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Melville: His World and Work
Melville: His World and Work
Andrew Delbanco
Knopf, 2005
448 pp., 40.72

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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 Between 1850 and 1900, for example, a diminutive Massachusetts woman toiled on a body of unpublished verse that would earn her a posthumous place in the top rank of lyric poets in English; in Denmark, a melancholy man labored at a series of ironic studies that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. It is one thing to admire a writer for having prophetic insights that escaped others at the time, another matter entirely to make sense of the details of an unnoted life lived at or beyond the margins of major events. A biographer can readily make connections between Elizabeth I and the religious, political, and cultural landscape of modernity, and one does not need to strain to link Abraham Lincoln's private beliefs with that public drama of slavery and civil war in which he played the leading role. It is more difficult to take the measure of a life played out in the recesses of the mind and on the unread page.

Recently named "America's Greatest Social Critic" by Time magazine, Andrew Delbanco is one of our most astute students of 19th-century culture, so it is not surprising that he was already alert to this biographical challenge when he set out to write about Herman Melville, one of that century's most brilliant "thought-divers" (the phrase is Melville's). In his unfailingly engaging and elegantly written study, Delbanco begins by admitting that "any conventional biography of Melville is bound to fail." The murky details of that life "have slipped beyond the reach of even informed conjecture," and most accounts of it have been "notable for the discrepancy between the vividness of what he wrote and the vagueness of the figure who appears in writings about him." For anyone dealing with Herman Melville, the shadowy figure who lurks in the biographical background "will always be incommensurate with the genius whom we meet in the works."

In the face of such constraints, Delbanco has chosen to offer not so much a biography of Melville the man as a life study of the language he used in his efforts to seize what Moby Dick calls "the ungraspable phantom of life." Throughout the book, Delbanco judiciously balances a fascination with Melville's "spontaneous and self-surprising" language with a deep concern for the "complex connections" between his writing and the "intellectual and political context in which he lived and worked."

In Melville's case, personal life was to have an uncanny fit with political context for much of his career. As a young adult in 1841, he set out from New Bedford, Massachusetts in a whaling vessel bound for the killing fields of the Pacific. Already weary of the "soul-killing business" of office work, he was itching to see the world, and in his inquisitive restlessness, he mirrored the larger culture of the 1840s. For America this was an age of swagger and expansion, as settlers relentlessly drove across its vast prairies, mountains, and deserts to its western shores.

Midway on their whaling voyage, Melville and a fellow sailor jumped ship in the South Pacific. Out of their escapades he fashioned his first novel, Typee, which proved to be a modest but genuine success. Three similar works quickly followed at the rate of one a year, and in the midst of these heady and productive days, Melville found enough time to court and wed Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, to begin raising a family with her, and to settle into life in New York City.

Though he had yet to write the works for which he is remembered, Melville's reputation in 1850 was as high as it would ever be in his lifetime. In the following decade, his professional and personal decline proved to be as precipitous as his nation's parallel descent into political stalemate and civil war. In the body politic, the decade opened with the passage of the calamitous Fugitive Slaw Law, and over the course of the next ten years, writes Delbanco, "the American political system went to pieces before Melville's eyes." As the author grappled with spiritual depression, literary failure, and the prospect of financial ruin, he at the same time found America's political leadership behaving like "a ship of political fools sailing headlong for disaster."

With nuanced and astute readings of "Bartleby, the Scrivener," Benito Cereno, and the incomparable Moby Dick, Delbanco draws out the political significance of the brilliant short stories and novels Melville produced amid this national turmoil and personal stress. He details how the author brooded upon a world in which the abominable reality of chattel slavery drove opposing factions on a course that was as fated in its inevitable outcome as it seemed reckless in its unpredictable course. With his own eye cast on the politics of our post-9/11 world, Delbanco notes that in the years leading up to the Civil War, Melville repeatedly assailed his nation's political culture for a "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."

Melville: His World and Work deftly balances its assessment of the author's life among the weary Whigs and self-destructive Democrats of the 1850s with a vigorous account of the writer's blazing transformation from a middling teller of tales to a genius of world literature. Many factors figured in Melville's astonishing development in the early and mid-1850s. They included his bracing, revelatory encounter with the printed text of Shakespeare's plays ("if another Messiah ever comes twill be in Shakespeare's person," Melville wrote at the time), his remarkably intense and lamentably brief friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, and his full-scale immersion in the life of his adopted city of New York.

