His World and Work
By Andrew Delbanco
Knopf. 415 pp. $30 The life and afterlife of Herman Melville (1819-1891) present the greatest illustration in American literature, perhaps in world literature, of the Psalm "The same stone which the builders refused is become the head-stone." After the popular success of Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), which led to the young Melville being dubbed "the man who lived among cannibals," he embarked on a literary career that went gradually, then precipitously, downhill. By the time he was 40 he had essentially abandoned fiction altogether, tried publishing poetry with comparable success (i.e., none), and finally resigned himself -- he was, after all, married, with four children and debts -- to spending the rest of his life as a customs inspector for the city of New York. When he died, the newspaper obituary misprinted his name as "Henry Melville."
His work was never entirely forgotten, though he was chiefly regarded as a writer of sea stories (Joseph Conrad, another specialist in "the watery part of the world," didn't think much of them). And then in the 1920s a Melville revival unexpectedly kicked into gear. In 1921, Raymond Weaver brought out the first biography (Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic); in 1923, D.H. Lawrence devoted more pages to Melville in his dithyrambic Studies in Classic American Literature than to any other writer ("a deep, great artist"); in 1924, the rediscovered Billy Budd was published; and by the 1930s the poet Charles Olson had begun to track down the dispersed volumes of Melville's library in New York's used bookshops. More and ever more scholarly work appeared as teachers and critics of every theoretical bent discovered an oceanic textual richness and complexity in his masterpiece, Moby-Dick (1851). After World War II the suspicion, then conviction grew ever stronger that Melville's titanic meditation on Good and Evil, and almost everything else (except romantic love), just might be that elusive White Whale of our literature, the great American novel.
For anyone who cares about writing (or any of the arts), Melville's story is obviously both dispiriting and consoling. It is also a story that Andrew Delbanco tells surpassingly well.
Not that he hasn't had help in re-creating the writer's world. During the past 10 or 15 years we have seen no shortage of Melvillean biography, from the scholarly life's work of Hershel Parker (two daunting volumes) to the very brief Penguin volume (155 pages) by Elizabeth Hardwick. For the general reader, though, Delbanco offers a more satisfying book than either of these. First of all, this academic writes with exceptional clarity and wit (he possesses a taste for subtle, hardly noticeable wordplay). He also displays a masterly ability to summarize a book or an argument and is generous in acknowledging the scholarship of others. He periodically underscores the continued relevance of Melville's complex themes -- man's ambiguous relationship to Nature, the persistence of social and racial inequities, America's imperialistic sense of manifest destiny, the shiftiness of sexuality -- and yet he doesn't belabor the obvious or thump any tubs. This Columbia professor also surprises by including a page from a Mad magazine parody of Moby-Dick, a Gahan Wilson cartoon of Captain Ahab, and an exchange about Billy Budd (as a homosexual text) from an episode of "The Sopranos." When Delbanco writes about New York City and its importance to Melville's work, he reveals his own unambiguous but not unambivalent love for his hometown.
In short, it would be hard to imagine a more inviting overview of Melville for our time. I've admired Delbanco's work before, in particular, Required Reading, though that was essentially a collection of brief essays. This full-length study points up even more forcefully the truth of that earlier book's subtitle -- "Why Our American Classics Matter Now" -- by focusing on one major author. The result is humane and relevant scholarship at its best.
In little more than a decade -- between his mid-twenties and late-thirties -- Herman Melville produced eight or nine novels (at least one never published and now lost) and a half-dozen or so short stories. He could write with surprising speed, which may explain in part why so many of his books are rambling, disjointed, phantasmagoric, sententious and often boring. Aside from Melville scholars, who ever looks into Mardi or Israel Potter? In recent years Pierre: or the Ambiguities has gained its champions (many critics view its incest motif as a mask for Melville's possible homosexuality), while The Confidence-Man almost seems a post-modern meditation on the slipperiness of identity. Melville's poetry has been championed too, especially by Robert Penn Warren. I myself remember when "On the Slain Collegians" was widely read -- back in 1970, shortly after the killings at Kent State.
