A Whale of a Book About Herman Melville

This review ran in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, November 6, 2005.

By Donald Weber

It remains a startling fact of American literary history that Herman Melville died in virtual obscurity in his native New York City, in 1891, at 72. Living the last two decades of his life on East 28th Street, near Madison Square, the author of the long- forgotten "Moby Dick, or, The Whale" would make the daily trek across town, over to West Street in lower Manhattan, where he languished in a dreary job as deputy customs inspector for the city.

If today we recognize Melville's masterpiece as, perhaps, the deepest exploration of the American psyche in our literature, "Moby Dick," published when Melville was just 32, baffled the literati in his own time. Indeed, Melville was so misread that according to legend, in the early 20th Century, "Moby Dick" was classified under the subject heading "cetology" in Harvard University's Widener Library, a supreme irony its once-famous author would, no doubt, have relished. "What 'reputation' H.M. has is horrible," Melville confessed to Nathaniel Hawthorne, during the febrile summer of 1851, in the midst of the creative explosion that produced "Moby Dick." Fittingly, the obituary notice in The New York Times listed the death of one "Henry Melville."

In our own time, of course, we continue to study and teach Melville because his fiction and poetry sound the major issues of mid-19th Century America: slavery and race in the novel "Benito Cereno"; the meaning of the Civil War in the poetry collection "Battle-Pieces"; the legacy of the Revolution in the novel "Israel Potter"; the anomie of urban experience in the story "Bartleby the Scrivener"; the moral drama of stern justice displacing liberal compassion in his fragmentary, posthumous novel, "Billy Budd." But we also recognize Melville as a modern (for some scholars, even a postmodern) figure, an artist whose often-playful experiments in literary form and whose effort to chart the unmoored self--restless and adrift in history--anticipate the sprawling epic landscapes of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.

Among the achievements of Andrew Delbanco's remarkable synthesis of biography and literary criticism in "Melville: His World and Work" is his ability to conjure a Melville richly embedded in the fluid social-political-religious cultures of 19th Century America. At the same time, Delbanco paints Melville as spiritual wanderer, a relentless seeker of truth, a figure who looms, above all, as our contemporary, "a living presence." More than any writer in the American literary canon, Delbanco claims, "the glare of his genius remains undimmed."

In this respect Delbanco's "charged-up personal relation to the material" (the phrase is Alfred Kazin's, reviewing a previous collection of Delbanco's essays) recalls D.H. Lawrence's "Studies in Classic American Literature," a deeply personal meditation on the meaning of America that helped inaugurate the Melville revival in the early 20th Century. "Melville at his best," Lawrence shrewdly observed, "invariably wrote from a sort of dream-self, so that events which he relates as actual fact have indeed a far deeper reference to his own soul, his own inner life."

Delbanco seizes Lawrence's insight as a mode, or strategy, of interpretation, weaving the few hard facts of Melville's life together with the evidence provided by Melville's novels. Skeptical readers who are wary of conflating fiction with biography and who wish to be immersed in the minutiae of Melville's life and times can consult Melville scholar Hershel Parker's definitive, indeed bountiful, two-volume "Herman Melville: A Biography." But for those who desire the emotional textures and tones--the elusive feel--of Melville's "dream-self," Delbanco's "Melville," deeply learned yet alive to Melville's particular genius, offers the best place to begin.

In telling the story, Delbanco plants his Melville firmly in history. The grandson of a Revolutionary War hero and the son of a failed businessman, Melville grew up anxiously in provincial upstate New York, with parents in financial straits, haunted by a squandered aristocratic legacy. As members of the post-Revolutionary generation- -that is, the generation that came of age in the 1780s and '90s-- Melville's parents, Allan and Maria Melvill (Herman later added the final "e"), felt "a mixture of nostalgia and resentment" toward an idealized British culture whose authority clashed with the emergent democratic ethos of the 1820s and '30s.

In Delbanco's view, Melville inherited his parents' "peculiarly divided" cultural perspective. Spurred, at some level, by Emerson's famous call in "The American Scholar" (1837)--"We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe"--Melville sought alternate models and sources of literary inspiration by setting off, at 21, for the Pacific, a journey that proved foundational.

