Date of Award

Spring 5-9-2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Reiner Smolinski

Second Advisor

Mark Noble

Third Advisor

Paul Schmidt


This study examines how Herman Melville’s oeuvre interacts with Old Testament (OT) wisdom literature (the Books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes). Using recent historical findings on the rise of religious skepticism and the erosion of Biblical authority in both Europe and the United States, I read Melville as an author steeped in the theological controversies of the eighteenth-century. Specifically, I am interested in teasing out the surprising disavowals of overt religious skepticism in Melville’s writing. By tracing the so-called Solomonic wisdom tradition throughout Melville’s oeuvre, I argue that Melville had developed an epistemology of contemplation towards that body of Biblical texts. Scholarship has traditionally painted Melville as a subversive if not downright skeptical religious thinker. Most studies have produced authorial readings, using texts as forensic evidence to make assertions about the author’s psychology. Incidentally, such assessments have confirmed the narrative of Herman Melville as a grand failed author of the nineteenth century, while ignoring the ambivalent attitudes toward Biblical authority, textual history, and skepticism that emerge in Melville’s writing. The present study intervenes by re-addressing several procedural questions about Melville’s literary dealings with the Bible: How does Melville deal with the distinct topics of religion, theology, religious skepticism, and doubt? How does he think through the relationship between science and religion as well as that of personal religion and theology? I claim that Melville’s work can be read as a continuous contemplation of Biblical wisdom. His writing, I argue, deals productively rather than a destructive with the Bible, its textual history, and authority. Melville’s thinking on theological and religious subjects was not merely subversive but constructive. In mounting this argument, I contradict current scholarship that reads Melville as trying to invent a new American Bible. In contrast, I show how Melville’s philosophical forays, even when critical, are dependent on the ethics, language, and thinking of the OT.