In truth, though, only four works live for us today, but what works they are! Moby-Dick, of course, but also Billy Budd, which Thomas Mann called "the most beautiful story in the world" and wished he could have written (which isn't surprising since Billy in his beauty and innocence could be the slightly more weather-beaten cousin of Tadzio in Death in Venice). Recall the story's basic plot: A handsome and guileless young seaman is falsely accused of sedition by a ship's master-at arms; in the captain's cabin Billy, after a moment of stuttering frustration, lashes out at the evil Claggart and his single blow inadvertently kills the officer, while the sympathetic Captain Vere looks on in dismay.
From this scenario Melville constructs a drama of moral (and interpretative) complexity the equal of Sophocles' Antigone. Billy Budd is, for all its gnarled and even rebarbative syntax, astonishingly moving, as it takes up such ethical heartbreakers as the fate of purity and innocence in a fallen world, the conflicts between duty and desire, legality and human compassion, and the saintly example of unqualified forgiveness. No surprise that E.M. Forster made it the libretto for that rare thing, an almost equally great and moving work of art in another medium, Benjamin Britten's opera "Billy Budd."
Sailing ships offer a confined space, almost a stage, upon which to examine the human condition. But so do business offices. Long ago, Borges recognized in Melville a precursor of Kafka, especially in the great short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853), that tale of the mousy clerk who one day, when asked to perform a simple clerical task, quietly says, "I would prefer not to." The result is an unforgettable account of existential loneliness and of our failure to connect with the less fortunate among us, but also a study in the (all too contemporary) frustration resulting when people in power, people of goodwill who view themselves as "civilized" or as upholders of propriety and tradition, must suddenly confront those who adamantly refuse to recognize their values, their authority.
Bartleby chooses a kind of civil disobedience in the face of the inhumane, but in "Benito Cereno" (1855) Melville takes this silence, this dumb-show recalcitrance, even further: He reveals what Delbanco calls "the mirroring relations between oppressor and oppressed." In this haunting masterpiece, a Capt. Delano comes to the aid of an obviously distressed slave ship, where he meets its Spanish captain and his black man-servant Babo. He is particularly impressed by the devotion demonstrated by Babo for his master -- the black man never leaves Don Benito's side. Nonetheless, the obtuse Delano feels that something on board the San Dominick isn't quite right. Today's reader will guess the truth long before he does: that the slaves have taken over the ship, and that Babo controls the captain, not the other way round.
This is, then, one of the first major works of American fiction to address the question of slavery and racial injustice, and Melville adumbrates much of our literature's exploration of this unhappy theme. Ralph Ellison, for example, took the epigraph for Invisible Man from this story:
" 'You are saved,' cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; 'you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?' 'The negro.' "
Readers will note that I have said nothing very much about Moby-Dick. But what can anyone say? Its quietly portentous first sentence is as famous as any in world literature ("Call me Ishmael"), and some of Ahab's monologues, like the one beginning "Is Ahab Ahab?," achieve an eloquence rivaling that of the Bible and Shakespeare. There are longueurs, but even in the midst of tedious cetological lore, one comes across such disturbing passages as that in which the Pequod's sailors squeeze and squeeze and squeeze handfuls of white spermacetti. Then there are the marvelous portraits of the crew -- the black cabin boy Pip, who goes mad and loses his sense of self, the well-meaning but weak Starbuck, the mysterious harpooners Queequeg, Tashtego, Daggoo. There are the haunting encounters with other ships, especially the Rachel "searching for her lost children." And throughout there is philosophizing that at times rises to a kind of prose poetry:
"All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in a whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side."
In Melville's lifetime few recognized or even suspected the writer's exceptional genius -- but Nathaniel Hawthorne came close, and the two men established a long-lasting friendship. After their first encounters, the writer of Polynesian adventures went back to his romantic tale about "Whale Fishery" and, in Delbanco's words, "tore it up from within." Melville deepened and amplified his novel, enlarged it in every sense, with the obvious hope of joining what he called, in an essay on Hawthorne, that fraternity where "genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round." With wonderful appropriateness, then, the author of The Scarlet Letter -- which appeared in 1850 -- became the dedicatee of the following year's Moby-Dick.
In the end, perhaps the most important use of literary biography is to send us back to a writer's books with increased understanding and renewed excitement. This Andrew Delbanco certainly does for Herman Melville. We are his beneficiaries. *
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is email@example.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.