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.