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Melville at Sea

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In 1851, when the 32-year-old Herman Melville published his masterpiece
Moby-Dick, he was already known as a man who'd consorted with
cannibals. His first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life
(1846), was an international sensation. A fictional travelogue based
on his adventures, some of them sex-

ual, in the Marquesas Islands, it offended genteel Christians and sold
pretty well, so Melville dipped into his escapades again for Omoo
(1847), more tales from the South Seas, and the career of Herman
Melville, swashbuckling author, was launched.

The young salt then married Boston Brahmin Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter
of Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
Actually, the scandalous Melville was something of a Brahmin himself.
Grandson of the Revolutionary War hero Gen. Peter Gansevoort, and of
Maj. Thomas Melvill, a hero of the Boston Tea Party, Melville was also
related to the Van Rensselaers of Albany, the New York State Dutch
equivalent of Boston blue blood.

Now a bona fide writer, Melville published another, more complex romance
of Polynesian adventure, Mardi (1849), not nearly as popular as
his first two, and the autobiographical Redburn (1849), followed
by a story of seamen, White-Jacket (1850): five novels in a manic
four years.

The scene is set. Melville is "the first American literary sex symbol,"
writes Hershel Parker in Herman Melville, A Biography, Volume 2,
1851-1891
. From then on, Melville has to deal with a public that
typecasts its authors: Melville is a sailor who writes, not a writer who
sailed. He also must live down a reputation for writing too fast and, as
his novels grow less popular, shoulder an ever-enlarging specter of
mortgaged debt, neither of which would be easy for anyone, least of all
the man whose own improvident father, the importer Allan Melvill, had
squandered the family fortune, such as it had become, as well as his
sanity and his patrimony, dying when Herman was only 12.

Yanked out of school, the young Melville (as the name was spelled after
Allan's death) then clerked in a bank for $150 a year; he also worked in
his elder brother's store, ran an uncle's farm, taught school and in
1839 set out to sea in a merchant ship bound for Liverpool. "Whenever it
is a damp, drizzly November in my soul," says Ishmael in
Moby-Dick, "then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as
I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball." In 1841 Melville
signed on to the whaler Acushnet, jumped ship and met his tribe of
cannibals.

All this is copiously documented in the 941 pages of Parker's Herman
Melville: A Biography, Volume 1, 1819-1851
(1996), which ends when
Melville, living in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, presents to his Berkshire
neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, a copy of the newly minted
Moby-Dick, containing that singular act of literary generosity,
its printed dedication to Hawthorne "in token of my admiration for his
genius."

In fact, Parker's fine sleuthing turned up a newspaper article, printed
in the 1852 Windsor, Vermont, Journal, that recounts Melville
meeting Hawthorne for dinner at a hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts,
conveniently situated between Pittsfield and the small house the
Hawthornes were occupying on the border of what today is known as
Tanglewood. And on the basis of this gossip column, Parker speculates
that the dinner took place circa November 14 and that as the two friends
lingered, alone in the dining room, Melville handed Moby-Dick to
Hawthorne. ("In no other way could Hawthorne have had a copy so soon,"
Parker explains.)

As Hawthorne held Moby-Dick in his hand, "he could open the book
in his nervous way (more nervous even than normally)," writes Parker,
"and get from his friend a guided tour of the organization of the thing
now in print, and even sample a few paragraphs that caught his eye or
that the author eagerly pointed out to him." He could indeed. Whether he
did is another matter, though not for Parker, as secure in his
fantasy as Edmund Morris is in his imaginary Dutch: A Memoir of
Ronald Reagan
. "Take it all in all," Parker concludes, "this was the
happiest day of Melville's life."

This reconstructed dinner purports to have happened because Parker, a
mighty researcher, has loaded his book with enough fact, detail and
circumstantial inference to oblige assent from a weary reader. Yet
despite the hulking material he's amassed from a mountain of newspapers,
a fairly new cache of family papers and a host of collateral letters, to
name just a few of his sources, Parker continually veers into unwonted
speculation that then careens into certainty, moving back and forth
between data and guesswork, seamlessly fusing the two and squandering
his credibility as biographer along the way. The happy dinner is a
jarring case in point--and surprising in the work of a scholar as
seemingly scrupulous as Parker, the associate general editor of the
Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville.

Yet the happy dinner is essential to Herman Melville, A Biography,
Volume 2, 1851-1891
, another prodigious undertaking, 997 pages, that
chronicles the second, sad half of Melville's life. Here, Parker focuses
on Melville's relationship to Hawthorne. But it's one of his book's more
contradictory themes, since Parker is irritated by the pairing.
Neighbors only for eighteen months, the two authors afterward saw one
another about three more times but in the nineteenth-century eye were
yoked forevermore, Melville in the background and remembered, "if
remembered at all," snaps Parker, "as a man who had known Hawthorne,
the literary man who had known Hawthorne during the Lenox
months."

