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Melville: His World and Work
Melville: His World and Work
Andrew Delbanco
Knopf, 2005
448 pp., 30.00

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Roger Lundin

Orphan in the Storm

Melville and the crisis of moral authority.

Although most periods in history have no doubt served as home to an unacknowledged genius or two, few are likely to have housed as many as the culture of the West did in the 19th century. So many of that era's most vital writers remained virtually unknown in their own lifetimes that in retrospect the period seems filled with prophets who received neither honor in their own countries nor recognition in their own day. Between 1850 and 1900, for example, a diminutive Massachusetts woman toiled on a body of unpublished verse that would earn her a posthumous place in the top rank of lyric poets in English; in Denmark, a melancholy man labored at a series of ironic studies that drew scant attention during his lifetime but won worldwide acclaim only decades after his death; and in Lutheran Germany, a brilliant philologist thundered away at the Christian tradition in provocative books that were largely unread when published but canonized in the century to come.

The anonymity of Emily Dickinson, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche was due in good measure to their vigorous responses to powerful changes that were unfolding in the religious and intellectual culture of their day. The shifts in thought with which these authors wrestled, like Jacob with the angel, involved sometimes radical reinterpretations of God and nature, history and the self. In the 19th century, these changes rumbled in the depths of the culture but did little to disturb the becalmed waters on its surface. Only bold souls plunged deep enough into the sea of thought to gauge the enormity of the disruptions to come. It would take the events of the 20th century, in the form of two world wars and unprecedented genocidal destruction, to roil the waters of Western culture and flood its solid ground at last.

Although the anonymous lives of artists may provide compelling storylines about creative genius and visionary power, their obscurity also places substantial obstacles in the path of any would-be biographer. ...

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