American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania, by Hilton Obenzinger. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999. xxi; 316 pp.

Overall, Obenzinger's book is an advance on previous scholarship about travel writing in the region. It is a comment on the growth of American obsession with the "Holy Land." In America's beginning, the geography of Palestine (or rather biblical geography) was inscribed on the New World as rationale for a "promised" land and a "chosen" people. This geography was then re-inscribed in Palestine when tourists started flocking to Palestine in the 19th century. At the hand of fundamentalists, it took the form of "sacred geography" - that is, the attempt to trace biblical stories in the land, trying to find any shred of surface evidence to show their "veracity." Hundreds of such obsessed accounts about Palestine were published by clergymen and lay travelers.
The word "mania" comes from Herman Melville's journals, where he comments during his visit in 1856-57 on the work of missionaries and ultra-fundamentalists in Palestine. He had earlier made similar comments about missionaries in Polynesia. Obenzinger picks up this word to describe forms of obsession in the writings of millennialists, adventists and other fundamentalists. This phenomenon of Christian Zionism preceded Jewish Zionism. Obenzinger levels a critical eye at America's colonial project and at fundamentalist Protestant manias that later provided the "material" help and "ideological groundwork for Zionist settlement" in Palestine (12).
To illustrate this process of cross-transfer between the Old World and the New World, the book concentrates on two famous U.S. writers: Herman Melville and Mark Twain. The reason is not that these two writers represented mainstream culture and opinion. Most other "Holy Land books" sought "in one way or other to appropriate Palestine for the American imagination" (x), seeing an invented Palestine, rather than what was actually before their eyes. In contrast, Melville and Twain are selected for discussion because they are "least representative" counter-texts and because they highlight the discrepancy between physical realities and mythic narratives, sordid facts and imagined bonds. Twain sardonically and Melville darkly uncover "crudities, fraud, or illusion" in place of the expected "authenticity, exoticism, beauty, or, particularly in the Holy Land, spirituality" (166).
Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad (1869) resulted from his excursion in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean with a group of American "innocents." Unlike other enchanted grounds the excursionists visited in Europe and the Levant, Palestine's associations are entangled in strange ways in America's own acts of self-construction: it was "home" and not home. (Today, the appropriation is complicated by the fact that geographic Palestine was dismembered in 1948 and that America/U.S.A. has, from its inception, identified with biblical "Israel" as its covenantal paradigm.) Innocents Abroad is written through the ironic screen of a typical American narrator through which Twain satirizes both Holy Land travel and American mannerisms.
Herman Melville's Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876) is a very long and difficult poem: a novel in verse that rewrites much of his earlier fiction. It tells the story of a divinity student whose exposure to Palestinian landscape deflates his earlier assumptions and begins his real education in religion and in life. Clarel travels from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea then Bethlehem with a diverse group of "pilgrims" whose observations (and sometimes deaths) are a symbolic journey of "unlearning" and learning. It is an encyclopaedic poem, epic in its dimensions, and its purpose lies at the center of the 19th-century struggle between religious faith and scientific doubt.
American Palestine contains 16 chapters, arranged in three parts. Part 1, "Excavating American Palestine," has four chapters devoted to introductory concepts that relate "sacred geography" and typology to colonial encounters and their assumptions about a special "covenant" (or agreement derived from the Bible). Chapter 2 on George Sandys suggests curious intersections in colonial encounters between Holy Land travel and the construction of Western culture. Sandys, English treasurer of the Virginia Company, who participated in actions against the Powhatans in 1622, wrote an account of his journey in 1610 to the Ottoman empire that anticipates later colonial plans for the region.
Chapters 5 to 8 are devoted to Clarel, with specific attention to the characters of Nathan as "the Puritan Zionist" and Ungar as a debunker of the American myth. The remaining eight chapters engage in a number of interesting connections to Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad (1869) and Tom Sawyer Abroad (1896), as well as his remarks "Concerning the Jews." Obenzinger demonstrates more competence in his treatment of the Twain material than he does with Melville.
Melville's Clarel is central to the argument, though discussion of it occupies less than a quarter of the book. It is to Obenzinger's credit that he uses the term "anti-Judaic" to describe Melville's positions (6). He thus seems to avoid making rash conclusions other critics have made that Melville had anti-Semitic feelings merely because he opposed Protestant millennial missionary madness in Palestine (he calls their atttempt to convert Jews in preparation for the "second coming" a "preposterous Jew mania"). Obenzinger seems to recognize that Melville was consistently opposed to any kind of monomania, and that his opposition to a hegemonic paradigm based on exclusionist religious interpretations is not the same as having ill feeling toward a religious group. In this respect, American Palestine represents a perceptual advance over ealier scholarship, which either misinterpreted Melville or tried to subvert his criticism of Western culture. Yet, Obenzinger still seems reluctant to consider how far Melville departs from the sacred geographers. Strangely, Obenzinger even praises some of their works as "popular, informative, even scholarly accounts" (162).
