His World and Work
By Andrew Delbanco
New York: Knopf, 2005
Paper back: ISBN: 0375403140 Price: $30.00
Though Melville had been born and died in the nineteenth century, Moby-Dick was the work of a twentieth-century imagination
Literary biography is a mongrel genre, mixing historical biography with literary criticism. Mediocre literary biographies merely recycle fact and gossip about the author but offer no insight about how their works were written and received, and why they continue to endure. Andrew Delbanco’s Melville: His World and Work belongs among the superlative breed of biography. It’s an outstanding reappraisal of Melville, a reminder of his importance in American literature and his relevance in our time.
When Melville died in New York City in 1891, many of his contemporaries were surprised to see his obituary—they thought he had died long before. After the Civil War and the commercial and critical failure of Moby-Dick, Melville stopped writing for publication. Of his seventy-two years, Delbanco notes, only twelve were devoted to writing prose that was published in his lifetime.
Melville was born in 1819 in a newborn nation. Giants such as Adams and Jefferson were still alive, the nation’s economy was mainly agrarian, and slavery flourished. “During Melville’s childhood,” Delbanco writes, “the rhythm of American life was closer to medieval than to modern, but by the time he grew old, he was living in a world that was recognizably our own.” American literature, as embodied by Hawthorne and Emerson, was also coming into its own during Melville’s adolescence.
Melville spent only three years on the high seas—one year sailing to London and back, and another two in the South Pacific and Hawaii. These voyages provided the content of his earliest and most successful books, Typee and Omoo. He planned to make a comfortable living as a professional writer, married, and moved between Arrowhead, his family estate in western Massachusetts, and the bursting metropolis of New York City.
Delbanco believes New York City played a larger role in Melville’s life than many critics have acknowledged. “I have swam through libraries,” Melville wrote, absorbing the works of great European authors in the city’s private and society libraries. His middle-period novels—Mardi, White-Jacket and Redburn—reflected these influences and showed maturity, tackling social, political, and philosophical issues. Most of his characters were drawn from urban landscapes, not from his maritime experiences. Melville once observed, “Where does any novelist pick up any character? For the most part, in town…. Every great town is a kind of man-show, where the novelist goes for his stock.”
Everything was a prelude to the book he began writing in 1850, “a strange sort of book” about a whaling voyage. Delbanco makes a convincing argument that Moby-Dick was the first modern American novel: “a young man’s coming-of-age story, an encyclopedic inventory of facts and myths about whales, a concatenation of romance, philosophy, natural history…. It was also an audacious attempt, long before Freud and his modernist followers, to represent in words the unconscious as well as the conscious processes of the human mind itself.”
“And what of the man at the helm?” Delbanco asks. Ahab is one of the most original characters in the history of literature. He is the first appearance in literature of the modern demagogue, “a prophetic mirror in which every generation of new readers has seen reflected the political demagogues of its own times.”
Melville’s achievement came as his reputation plummeted. The books from his middle period sold poorly. Readers wanted the light-hearted adventure of the South Pacific found in his earlier works, not allegorical epics about whale hunting. Many unsold copies of the first U.S. edition of Moby-Dick were remaindered and then lost to a fire in the publisher’s warehouse. Melville resorted to magazine writing, living off the largesse of his in-laws, and working as a New York customs house inspector for the last decades of his life
His personal life spiraled downward, along with his writing career. He was moody in temperament, capable of enthusiasm and energy, but prone to sudden downswings and withdrawals. These outbursts alienated his wife and four children, especially his sons. Melville would suffer the ghastly fate of outliving both his boys: Malcolm, who committed suicide at eighteen; and Stanwix, who died in poverty at thirty-five.
In this dark period, Melville achieved artistic triumph. He published two of the greatest short stories in the English language. “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Delbanco believes, anticipates Kafka and existentialist literature by decades, grappling with an un-resolvable tension between “the moral truth that we owe our fellow human beings our faith and love” and “the psychological and social truth that sympathy and benevolence have their limits.” In his 1855 novella Benito Cereno, Melville explores race and slavery by inverting the relationship between a Spanish slave-ship captain and his African cargo.
Melville also wrote one last tale, left unfinished and orphaned when he died. Discovered in a tin breadbox, Billy Budd, Sailor was published in 1924, three decades after Melville’s death. Twentieth-century writers such as E. M. Forster, Albert Camus, and Thomas Mann regarded Billy Budd as Melville’s masterwork, one of the most beautiful stories ever written. Generations of readers have been touched by the doom of the Christ-like Billy, but for Melville, Billy’s death is the inevitable consequence of the conflict between society’s laws and natural justice, between the individual and society.
Delbanco’s writing is blessedly free from academic theory, and Melville is good biography and great literary history.