Of course, Parker isn't the first biographer implicitly to lay the blame
for Melville's neglect at Hawthorne's feet. Laurie Robertson-Lorant,
whose earnest Melville: A Biography appeared the same year as the
first installment of Parker's biography, doesn't much like Hawthorne.
Though Hawthorne appreciated Moby-Dick, he took Melville
literally when he said not to write about it, and Robertson-Lorant never
forgave him, particularly since Moby-Dick met with
uncomprehending reviewers who called it "careless," "patchy," "dazzling"
and "absurd." Sales were predictably bad.

Worse yet, in 1852 Melville published Pierre, or, The
Ambiguities
, an undomestic novel about incest and authorship (the
two symbolically related), which also contained a coruscating sendup of
writers and editors. They were not amused. Herman Melville Crazy ran a
headline in one New York paper. Enter Parker, who reasonably argues that
Melville's screed against publishers was a wanton act of
self-destruction (or hubris) and then less reasonably suggests that
Melville "may have sensed what would become a recurrent phenomenon for
the rest of his life, that he was being eclipsed by Hawthorne." This is
Parker speaking, not Melville. Despite Melville's capaciousness, Parker
is convinced that envy preoccupies Melville, though the evidence
suggests Parker is the envious one, so riled is he by Hawthorne's
posthumous reputation and Melville's sinking one. Parker closely
identifies with Melville, at times too closely, and will cross swords
with anyone who ignored, outsold, criticized or just plain didn't like
Melville.

But alas, Melville was in fact forgotten in America until his own
posthumous revival in the 1920s, especially in Britain, when, Parker
declares more than once, Moby-Dick and sometimes Pierre
take their place in a literary pantheon that does not include the
establishment writer (according to Parker) Hawthorne. "Not one of all
these British admirers ever asked Melville what it had been like to be a
friend of Hawthorne," Parker writes near the end of his book. "They
understood that Hawthorne, like Longfellow, was immensely popular but
not of the same order of literary greatness as Melville and Whitman."
Take that, you American fools.

The question of Hawthorne's immense popularity aside--the truth is, he
couldn't earn a living as a writer--Melville's treatment by a boorish
America obsessed with commonplace prosperity is another of Parker's
themes, and he strews his biography with the silly statements of vapid
critics like Melville's friend Evert Duyckinck, whom he also holds
responsible for Melville's eclipse. The trouble here isn't that Parker
is wrong but that his target--American stupidity--is too wide a mark.
Americans can be stupid, to be sure, and Melville's gifts are
staggering, but so is his tendency for self-subversion; his almost
vicious search for meaning--"if man will strike, strike through the
mask!"--ends with his pervasive, magniloquent sense that nothing will
avail. This makes him a complex, fascinating man and genius of
heartbreaking proportion. "Ourselves are Fate," he wrote in
White-Jacket.

After Pierre, Melville presumably wrote another book from a story
he'd heard, while vacationing in Nantucket, about Agatha Hatch, the
abandoned wife of a bigamist sailor. According to Parker, who expertly
excavated information about the lost manuscript, including its title
("The Isle of the Cross"), Melville finished this book, which his
publisher, Harper's, was prevented from printing for some unknown
reason. (Parker thinks the Harper brothers feared a suit from survivors
of Agatha Hatch, should they have recognized themselves, although he
concludes that the prospect is unlikely.)

Parker nicely points out that "The Isle of the Cross" is the missing
link between Pierre and Melville's subsequent magazine tales,
including the brilliant story "Bartleby, the Scrivener," an inquiry into
moral accountability and the fecklessness of social norms. It was
collected in a volume of stories, The Piazza Tales (1856), which
also includes the great "Benito Cereno," about an insurrection aboard a
slave ship that turns shallow parlor values upside down, and "The
Encantadas," sketches that Melville may have purloined from a longer,
unpublished manuscript of his about tortoises, whose crowning curse,
Melville writes, "is their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a
belittered world." This is pure Melville: philosophical, rueful, ironic,
bold. He also serialized a historical novel, Israel Potter, in
Putnam's Monthly Magazine, in which he forecast, argues Parker,
the ultimate loss of his own career. But he didn't stop writing.

Now the father of four (two boys and two girls), Melville had already
begun the satiric Confidence-Man (1857) when his health
collapsed, likely under the weight of depression and heavy debt. Loans
due, he had to sell off eighty acres to save his farm from seizure by a
creditor; humiliated, he borrowed $5,000 from his father-in-law, who'd
already contributed $5,000 to family coffers. A kind man where Melville
was concerned (though he cut an equivocal place in history by enforcing
the Fugitive Slave Act), Judge Shaw dispatched the ailing Melville to
Rome, Egypt and the Levant, where Melville had long wanted to go, hoping
to find among the hieroglyphics tidings to quiet his uneasy soul.