In view of Obenzinger's enlightened treatment, other opinions by him may also raise the eyebrows of those who want to agree with him. Most Melville enthusiasts will find it difficult to support a statement that, even as they undermine American myths, both Twain and Melville "remain complicitous with colonial expansion" (3). In other instances, Melville and Twain are similarly conflated, or distinctions between them blurred, as in remarks that Twain, like most travelers, reacted negatively to Arabs, Turks, local Jews, and Islam (50). As any careful reader of Clarel will discover, Melville comments favorably on Bedouin life and on Islam. These comments are consistent with his statements about native life elsewhere and his use of "Ishmael" as the name of the narrator in Moby-Dick. The monomaniacal captain Ahab in Moby-Dick leads the ship and its crew to destruction, whereas Ishmael's existential attitude results in his symbolic survival. Even Twain cannot be confirmed in anti-Indian/anti-Arab biases, if we are to take account of his ironic style and to remain consistent with the idea of an "invented persona" in Innocents Abroad (6).
Other conflated personae are similarly inaccurate or unattractive as literary conclusions, such as equating Melville's opinion with that of the young protagonist Clarel (83), or suggesting that the poem is sympathetic or ambivalent toward the monomaniacal extremist Nathan. It may even be inconsistent with Obenzinger's own theoretical framework to suggest that Warder Cresson (the missionary model for Nathan) is someone whose ideas Melville would "relish" or to whom he felt "deep attraction" (120, 114). Melville's severe reaction to Cresson and Deacon Walter Dickson in the journal of his visit to Palestine in 1856-57, and his sentence on religious extremism in Clarel, would not support much cute ambivalence.
These are sources of some irreconcilable points in American Palestine. Existentially, is a model for a non-obsessed life to be suggested by the image of the Wandering Jew, or, indeed, by the figure of Ishmael? Is there a real difference between Ishmael and the Wandering Jew, as metaphors for existential roaming? What is the meaning of the extreme manias represented in Ahab and in Nathan, who destroys his family by building a fortress colony in Palestine? Are "Jews" the natives or colonizers today? Are "Arabs" unanchored ramblers clamoring for baksheesh or (as Obenzinger sometimes hints) stalwart occupants of the land unchanged by historical transience?
At one point, in Chapter 14, in discussion of the "Cultivated Negro," Edward Wilmot Blyden, a parallel is drawn between the Liberian project and the Zionist project:
Though the notion that Africans could "reclaim their fame" through "restoring" themselves by means of settler-colonial imposition upon an indigenous population could feel particularly alluring, the idea contained, like Zionism itself, the destabilizing contradiction of domination that was employed in a desperate attempt precisely to escape such Western domination. The framework employed by all covenantal settler-colonial projects is constructed from contradictory narratives of divine escape, trial by wandering, promised conquest, and selective contract, which predicated freedom of the chosen on oppression of those who were not. (246)
This parallel relies on a sense of shared suffering between Jews persecuted in Europe and Africans enslaved in America. A difference may be that African Americans identified with some stories in the biblical heritage that was enforced on them because they related them to their persecution. However, other Africans recognize the fundamental commonality of all colonial-settler assumptions based on claims from the Bible (as many South African blacks have observed). Further, resorting to "Western domination" as an operative motive does not adequately explain or mitigate the way Zionism adopted the same colonial strategies and used the same original biblical tradition to draw its literal claims.
American Palestine is directly allied in its analysis to something like Maxime Rodinson's Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (1973; first published in French, 1967) and Michael Prior's The Bible and Colonialism. In Melville scholarship, it could be related to such critical analyses as Carolyn Karcher's Shadow Over the Promised Land (1979) and Michael Paul Rogin's Subversive Genealogy (1983). However, these works are not mentioned at all in Obenzinger's book. And his references to Clarel criticism are also limited. A reliance on a wider range of critical commentary would have supported Obenzinger's thesis better. And the problem in checking his use of the criticism is made difficult by severe deficiencies and inconsistencies in the book's index (for example, only one "Davis" out of three is listed in the index).
Still, ideologically, American Palestine is distinct from much that is available in criticism about "Holy Land literature." As Obenzinger observes, the postcolonial and Americanist projects have not been extended adequately to encompass writers like Melville and Twain. In fact, the field of "Holy Land" studies has been controlled by the "colonialist teleology" in much American and Israeli scholarship that has reinterpreted the "rediscovery" of Palestine in the 19th century as its own "prehistory." Obenzinger places his work in direct opposition to the approach of someone like Barbara Tuchman, whose Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour celebrates and justifies the connections between Western colonialism and Zionist thinking (7-9). American Palestine follows the implications of identifying both the United States and Israel as "colonial-settler states." Even someone who initially disagrees with this perspective is made aware of the potential for seeing Mark Twain and Herman Melville as two (among other) writers who challenge the constructions of self-interested paradigms masked as truths and dreams.