Briefly lionized as a young writer of South Sea romances, neglected by critics throughout most of his writing career, and unacknowledged as a literary genius until thirty years after his death, Herman Melville has since become the subject of an enormous amount of critical attention and several substantial biographies, including Hershel Parker’s comprehensive two-volume life, published in 1996 and 2002. Andrew Delbanco has wisely chosen not to compete with Parker, whose life of Melville approaches two thousand pages. Rather, Delbanco has concentrated the results of what has clearly been a long and thorough study of his subject into 322 pages of text. The relative brevity of Delbanco’s book is one of its virtues, though not the most important one. How much, not just of Melville’s “work,” but of his “world,” as the subtitle promises, can be told in such a compass? The answer is: a great deal.
Delbanco immediately reveals himself as a connoisseur of Melville appreciators (and depreciators) in a preliminary seven-page selection of “Extracts, supplied by a Sub-Sub-Sub-Librarian”a witty parody of Melville’s send-off of Moby Dick (1851), of course. They range from Allan Melville’s observation that his seven-year-old son Herman seemed “backward in speech” and “somewhat slow in comprehension” to a New York Times editorial from May, 2005, comparing New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to Captain Ahab. Some of these Melvillian allusions come from sources seemingly far afield, for instance the television series The Sopranos, where Billy Budd becomes the subject of dialogue, or Richard Clarke’s confession to Condoleezza Rice that he was becoming Ahab-like in his obsession with Osama bin Laden. Collectively, these allusions seem to indicate that despite the modern paucity of common literary points of reference, allusions to Ahab and Bartleby and Billy Budd still give readers welcome shocks of recognition.
Delbanco focuses his twelve chapters on the way his subject confronts the personal challenges and cultural currents of each stage of his life andin those chapters dealing with his literary careerthe way those challenges and currents pervaded or modified his writing at the time. More often than not, each chapter has a major theme that governs and limits the details therein.
In his second chapter, for instance, dealing with the period of Melville’s Pacific adventures, Delbanco concentrates on Melville’s and his contemporaries’ notions of civilization in the 1840’s. For most Americans, and for Melville before his seafaring, the Indians that the federal government was then busy relocating epitomized primitive or uncivilized humankind. A scattering of Romantics theorized that noble savages might perhaps not be so savage after all, and a few ethnologists (to use a term just coming into use) were commencing investigations that challenged Western Europeans’ and Americans’ supposed monopoly of civilization. Delbanco quotes an 1838 writer, Abner Kneeland, who reported that Hottentots excise one of the testicles of every male child, while Parisians (for instance) do not. Each, Kneeland pointed out, is appalled at the other, not because their practice is unreasonable but simply because it is different. Kneeland, Delbanco notes in one of the captivating asides sprinkled through his book, was the last man to be prosecuted for blasphemy in New England, and Melville’s future father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, presided at the trial. Delbanco’s point is not that the young Melville’s weeks among the Polynesians turned him into a full-fledged cultural relativist but that what he experienced there began the process of rousing him from mental lethargy.
The next chapter, “Becoming a Writer,” traces Melville’s progress from casual teller of anecdotes of Tahitian and Hawaiian life to author of enormously popular early novels, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventure in the South Seas (1847). N. P. Willis, in his 1849 review of Melville’s novel Redburn: His First Voyage (1849), reported that Melville’s initial audience, once he returned from his years at sea, was his family. Applying more specifically an idea broached by Elizabeth Hardwick in her modern biography of Melville, Delbanco calls this storytelling Melville’s “rehearsal” for the writing career on which he was shortly to embark. Delbanco then recapitulates Typee, still a siren song, even for readers who have learned to recognize the tale as inferior Melville, but notes that the book is important as a manifestation of an author learning his trade.
Chapter 4, “Escape to New York,” offers considerable detail about the city to which Melville and his new bride, Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of a prominent Boston judge, repaired in 1847. Conceding that...
(The entire section is 1991 words.)