When he reviewed Hershel Parker's thousand-page Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 1, 1819-1851 for the New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco cautioned other would-be biographers: "It is worth keeping in mind an apposite comment by Melville's contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson. 'Geniuses,' Emerson remarked in 1850, 'have the shortest biographies' because their inner lives are led out of sight and earshot; and, in the end, 'their cousins can tell you nothing about them.'"
Delbanco should have heeded his own advice. The Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University has focused his powers of criticism on a wide range of subjects in such books as The Puritan Ordeal (1989) and The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (1995). But in turning his attention to Melville, Delbanco chose a singularly unpromising subject for a biography. Many of the facts of Melville's life—to say nothing of his inner life—simply remain a mystery. As Delbanco notes, only about 300 of Melville's letters survive, compared to 12,000 by Henry James.
Delbanco tells the story of an early rise and a long decline. Born in 1819, Melville was the third child of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill. He had a proud lineage. His grandfathers were both heroes of the Revolutionary War, and he could trace his stock to Scottish nobility. But Allan, an importer, was a thriftless fortune-hunter, always on the heels of the latest get-rich-quick scheme. He died when Melville was 12 years old, leaving the family in financial straits.
The young Melville left school and took a number of odd jobs. He became the errand-boy at a bank, a teacher, and, finally in 1839, a sailor. Off and on, he spent three-and-a-half years at sea. His experiences went largely undocumented except for Melville's own fictionalized account of the Marquesas Islands in Typee—the modestly successful book that launched his writing career. Four more novels followed, all sea adventures and each less successful than the last.
Just under 30, Melville married and moved to New York City. According to Delbanco, he purchased his first readable edition of Shakespeare shortly after (having previously read scantily in poorly printed copies), began a lifelong friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, and started his great masterpiece, Moby Dick, or The Whale. His wife, Lizzie, described in a letter how Melville would work furiously "at his desk all day not eating anything till 4 or 5 o'clock" and then, according to his own account, leave his study "in a sort of mesmeric state."
But the exhilaration ended in 1851 when Moby Dick was published to critical head-scratching and public indifference. Stung by the book's reception and desperate to stem his money troubles, Melville gave up his sea tales and began Pierre, or The Ambiguities, a Victorian romance. Pierre was an even greater disaster; one New York paper reviewed it under the headline "Herman Melville Crazy."
So Melville started writing short fiction, including "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and "Benito Cereno," for magazines. But his health failed him as his debts grew. Hoping to revive his spirits, Melville's father-in-law sent him to travel in Rome, Egypt, and the Levant. Upon returning to America, Melville took to the lecture circuit, where he muffled his words and sometimes appeared drunk, scaring off the few listeners he had. He made another attempt to start over—this time, a return to sailing—but he gave it up after hearing his latest work had been rejected by the publishers. Depressed and resigned, in 1866 he took what Delbanco calls "a four-dollar-a-day, six-day-a-week job" as a Customs House inspector, where he remained until 1885. He died in 1891, largely forgotten, with his last great work, Billy Budd, unpublished. It was only in 1921 that another Columbia professor, Raymond M. Weaver, rediscovered Moby Dick and began the Melville revival with his biography, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic. In 1924, Weaver found Billy Budd stored in a tin bread box in Melville's granddaughter's house.
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Because the sparse record of Melville's life does not suffice for a lengthy work, Delbanco is left to pad. To be sure, he does not give us the mountains of data that Parker does: catalogs of books Melville might have skimmed, lists of various rentals and sales by the Melville family, endless accounts of family feuds and pieces of gossip. And Delbanco is also more careful about filling in the blank pages of Melville's life. Parker is happy to invent entire scenes and conversations. Delbanco is more circumspect, and when he is tempted to speculate, he gives his reader due notice.
But Delbanco is not so much concerned with the historical Melville as with the Melville who "keeps up with the preoccupations of the moment," who "remains as current as ever." His biography aims less to illuminate Melville's life than our own. "A literary text acts as a kind of mirror," Delbanco quotes a literary theorist as saying—and the reflections we see are of ourselves.
So while the historical Melville remains opaque, we're introduced to a whole host of other Melvilles that have been invented for our times. There's "myth-and-symbol Melville, countercultural Melville, anti-war Melville, environmentalist Melville, gay or bisexual Melville, multicultural Melville, global Melville." Delbanco dutifully provides samplings of each: Pierre as a Freudian exploration of the sexual underworld, "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and Confidence-Man as proto-Marxist denunciations of capitalism, "Benito Cereno" as an indictment of American innocence. One is reminded of Stubb's invocation in Moby Dick: "Book! ...you'll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts."
