The Magazine

Writer in Crisis

Reopening the case of Herman Melville.

Dec 12, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 13 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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His World and Work

by Andrew Delbanco

Knopf, 448 pp., $30

"ALL THE BEST CRITICS and literary historians have written about Melville," observes Elizabeth Hardwick in her recent gemlike miniature in the Penguin Lives series.

She is certainly of that company, as is Andrew Delbanco, whose eloquent critical biography continues the best traditions of humanistic scholarship at Columbia, where he is Levi Professor in the Humanities and director of American Studies. And 55 years ago there was one of the earliest of the best, Newton Arvin--and, in between, the labor of many hardworking scholars.

Why Melville? What is it about him, even more than such distinguished contemporaries as Hawthorne and Whitman, that has so entranced students of American literature? The mystery is the deeper in that Melville followed his fecund twenties and thirties (when he wrote ten books in a decade including Moby Dick at 32) with a silence so prolonged that it has become a literary joke: John Updike's Bech, in the novel of that name, wins the Melville Medal, "awarded every five years to that American author who has maintained the most meaningful silence."

Maybe the answer lies in the work, which, interrupted as it was by long silences and fits of gloom, is formidable. Many still claim, as if it were the first axiom of our literary history, that Moby Dick is our greatest novel. Delbanco is more nuanced, calling it "the most ambitious book ever conceived by an American writer."

In the earliest fashion (novels, before visual media and jet travel, brought the nouvelles, the news, from afar), the book is didactic to the point of garrulousness on whaling and much else. And in that respect, and others more relevant to good storytelling, its ambition must be granted. So much conceded, some of us would argue that Faulkner's best, notably Absalom, Absalom! (also a great tale of obsession), are also in the running. Meanwhile, those who contend that Melville's other indisputably immortal work, the late short novel Billy Budd, is the greatest of its genre must reckon with Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle." But after all, de gustibus . . .

Melville's experience at sea in his early years was, of course, a trump card. He sailed first as a cabin boy on the whaler Acushnet in 1841, barely beyond his teens. Ships, he said, constituted "my Yale College and my Harvard." He grasped the psychology of obsession and gave us an unforgettable portrayal of it in Captain Ahab's pursuit of the white whale that had crippled him.

Moby Dick is a special case, having burst with unexampled radiance, rather like a Mozart symphony, from a body of apprentice work that offered no premonition of the novel or basis for predicting it. Billy Budd, brought belatedly to light from a stash of Melville's all-but-forgotten manuscripts some 20 years after his death, is also rich in symbolic power--a memorable study of the deadly peril of "motiveless malignity" to inarticulate innocence. Few writers in English, moreover, are his peers in rhetorical power, which seems to have been radically enhanced when he came by an edition of Shakespeare that didn't strain his eyes. Melville could write of the white whale that it was "one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air," and of Queequeg's head as a "mildewed skull." And there was much more.

Delbanco's book is subtitled "world and work," appropriately so. He is not only a fine critic; he is also an accomplished historian of the politics and cultural climate of the mid-19th century America that was Melville's working environment. But as Delbanco implicitly concedes, while the circuitry linking a writer's life with his art demands attention, it also can be elusive. Melville's story is interesting, but not terribly revealing. He was well born, and both his grandfathers were Revolutionary war worthies, even heroes. But family decline set in. His father failed in business and died early, when Melville was 13. His mother, of the patroon Gansevoort clan, left to care for eight children, was demanding. Melville's biographers all say that her Dutch Reformed Calvinism left a lasting impress on his sometimes gloomy spirit. His father-in-law, Judge Lemuel Shaw, the chief justice of Massachusetts, was, however, a saint of generosity who often rescued Melville from financial distress.

When Melville slipped into literary obscurity in his late thirties, friends tried to help. Nathaniel Hawthorne, with whom he had formed his most intensely significant friendship, lobbied President Pierce for an overseas sinecure for Melville--in vain. Melville himself haunted the Lincoln White House in the same fruitless search. Finally, in 1866, he joined the federal Customs Service as an inspector on the New York docks and toiled at this humdrum work for 18 years, at $4 a day.