We may reflexively associate Melville with New England, but Delbanco makes a forceful case for him as the quintessential New York writer. He settled in the city just as it entered a period of explosive growth that saw it almost double in size, from 400,000 to 700,000 inhabitants, in a decade. Stimulated by the vigor of the city's life, Melville experienced "a breakout into freedom," as the languid prose of the early sea tales gave way to a brisk, rhythmic exploration of human experience by way of daring analogies and audacious associations. Delbanco claims the city equipped Melville with a new vocabulary and a fresh understanding of the possibilities of language. It was not so much on Melville's plots, characters, or settings that New York made its mark as "in the nerve and sinew of his prose."

New York made that mark by breaking open Melville's style and opening "his mind to the cosmopolitan idea of a nation" that had been fashioned not in the darkness of the ethnic past but in the light cast by a yet unrealized democratic future. The city and all it symbolized impressed itself upon Melville's imagination, as the brazen daring of its daily life liberated him to experiment with different fictional forms, even with formlessness itself. "There never has been," Delbanco says, "an American writer more deeply affected, indeed infected, by the tone and rhythm of the city."

The days of exhilaration and expansion, however, proved to be brief. Moby Dick was a critical and financial failure, and the novels Melville wrote in its wake only deepened the public's rapidly growing antipathy to his work. By late 1852, one of his acquaintances wrote to a friend, "the Harpers [publishers] think Melville is a little crazy." At the same time, his marriage entered what was to be a lifelong state of uncertainty, as his wife struggled to come to terms with Herman's recurrent bouts of depression and the chronic financial problems that beset the household of a failed writer.

Melville was to write some exceptional fiction and impressive poetry over his four decades of decline, including Benito Cereno and the majestic, valedictory Billy Budd. Yet these subdued works possessed little of the manic brio of Moby Dick, and as brilliant as they were, they did nothing to slow his involuntary retreat into obscurity. Within days of his death, the New York Times commented that "in its kind this speedy oblivion by which a once famous man so long survived his fame is almost unique, and is not easily explicable."

One possible explanation for this "speedy oblivion" has to do with the manner in which Melville's religious thought made him, like Kierkegaard, Dickinson, and Nietzsche, a prophet without honor in his own time. In the wake of his fictional failures in the 1850s, he grew more doubtful about his own capacities and possibilities, more critical of his culture's essential optimism, and more skeptical of any possible sources of religious comfort or belief. Although Delbanco's treatment of Melville's religious struggles seems at times cursory, especially in contrast to his splendidly extensive discussions of politics and sexuality in the fiction, he accurately strikes the painful balance of the writer's religious confusion, when he says that the novelist both believed "that the Bible was a collection of improbable fictions and . . . cursed the secular scholars who had exposed it" as such.

Those I have called the "prophets" of the late 19th century were among the first to sense the crisis of spiritual and moral authority dawning in their midst. Although they fashioned distinct and sometimes strikingly different responses to that crisis, Melville and his fellow writers knew they could not avoid it. Here at the beginning of the 21st century, we might refer to this problem as that of the "death of God," but in the 19th century many approached it by way of the more intimate metaphor of the orphan. In Moby Dick, for example, Ahab offers an extended, heartbreaking meditation on the melancholy cycles of human life. He concludes that "there is no steady unretracing progress in this life"; rather, we constantly move from belief to doubt to unbelief and back again. "Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?" he asks. "Where is the foundling's father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it."

In two of his earlier works, The Death of Satan and The Real American Dream, Delbanco skillfully anatomized late 19th-century America's sorrowful search for this secret. Here he concludes that by the end of Melville's life, the weary author had given up the quest, because he had come to believe that the world had neither a divine origin nor a divinely appointed end. Up to the point of his death, Melville continued to work on the manuscript of Billy Budd, but Delbanco notes that although it makes extensive reference to Christian Scriptures and symbols, there is in the "heart-rending tale … no intervention by a merciful God. There is no God at all." Others who came after him—Karl Barth, C. S. Lewis, and Flannery O'Connor, among them—would reach a dramatically different conclusion, but for Herman Melville at the close of the 19th century, the foundling's father was nowhere to be found, and the final harbor itself remained unmoored.

Roger Lundin is Blanchard Professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield.

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