Recent criticism has overlooked the importance of Japan to Herman Melville's vision of race and empire in the Pacific, when in fact Melville is deeply committed to exposing the rhetorical strategies by which the United States justified its aggressive intervention in the region in the 1850s. Historical studies of Commodore Matthew C. Perry's forced ““opening”” of Japan to trade with the West tend to ignore the ways in which Perry's campaign itself served as a supplement to violence rather than a circumvention of it. Perry's gunboat diplomacy was informed by two strands of American exceptionalist discourse elsewhere popularized by William H. Seward: the democratization of the globe through commerce and the providential duty to bring Christianity to the barbarians. Seward insisted that the Americanization of the Pacific would unify East and West in contradistinction to the defaced Atlantic world. In Moby-Dick (1851) Ahab inverts these arguments; he rhetorically conflates the white whale and Japan as the twinned nemeses of American commercial interests in the Pacific. By convincing the crew to forgo the Pequod's contracted whaling mission in favor of a romanticized geopolitical revenge plot, Ahab confronts the spectral trace of Western capitalism's origin——the white whale as commodity's cipher. The manufacture and marketability of terror in the Pacific, Melville concludes, incites the Pequod's demise off the coast of Japan, and further evidences the failure of American ambition to prescribe its own limits.
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