Melville's South Sea escapades became the material for his first (and quite successful) novels, "Typee" (1846) and "Omoo" (1847). These works, read at the time as raw autobiographical transcriptions of a detached observer, secured Melville's reputation as a major literary figure in mid-19th Century America. Their popularity issued in part from the erotic (for some readers even lascivious) evocation of so-called primitive life, in part from their sheer power as adventure narrative.

Delbanco places these early works, rarely read today except by committed students of Melville, within the contemporary cultural debates around primitivism and civilization. Melville's four-year sojourn at sea thus "awakened [him] from the lethargy by which he had often been touched and sometimes enveloped." The sea--"a place of both freedom and terror"--also provided Melville with a blank canvas, a metaphysical expanse upon which he could project the terror of freedom, the allure of annihilation. We overhear an early version of this new yet ultimately familiar Melvillian voice toward the end of the wildly philosophical "Mardi" (1849), a sprawling novel-tract that in places feels like a prelude to "Moby Dick." " '[B]etter to sink in boundless deeps, than float on vulgar shoals,' " its deep-diving narrator declares, " 'and give me, ye Gods, an utter wreck, if wreck I do.' "

Delbanco's most striking claim for Melville, however, is his argument for the determining influence of New York City on Melville's imagination. To his own New York-attuned ears (Delbanco heads the American studies program at Columbia University), Melville's self-mocking voice, alert to the teeming cosmopolitan scene, everywhere registers the "unmuzzled city" at mid-century, the source for Melville's own democratic, expansive vision. "New York broke open Melville's style," Delbanco declares. A "true New Yorker," Melville was "deeply affected, indeed infected, by the tone and rhythm of the city."

Like a previous generation of New York intellectuals, Delbanco is attracted to the figure of Ishmael in "Moby Dick," the restless, self-mocking outcast son whose ironic yet inviting voice fills the opening chapters. Ishmael incarnates "an enlarging humane modesty," according to Irving Howe; in his powers of empathy he embodies the potential of New World democracy.

Interestingly, however, most of Delbanco's critical energy focuses on the figure of Ahab, the monomaniacal, charismatic captain of the whaling ship Pequod (named for an Indian tribe exterminated by British colonists in the Pequot War of 1636-37), unhinged by the white whale, vowing unswerving vengeance at all costs, even if suc01h revenge issues in apocalypse. He remains, over time, "a prophetic mirror in which every generation of new readers has seen reflected the political demagogues of its own time."

If in 1851 the novel could be understood as political allegory, Melville's forecast of impending doom to an unknowing nation on the threshold of a fractious civil war, political pundits today invoke "Moby Dick" to map world-shattering events: Is President Bush Capt. Ahab in maniacal pursuit of Osama bin Laden, his Moby Dick? Is Bin Laden Ahab, and the Twin Towers his Moby Dick? Or perhaps Bush is Moby Dick, the incarnation of evil. Delbanco's own application of novel to history seems the sanest: "In Captain Ahab, Melville had invented a suicidal charismatic who denounces as a blasphemer anyone who would deflect him from his purpose--an invention that shows no sign of becoming obsolete anytime soon."

Of course echoes of Melville's novel sound everywhere in the culture, some acquiring iconic status, as in the omnipresent Starbucks coffeehouses (named for the "staid, steadfast" first mate of the Pequod, described as "no crusader after perils"). Following Melville's own example in "Moby Dick" of offering a history of commentary on the whale, Delbanco opens his biography with a gathering of "extracts," a collection of comments about Melville "supplied by a Sub-Sub-Sub Librarian." Gleaned from high and popular culture, their sources include famous critics and writers (for John Updike's composite Jewish-American writer, Bech, Melville was his "favorite American author"), the TV show "The Sopranos" (a laugh- out-loud transcription of a family debate about sexual orientation in "Billy Budd") and New York Times columnists and editorial writers. In light of his contemporary presence, one wonders what Melville would have thought of his current reputation.

Delbanco's sly, knowing, often-hilarious takes on Melville in our own time bespeak an Ishmael-like generosity that Melville has inspired in his best readers. With "Melville: His World and Work" Andrew Delbanco joins a distinguished pantheon of critics and scholars who read Melville with heart, with humanity, above all with supreme intelligence.

Donald Weber, Lucia, Ruth and Elizabeth MacGregor professor of English at Mt Holyoke College and the author of Haunted in the New World: Jewish American Culture From Cahan to The Goldbergs.