Long a motif in American literature, innocence with the term "American Adam" emerged from the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville,and even Poe. Stepping onto the shores of America, Puritans perceived the new land as a metaphoric Eden from which they could be freed from the corruptions of the old European societies to regain the innocence of Adam. In his Letters from an American Farmer, immigrant Michel Guillanume Jean de Crevècoeur writes of the industrious and ingenuous new American who shares his freedom with all others. In another publication, Crevecoeur interestingly notes the prosperity of those who live in the small community of Nantucket, which, he contended, in Europe would have been impoverished because of taxes and the corruption of government officials. Instead,
As fellow Christians ... they love and mutually assist each other in all their wants...the islanders prospered because everyone expected morality, temperance, and labor and all could keep the full rewards of their industry.
Perhaps, then, it is not just that Nantucket is a whaling village that Herman Melville has his characters of Starbuck and Ahab be residents of this island that itself seems a metaphoric Eden. But, having rejected Emerson's and the others' beliefs that America is a new Eden, Melville, instead, perceives no heavenly city or defensible ideal, no "perfectibility of man."
Critic Karen Tanguma calls both Ishmael and Ahab "Old World Adams"; they are solitary men who seek the truth on the spiritual depth of the sea, which is the world and teacher to Melville who has spent most of his life upon it. There, Ahab abandons any concept of an Eden and obedience to God, as foreshadowed in Chapter 36 in the ceremony with the three mates on the deck in which they cross their lapoons and drink from the tops as though drinking from chalices in a mockery of the Christian eucharistic ceremony. Critic Karen Tanguma writes,
Ishmael suffered into knowledge and spiritual rebirth and returned to the human race. Melville enhanced Ahab's unfortunate fall, through the novel's dark elements of evil, fear, and dark history.... Ahab (tragic Adam) became consumed with rage after his encounter with the whale and emerged as a dead man.
Rather than seek spiritual growth, Ahab challenges evil in the form of the preternatural white whale. In Chapter 41, Ishmael describes Ahab as an "ungodly old man chasing with curses a Job's whale" who is "intent on an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge." Earlier in Chapter 34, Ishmael states that Ahab, though "included in the census of Christendom,...was still an alien to it"; later in Chapter 135, Ishmael remarks,
...Ahab never thinks, he only feels, feels, feels; that tingling enough for mortal man! To think's audacity. God only has that right and privilege.
Further, the religious and God-fearing mate, Starbuck, observes of himself, "I misdoubt me that I disobey my God in obeying him," an observation that clearly alludes to and underscores the words of Father Mapple's sermon in which he states that man must disobey himself in order to obey God.
Thus, the "tragic Adam" suffers the "unfortunate fall" as he denies God and dies, wrapped in "the shroud of the sea," having been consumed by his intent of avenging himself upon the symbol of a spiritual power, while Ishmael, the "Old World Adam," suffers into spiritual knowledge and grows in wisdom, and like Job of the Old Testament, is "escaped alone to tell thee" [Job 1:16] his tale.