He traveled by way of Liverpool, where Hawthorne, stationed as American
consul, briefly entertained him. "He certainly is much overshadowed
since I saw him last," Hawthorne observed, noting Melville's strange
comment that he'd

"pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not
seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until
he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists--and
has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before--in
wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the
sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be
comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to
try to do one or the other.

Melville never received a more searching analysis.

As Hawthorne surmised, Melville would not find what he sought in the
vastness of the Pyramids, and after returning to America, he beached his
pen to earn a scant living on the lecture circuit, his audiences
complaining that his whiskers muffled his words. A platform fiasco, he
took off again, intending to circumnavigate the globe, but when he
disembarked in San Francisco and learned that publishers had rejected a
new manuscript, he returned home, defeated and miserable. His works
falling out of print, he solaced himself in long walks around New York
City after he and his family moved there in 1863, and eventually landed
a dry-dock job as a Custom House inspector.

Oddly, the unsold manuscript was a book of poems. Why write poetry?
Given the prestige of poetry in the nineteenth century, it's not a
question, says Parker, Melville would have thought to ask. But that's no
answer. The man was chronically depressed, debt-ridden and rightly fed
up with publishers and readers; yet write poetry he did, perhaps seeking
something unavailable to the novel, especially during wartime. The
trenchant Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) contains
such poems as "The House-top," Melville's reflection on the 1863 draft
riots, and his ironic depiction of Sherman's "March to the Sea." Parker
favors Melville's allusive, ambitious epic, "Clarel: A Poem and a
Pilgrimage in the Holy Land" (1876), though the jury's still out on
that. I myself would like to be convinced, but Parker prefers to tease
out the poem's hypothetical references to Hawthorne rather than traffic
in enormities, poetic or otherwise.

Similarly, Parker gives remarkably short shrift to the tragic death of
Malcolm, Melville's firstborn, killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound
at 18. Here, Parker should indulge his penchant for speculation: Why did
Malcolm tuck his gun under his pillow each night? What was he trying to
tell his father, with this pistol and ball? Did Melville hear him? And
wouldn't it be safe to assume that Malcolm's ghost, not Hawthorne's,
spooked Melville when he visited the Berkshire Hills in 1869, just
before he began writing "Clarel"? Do littérateurs haunt only one
another?

Likewise, Parker could dig deeper into allegations about Melville's
abuse of his wife, which so upset her brothers they wanted to kidnap her
and the children and hustle them back to Boston. Psychological abuse,
Parker admits; but physical abuse? Throwing her down the stairs?
Poet Charles Olson reportedly got the word from Melville's oldest
granddaughter, and he's not a source a responsible biographer can put
much faith in, says Parker, except that the claims are worth
interpreting at least in terms of Melville's fascination with violence.
The posthumously published tour de force Billy Budd, an inside
narrative, as Melville terms it, tells of an innocent youth's murder:
Malcolm? Melville's younger, more sexual self? The beleaguered Melville
frequently did abandon his wife, whom he seemed to love, though he was
clearly drawn to the company of men, either in fantasy or in the context
of his work. (Edwin Miller, an unreliable biographer, imagines Melville
propositioning Hawthorne in the Berkshire Hills and Hawthorne rejecting
him: more grist for the anti-Hawthorne mill. On this subject, Newton
Arvin remains the best, most elegant, Melville interpreter to date.)

Commendably cautious, Parker eschews reckless or fashionable theories
about Melville's sexuality. Yet questions remain, skirted by Parker, as
if his dizzying array of biographical detritus would prevent our posing
them. Cramming his book with long, bloodless catalogues of what Melville
might have seen or read, Parker layers each sentence with so much stuff
he sacrifices drama, insight and even, on occasion, grammar. "Knowing
Melville's sightseeing habits as detailed in his journals," Parker
obfuscates, "chances are he saw all he could see, keeping a lookout for
superb views." He then provides us with all these vistas, plus newspaper
reports and tangential historical information, fudging the biographical
imperative: to show how Melville transforms the shaggy minutiae of life
and its myriad characters (whether Hawthorne, Malcolm, a besieged wife
or a shipmate) into an alembic of wishes, conflicts and disappointments
that, taken together, reflect him, a mysterious, roiling, poignant
writer alive, painfully alive, in every phrase he wrote.

Still, Parker offers a sweeping history of the reviews Melville
received, a comprehensive account of Melville's reading (ditto his
literary sources), a jeremiad against mediocrity in American letters,
all the characters in Melville's extended family, a record of his aching
debt and a peevish defense of an artist who needs, as artist, no defense
at all.

Grateful scholars will chew over this massive undertaking in years to
come, as they should, saluting Parker for his devotion, solemnity and
sheer stamina. As for Melville the man: As Ishmael presciently remarks
in Moby-Dick, "I cannot completely make out his back parts; and
hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face."

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