith. Naturally, this was met with a great religious revival, producing much discussion, if not clashing, in reconstructed America. Clarel, the naive American, meets characters of many religions and races, who question and debate faith against the backdrop of Biblical sites. The epic ends with Clarel experiencing a renewal of faith, only to have it dashed when his Jewish fiance dies and is not resurrected at Easter. The narrator then exhorts Clarel to faith despite all he has been through.
Melville had the two-volume epic printed at his own cost. He anticipated the negative reception by essentially disavowing himself of its content in his author’s note on the first edition: “I here dismiss the book–content beforehand, with whatever future awaits it.” Privately, he described the epic to a correspondent as “eminently adapted for unpopularity.” He was right. It was, indeed, a commercial and critical flop. Of the 350 copies printed in the first run in 1876, 220 were pulped. Nine years later, Melville agreed to disinter a rare copy of the book for another rarity: a fan of Clarel. It’s fair to say that the epic remained interred until its themes of religion and depth psychology re-emerged in the wake of the Second World War, renewing interest in the poem.  In the decades that followed, there were a few articles published about Clarel by Melville scholars, as is to be expected.
More recently, it seems that Clarel is becoming disinterred yet again. In August of 2019, Herschel Parker, who has devoted over half a century to studying and writing about Melville, published his edition of Melville’s complete poems, in celebration of the author’s bicentennial. The star of this hefty volume is, undoubtedly, Clarel. In May and June of 2020, two articles were published online about the relevance of Clarel to understanding the crisis of American faith both in Melville’s day and in our own. A humanities podcast even dedicated an episode to it around the time those articles came out. Maybe it should not be too surprising, as themes of individual crisis and the tensions between faith and science never do go away or get resolved. Perhaps Clarel deserves another look if not from people of faith (or who study it), then from historians, as Clarel also emerges as a historical document par-excellence.
- Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991), ed. By Herschel Parker, pp. 540-542
- Parker, p. 507