Melville and His Circle

Herman Melville is best remembered for his novel MOBY DICK (1851), a masterpiece that sank his reputation and all but ended his career. Straitened economic circumstances forced this proud literary titan to accept a position as a customs inspector, and he died in near obscurity at the age of seventy-two. While these bare facts are true, William B. Dillingham’s superb biography MELVILLE AND HIS CIRCLE: THE LAST YEARS makes it clear that Melville continued to develop his skills as a writer until his death.

This brings one to the title of Dillingham’s book, an item that requires some clarification. The “circle” to which the author refers is somewhat misleading. Since Melville was rather reclusive in his later years, the “circle” concerns the literary influences—not the people he knew personally. Thus Dillingham’s biography centers upon other texts that shaped Melville’s output in his final years. It is true that an enormous body of critical work already exists concerning this writer. However, the works of Melville’s final years—consisting largely of poetry with a smattering of prose—have been neglected by critics.

In addressing this oversight, Dillingham reveals the astonishing breadth and the enduring brilliance of his subject. Melville’s voracious intellect ranged from the pessimist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer to a Persian poet of the twelfth century name Omar Khayyam. Dillingham explores the fascinating link between the latter and the image of the rose in the writer’s very personal views on art and the imagination. Due to its narrow focus, MELVILLE AND HIS CIRCLE is probably not for everyone: it will prove to be more rewarding for those who are already familiar with its subject. Nevertheless, Dillingham’s work proves that Melville still has the power to delight and perplex.