(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

It is an unsettling fact that Herman Melville (1819-1891)—that quintessentially American writer— achieved his fame posthumously. In his own lifetime, Melville gained a brief moment of recognition through his first two novels, TYPEE (1846), and OMOO (1847). Nineteenth century readers were mesmerized by these fictionalized accounts of Melville’s adventures in the South Seas. Even in the twentieth century, he is largely remembered for his masterpiece, MOBY DICK (1851)—a novel more talked about than read. However, as Laurie Robertson-Lorant demonstrates in this superb biography, Melville produced brilliant works in both poetry and prose throughout his long career.

The standard account of Melville’s life is well known. As a young man, he left his debt-ridden family for four years of sea voyaging and returned to tell stories about his many adventures. His first two novels sold reasonably well, but he lost his readership with such allegorical works as MARDI (1849) and MOBY DICK and died in relative obscurity. Many versions of Melville’s life have been written, but Robertson-Lorant’s revisionist biography is the first to make use of hundreds of recently discovered letters relating to the Melville family. What her research and analyses reveal is a man who struggled to create art in a literary marketplace obsessed with crass commercialism. While he could not make his writing pay, Robertson-Lorant proves that Melville continued to develop his craft.

Moreover, she places his writing squarely within the context of his times. Though he was often concerned with exploring philosophical issues in his later works, Robertson-Lorant reveals his lifelong resistance to colonialism and the destruction of native cultures. She also makes a good case for viewing her subject as one of the greatest American poets of the nineteenth century—especially in his work about the Civil War, BATTLE-PIECES (1866). Robertson-Lorant’s engaging narrative sheds much light on one of America’s most enigmatic geniuses.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCII, April 15, 1996, p. 1409.

Boston Globe. July 7, 1996, p. 59.

Kirkus Reviews. LXIV, March 15, 1996, p. 433.

Library Journal. March 15, 1996, p. 71.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 15, 1996, p. 8.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, July 14, 1996, p. 20.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, March 25, 1996, p. 68.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch. August 4, 1996, p. D5.

World and I. XI, December, 1996, p. 266.


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In a publicity flyer included with the December, 1996, issue of Melville Society Extracts, the late Gay Wilson Allen praises Laurie Robertson-Lorant’s biography of Herman Melville as “an enthusiastic presentation . . . [which] makes me think that it would appeal to readers who are not Melville scholars.” Coming as it does nearly simultaneously with the publication of the first volume of noted Melville scholar Hershel Parker’s long-awaited two-volume biography, one wonders whether Laurie Robertson-Lorant made a conscious decision to direct her study toward a more general audience in order to attract a greater share of public attention. If so, her strategy was probably a good one, as the lively prose and respectful stance toward Melville as man and writer make this an engaging book indeed.

It is not likely, however, that serious Melville scholars will believe the book has nothing to offer them, as Robertson-Lorant leavens her study with materials that were either overlooked or unavailable for earlier biographers. Of special interest are her discussions of the amazing trove of five hundred family letters and a manuscript draft of Typee (1846) found in 1983 in a barn in Gansevoort, New York, and her extensive use of an unpublished 1969 dissertation by Amy Elizabeth Puett called “Melville’s Wife: A Study of Elizabeth Shaw Melville.” These lesser-known adjuncts to the study of Melville’s life and work, in addition to the total mass of researched information Robertson-Lorant has produced, touching on virtually every subject connected with Melville either directly or tangentially, make this biography both fresh and comprehensive. As Robertson-Lorant points out in a convincing argument as to the timeliness of her new study, while Melville has become the most written about writer in America, the avalanche of studies devoted to him has included surprisingly few full-length biographies. While her own 1972 doctoral dissertation on Melville followed the trend of that time in focusing almost exclusively on his career and his ideas, by 1987 when she began work on this biography, she discovered that a major shift had occurred in the scholarly community. Much interest was being directed toward exploring Melville’s sexuality, his relations with his immediate and extended family, and the tragedy of his son’s suicide. These are subjects to which Robertson-Lorant found herself drawn as well, but her balanced and sensitive treatment of Melville’s life is a refreshing change from the rather aloof stance of Leon Howard (1951), the relentless psychoanalyzing of Newton Arvin (1950), and the sensational speculations of Edwin Haviland Miller (1975) regarding Melville’s relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne. She believes that Melville was like Walt Whitman in that he contained multitudes, and her aim is to capture his enigmatic qualities rather than reduce him to a psychological case study. Her interest is in trying to convey what it might have felt like to live the life of this extraordinary man.

Working, as she admits, from intuition and empathy as much as from documentary evidence, Robertson-Lorant nevertheless infuses her book, to a degree seldom encountered in other biographies, with the flavor of the period in which Melville lived. Small but telling details produced by her research, such as the nearly unbearable heat of the summer Melville was born in 1819, a heat so intense the pavement blistered horses’ hooves, locate Melville in a palpable reality. Readers are plunged into a city of illnesses—typhus, cholera, and yellow fever—that turn New York into a “plague-stricken Thebes.” Readers also learn of attempted cures with blisters and leeches and of baiting traps with molasses to catch cockroaches. These almost novelistic touches may be what prompted Gay Wilson Allen to suggest that the book would appeal to an audience outside the usual academic readership, yet it is hard to imagine that the scholarly community would wish them away.

If Robertson-Lorant has bested previous biographers with her eye for detail, she must also be given the palm for the largest compass in which to fit her subject. Where Hershel Parker opens his biography in 1830 with an eleven-year-old Herman Melville, Robertson-Lorant has taken as her initial vantage point the year 1524, when Giovanni da Verrazano reached Manah-hatin, the “Island of the Hills,” as the Algonkians described it, in his search for a passage to India. This sweeping overview almost of necessity provides a look at more generations of Melvilles and Gansevoorts than most readers have encountered before. The discussion of the grandfathers, both heroes of the American Revolution, also help to situate Herman Melville, this time psychologically. Readers gain a clearer understanding of Melville’s ambivalence toward his ancestors. He was understandably proud of his patrician heritage, but to an individual of Melville’s democratic sympathies, it must have been excruciating to acknowledge that grandfather Gansevoort’s role in setting fire to a village of Mohawk Indians in order to destroy their food supply caused him to be commended for valiant service. This biographical tidbit moves to the forefront of readers’ minds later when, in discussing each of Melville’s works, Robertson-Lorant reaches the period of The Confidence Man (1857), with its chapter on “The Metaphysics of Indian Hating.”

With the familial underpinnings in place, Robertson-Lorant begins her examination of Melville himself in the usual way of...

(The entire section is 2264 words.)