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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Meanwhile, the family tragedies continued. His elder son, Malcolm, shot himself at age 18; the younger son, Stanwix, died of consumption in California in obscurity and alienation at 35. Delbanco speculates that the "angelic" Billy Budd may be read, in part, as "an amalgam of Melville's lost sons." Melville's personal history is, then, largely a chronicle of isolation, poverty, and long silences. When he visited Hawthorne in England in 1856, on a journey to the Middle East, the elder writer worried about Melville's "morbid state of mind." Hawthorne likened his friend's anguish to "deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief."

It was the common Victorian spiritual crisis, no doubt given a special twist by the depth of his morbid sensibility.

Delbanco and Hardwick are among those critics who are ever mindful--an attribute of their first-ratedness--of how much we don't know, and probably can't know, about the inwardness of genius. Delbanco, accordingly, negotiates the world-work relationship with delicacy and respect for the mysteries of creativity. He also knows his history, and his account of how, for instance, the crisis of 1850 affected Melville lends his book an uncommon richness of historical texture.

At key points in Melville's career, however, the circuits that connect life and art are similarly shrouded. A handy litmus test is Newton Arvin's study of 1950, written excitedly at the high tide of the New Criticism. It shows, by contrast, how the certainties of literary detection have faded. Arvin writes boldly of how this or that experience explains this or that personality trait or this or that piece of writing. And there are revealing contrasts of judgment. Moby Dick and Billy Budd stand unshaken as consensus favorites. Beyond those works, dissidence sets in. Delbanco extols Benito Cereno, a story of slave mutiny at sea that he more than once labels "great." Arvin dismisses it as "an artistic miscarriage." Delbanco finds Melville's late philosophical verse-novel, Clarel, "hopelessly talky" with "weariness in every line." For Arvin it was "an extraordinary work, a very full and rich expression of Melville's later intellectual life."

Divergence of judgment is to be expected; but these differences testify also to the instability of Melville's critical reputation, making his persistence in the critical and historical spotlight the more paradoxical.

When it comes to the life/work synapse, there will always be speculation, adept and silly; and Delbanco and Hardwick, in shorter scope, offer important correctives. Melville has been overserved of late by those who see veiled homosexuality in practically any scene of 19th-century male bonding. Billy Budd has been subjected to pacifist execration by critics who don't concede that command on a warship in wartime imposes harsher choices than those facing civilian lawgivers. In one biography, Captain Vere is condemned as a martinet, commanding a "totalitarian" ship.

No such nonsense from Delbanco. He renders one's irritation at critical brazenness and biographical glibness unnecessary. The best critics still teach old, essential lessons about the delicate ties between life and art. And in a happy reversal of Gresham's law, the best vanquish the worst.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a former editor and columnist in Washington.