Delbanco's approach inadvertently suggests that Melville still matters to us not because of the genius of his work but rather because we can attach to him the fashionable opinions of the time. The ease with which we can read into the novels our own opinions appears to be evidence of Melville's continued relevance. Thus Delbanco embarks on a short history of how Moby Dick has been read throughout the ages: "[In the 1940s]... Ahab seemed to predict Adolf Hitler's monomaniacal ranting against the Jews. In our own day, he is invoked as anticipating George W. Bush's obsession with hunting down Osama bin Laden, then Saddam Hussein." He even does a LexisNexis search at one point, counting the number of times Melville is mentioned in news articles after the 9/11 attacks. In one of the book's more humorous remarks—the humor being apparently unintentional—Delbanco welcomes to the "community of Melville critics" the actor Richard Gere and former Senator Gary Hart, each of whom compared President Bush's decision to invade Iraq with Ahab's mad chase after Moby Dick. Later, he writes that "Benito Cereno," the tale of a mutiny on a slave ship, is the "most salient of Melville's work" for us "in our time of terror and torture," warning against "the kind of moral opacity that seems still to afflict America as it lumbers through the world creating enemies whose enmity it does not begin to understand." This isn't literary criticism but second-rate punditry and polemicism.
And when Melville's opinions contradict our own? Delbanco admits to some minor misgivings when Melville celebrates that "now notorious term," Manifest Destiny, in his novel White-Jacket. Delbanco concedes that the passage in question is rather unequivocal: "We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world...we cannot do a good to America but we give alms to the world." As Delbanco informs us, however—invoking the authority of Lionel Trilling, no less—Melville represented both the "yes and no" to his own culture. This little sleight of hand appears to mean that the passage can be read straight when it suits us (as in 1848 when Melville wrote it, or during the Cold War when it seemed "an expression of self-serving generosity in the spirit of the Marshall Plan") or it can be read ironically (as during our own more enlightened times when it has become "a passage of...unsettling ambiguity"). Here—as elsewhere—there is no attempt to get at what Melville really thought or why he might have thought it.
Instead this is the literary equivalent of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books: you need only pick which Melville you like best and turn the page. Do you prefer Melville, the champion of America "who imagines a world of graceful converts to the American Way," or the critic who depicts America as a "ship of state sailing toward disaster under lunatic leadership as it tries to conquer the world"? (Your answer, it seems, depends on your stance on the Iraq War.) No matter which you choose, Delbanco assures us, Melville is "as vast and contradictory as America itself."
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Awash in this hodgepodge of dueling interpretations and the numerous controversies Melvilleans love—Did Melville beat his wife? Abuse the kids? Was he gay, as Somerset Maugham believed? Or was he an "androgynous personality," as Henry Murray would have it?—the reader yearns for someone to take charge. Some critics have commended Delbanco for refusing to give pat answers, but after hundreds of pages of "maybe, maybe not," you want someone, anyone, to exercise some judgment. Delbanco is by no means unwilling to descend into the mud, but he does so in the style of a reporter too fastidious to report directly on the scandal but more than happy to report on the "rumors" going around. This above-the-fray attitude can be maddening as when Delbanco tells us, "The quest for the private Melville has usually led to a dead end, and we are not likely to fare better by speculating about his tastes in bed or bunk." Sensible enough, one thinks—or would think, if the preceding 30 pages hadn't been spent in fervid analysis of such momentous questions as whether while on ship Melville "availed himself of male partners, or relieved himself in as much privacy as he could find...or waited for the next contact with island women."
Part of the motive behind this approach seems to be the desire to sell books, which leads Delbanco to try to be trendy. We are told that Pierre "anticipates" Freud's study of sexual desire, that Moby Dick "anticipated" the modernist prose of Woolf and Joyce and is "the work of a twentieth-century imagination." Numerous works win praise for their "postmodern" qualities. Delbanco litters his text with pop culture references (Stanley Kubrick, Donald Trump, and Tiny Tim all make an appearance). He even tries to spice things up with some amateur psychoanalyzing of Melville, especially on the subject of sex. It's not that Delbanco's interest in the prurient is completely unfounded. He is surely right to say that the environment in Typee is "sex-drenched," what with its wind that blows like a "woman roused." But to say that the way the plot of "Benito Cereno" unfolds is like being sexually teased? Or that the chimney in Ishmael's dream is phallic? Or that Isabel's ear in Pierre is vaginal? Delbanco seems particularly fond of Freud, but unfortunately he hasn't learned that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Delbanco's desire to entice the reading public is understandable—it must be daunting to write a book about an author whose books kept getting pulped. But beyond this desire and, as it were, giving it hope, lies the nice sentiment that great work, like Melville's, constantly "renew[s] itself for each new generation." The richness of Melville's writing is such that each reading generates new insights, provides us with yet more grist for the mill. And each reader, provided he or she is thoughtful and attentive, can give us a unique vantage point from which to look at a work. There is truth to this. Literary criticism is not just "chattering about Shelley," as one detractor would have it. But taken too far you get a Melville so "vast and contradictory" that he means everything—and therefore nothing at all. His work becomes the coin that Ahab nails to the mast in Moby Dick: one huge Rorschach inkblot open to infinite interpretations. And Melville himself becomes merely the tutelary divinity of all our little pet projects and preferences. As the famously left-wing playwright Tony Kushner in an interview in the New York Times put it, "One falls in love with him, and I certainly have, completely, as most of the other Melville freaks have. I used him unconsciously and consciously when I was writing the second part of 'Angels in America.' I said to myself, 'Herman would approve of this.'"
Of course he would.