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Herman Melville is widely considered to be one of America’s greatest authors, and countless literary theorists and critics have studied his life and work. However, political theorists have tended to avoid Melville, turning rather to such contemporaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to understand the political thought of the American Renaissance. While Melville was not an activist in the traditional sense and his philosophy is notoriously difficult to categorize, his work is nevertheless deeply political in its own right. As editor Jason Frank notes in his introduction to A Political Companion to Herman Melville, Melville’s writing “strikes a note of dissonance in the pre-established harmonies of the American political tradition.”

This unique volume explores Melville’s politics by surveying the full range of his work—from Typee (1846) to the posthumously published Billy Budd (1924). The contributors give historical context to Melville’s writings and place him in conversation with political and theoretical debates, examining his relationship to transcendentalism and contemporary continental philosophy and addressing his work’s relevance to topics such as nineteenth-century imperialism, twentieth-century legal theory, the anti-rent wars of the 1840s, and the civil rights movement. From these analyses emerges a new and challenging portrait of Melville as a political thinker of the first order, one that will establish his importance not only for nineteenth-century American political thought but also for political theory more broadly.

Jason Frank is associate professor of government at Cornell University. He is the author of Constituent Moments: Enacting the People in Postrevolutionary America and Publius and Political Imagination and coeditor of Vocations of Political Theory.

Frank has put together a wonderful series of essays that capture the diversity of Melville's thought in all its intensity, complexity, and nuance. This is a fantastic book that is well deserving of the attention of political theorists, literary critics, and Melville scholars alike. -- Simon Stow, The College of William and Mary

“'America’s Marx'” (as Michael Rogin called him)? Or 'American’s Ishmael' (as Jason Frank proposes)? Either way, Herman Melville is, as Jason Frank suggests in his fine introduction to this comprehensive volume, a writer ripe for political theoretical inquiry, right alongside Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. Timely and long overdue, this volume puts Melville on the map of political theory, right where he belongs. No course on American Political Thought will leave Melville out now, nor will students in those classes be able to proceed without consulting this valuable collection."--Bonnie Honig, Brown University

"The scholars in this excellent collection confront the towering genius of Melville with remarkable intellectual courage. They explore with open minds the overt and implicit political meanings of his work and collaborate to make a fresh contribution to the literature on Melville."--George Kateb, emeritus, Princeton University

This collection brings together fourteen consistently stimulating and often profound meditations on the political theory at work in the writings of Herman Melville. Indeed, I have seldom read a collection of essays offering such stunningly diverse insights and of such uniformly high quality. The volume will interest all Melville readers and scholars, but perhaps especially those in US literary and cultural studies, who may discover here that the questions posed by cutting-edge political theory can illuminate -- and transform our understanding of -- a major American author."--Nick Bromell, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of The Time is Always Now: Black Thought and the Transformation of US Democracy

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Herman Melville, Political views, Social views, Politics, Literature


Literature in English, North America

A Political Companion to Herman Melville
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