Cook, Jonathan A.. Neither Believer Nor Infidel: Skepticism and Faith in Melville’s Shorter Fiction and Poetry. Ithaca, NY: Northern Illinois University Press, 2023. Cloth. 267 pp.

With the publication of this volume, Jonathan Cook cements his reputation as the preeminent scholar of religion in Herman Melville’s ouevre; none have written so voluminously or eruditely as he about the important roles that scripture, church, and faith have played in shaping Melville’s novels, stories, and verse. Neither Believer Nor Infidel is a companion to two earlier monographs by Cook on the role of religion in Moby-Dick and The Confidence-Man, but unlike his previous studies, this book considers many different Melvillean texts, ranging from short fiction like “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “The Encantadas” to his work as a poet in Battle-Pieces and Timoleon, Etc. To each of the texts he examines, Cook brings his tremendous gifts as a close reader, and anyone seeking to better understand the pieces he has chosen to survey here would benefit from his analysis.

Perhaps his best work in this volume is a reading of “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!,” a magazine story given relatively short shrift in the larger context of Melvillean studies. Because critics have disagreed over the years as to “whether the story was written to convey a subversive or affirmative spiritual message,” it might be regarded as a microcosm of the larger interpretive dilemma Cook addresses in Neither Believer Nor Infidel: the question of how to reconcile oppositional endorsements of both skepticism and faith at different points in a single text and across Melville’s larger career (63). Cook reads the story as “a modern parable satirically critiquing the allegedly redemptive powers of Christian faith in which the narrator’s mock conversion is shown to be an act of supreme Pauline folly,” and that conclusion is representative of his broader perspective on Melville (65). In support of his reading, Cook martials an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, acknowledging explicit allusions to sacred text as well as more circuitous connections suggested by parallel circumstances. In “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!,” for example, the narrator attributes miraculous powers to a rooster and, desiring to assume possession of its abilities, offers to buy the cock from its humble owner. Observing that this offer replicates major features of the Simon Magus narrative in the biblical book of Acts, Cook notes that “the narrator is not as corrupt as his biblical model here since he accepts the poor man’s invitation to come into his shanty” (77). This type of close reading—identifying unrecognized or seldom discussed religious allusions and parsing out their implications for the larger plot—is where Cook is at his best, and the necessary first step for every new entrant into conversations about Melville and religion will be to survey Cook’s work here and elsewhere.

Cook excels in the granular, but his argument in Neither Believer Nor Infidel is a sweeping claim advocating for a fairly static view of Melville-as-skeptic over the course of more than thirty years and multiple major professional transitions. One key question readers might pose in assessing that claim is a matter of representation and organization: How much of Melville’s short fiction must be surveyed in order to draw a conclusion about its character? How much of his poetry? Of the seventeen attributed works of short fiction collected in Volume 9 of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville’s collected works, Cook discusses three. Almost nothing is said of three volumes of poetry (John Marr and Other Sailors; Weeds and Wildings Chiefly: with A Rose or Two; and Parthenope), and Melville’s most consequential effort in verse, Clarel, is mentioned only in passing. While my observations might be construed as both wistful lament (I would love to read Cook on “The Piazza”) and cranky non sequitur, the material under consideration here was produced over such a long timeline and in so many vastly different circumstances that it is hard to accept this brief survey as sufficient evidence “of [Melville’s] skeptical engagement with Christianity for most of his adult life” (206).

Melville’s inclination towards skepticism is unquestionably on display in the works this volume treats, but it is difficult (for this reader, at any rate) to believe that Melville wrote so persistently about religion for so many years only to find new ways of expressing the same, unremittingly skeptical view of Christian scripture and practice. Cook’s subtitle promises an examination of Skepticism and Faith in Melville’s Shorter Fiction and Poetry, but he pays scant attention to faith and offers a long leash to skepticism. In his discussion of poems from Battle-Pieces, for example, Cook turns his attention to one of Melville’s elegies, “On the Slain Collegians,” describing it “as an illustration of the well-known classical proverb that those whom the gods love die young” (152). The poem is rife with biblical language and imagery, but because Cook finishes his commentary in two pages, the same sort of careful attention he offers to every religiously relevant passage of Israel Potter is missing here. Perhaps if he had taken time and space to offer a comparably expansive reading of this and other poems dismissed in a paragraph or two, Cook still would have come to the same conclusions he reaches in these pages. But an expanded discussion of the relationship between Melville’s mothers searching for “balm divine” and the biblical balm of Gilead, or “the mask of Cain” and biblical descriptions of Eve’s first son (Melville 118-19), would be welcome here. Cook’s most pronounced strength is his capacity to give exhaustive attention to the religious implications of a given text, and when his analysis veers towards summation rather than exploration, his conclusions are far less compelling.

But if some chapters in this study disappoint, compared to the standard set in Cook’s first two books, that disappointment is relative and not absolute. The latter half of Melville’s career is still coming into view for those in the academy who are not specialists, and this book offers a valuable service in drawing attention to the continuing relevance of an interpretive dilemma most readers know only from their familiarity with Melville’s exploration of theodicy in Moby-Dick. Neither Believer Nor Infidel is a welcome reminder that Melville continued to wrestle with Christian doctrine and the Bible’s status as an organ of truth long after he had finished his career as a novelist—in brief works of prose and poetry, as well as in his magnum opus, Clarel.

 Zach Hutchins


Works Cited

 Melville, Herman. Published Poems: Battle-Pieces, John Marr, Timoleon. Edited by Robert C. Ryan, Harrison Hayford, Alma MacDougall Riesing, and G. Thomas Tanselle.  Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP and the Newberry Library, 2009[KW1] .


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