Exodus and Typological Plasticity in Delany, Melville, and Stowe

How did Exodus serve as a structure to stage the clash between divergent anti-slavery positions? This article discusses Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), Martin Delany’s Blake, or the Huts of America (1859-1862), and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851). Exodus served as a touchstone for the debate over how best to respond to slavery. I argue that Delany, Melville, and Stowe creatively adapt Exodus in ways that stretch the biblical text. Stowe legitimizes Dred’s impulse toward insurrection by likening him to Moses, while containing the potentially disturbing threat of black violence by suggesting that Dred’s disposition to mysticism is inherent in African racial essence. I situate Stowe in relation to early psychiatrist Amariah Brigham’s tendency to pathologize religious enthusiasm and draw on Frantz Fanon to frame Stowe’s conjunction between blackness and madness. While Stowe has reservations about insurrection as a means of ending slavery, Delany’s Mosaic hero preaches black self-sufficiency. I read Blake as a precursor to James Cones’s black liberation theology. Blake inspires transnational ethnic unity through his belief in a single, pragmatic faith for all the oppressed. Whereas Stowe and Delany both aggrandize their protagonists as new Mosaic leaders, Melville depicts the black cook Fleece as a parodic-Moses. Melville critiques slavery as an ungovernable appetite by likening slaveholders to ravenous sharks. Yet, he muddies the typological waters by also comparing the sharks to the Israelites grumbling for meat in the wilderness. For Melville, Exodus is a text open to endless interpretation but not readily useful for resolving social conflict. I situate a close reading of the “Stubb’s Supper” chapter of Moby-Dick in the context of appeals to the power of moral suasion to end slavery by Unitarians like William Ellery Channing and the use of animalistic imagery to characterize Africans by pro-slavery advocates like Samuel Cartwright and Josiah Priest.