The Scrivener and the Whale
During most of the century and more since Melville's death, a mountain of American scholarship--some glorious, most mundane--has gathered around his work and his person. Among the more luminous of the critical works is F.O. Matthiessen's 1941 classic, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, a book that many consider the seminal text in American literary studies. The book is inspiring not only for the freshness of Matthiessen's insights into nineteenth-century American writing but for the remarkable sensitivity with which he writes. In a discussion of Moby-Dick Matthiessen tells us, "The instinctive rightness with which [Melville] interrelated the levels in his structure can be seen only by a kind of slow moving-picture of the whole"--and then proceeds to give us this "slow moving-picture" so beautifully the reader could weep. Here we have the kind of absorptive, hovering prose that makes literature out of criticism.
The work done on Melville the man is, I think, often more problematic. Every biographer begins by complaining that the subject is "unknowable," as a vital absence of documentation surrounds the life, and then proceeds to churn out hundreds and hundreds of pages that, in the end, seem to confirm the original misgiving. Within the past ten years alone we have had Hershel Parker's two-volume biography--nearly 2,000 pages long!--at the end of which many readers have felt that they do not know Melville any better than they did before they read the biography; while everything about him is on the page, the man himself remains elusive.
Oddly enough, upon the appearance of the first volume of the Parker biography in 1997, it was Andrew Delbanco, professor of American studies at Columbia, who wrote in an unusually lengthy essay in The New York Review of Books, "Herman Melville is a singularly unyielding subject for literary biography," as "the dim record of Melville's life simply disappears into the glare of his work, and the best one can hope for is to glimpse a few moments of convergence between them." Essentially, the review accused Parker of having turned a "digitized Log into a biography" marked by the kind of "promiscuous detail" that spoke to an academic thesis both reductive and overdetermined. Curiously enough, the overdetermined thesis was that of sexual longing--"at the root of every mood and motivation Parker finds sexual craving"--and it wasn't that Delbanco thought there was no truth in this observation but that in Parker's hands it became an ax that the hapless biographer ground relentlessly because he had no real ideas. There was, in Delbanco's view, "no grand theme" emerging from Parker's lifelong literary devotion.
Now here we are, eight years later, with Delbanco himself weighing in with 400-odd pages on the man he long ago told us was a bad bet for literary biography. The reader cannot help wondering, So why write another one? And, as though hearing the silent question, Delbanco replies, but in terms that seem to this reviewer somewhat less than reassuring. "The reason," he confides in his preface, "has to do with a feeling that we all live by some unknowable combination of free will and fate. This feeling tends to grow as one gets older, and so there is a certain comfort in watching someone make something beautiful and enduring out of the recalcitrance and fleetingness of life." There is a sense of the reverential in this abstraction that grows even stronger when Delbanco shares with us the memory of a time when he held an old letter of Melville's in his hands and felt that he was "eavesdropping, like a tourist in a church who comes upon a worshipper kneeling in prayer." Now we know we are in the presence of adoration; and sure enough, the preface ends: "Anyone who reads Melville's words will know what Emerson meant when he wrote in his journal that, while reading Shakespeare, 'I actually shade my eyes.'"
These sentences, I must admit, made me desperately uncomfortable. What, I wondered, can follow from such a beginning except hagiography, pure and simple? The thought proved both warranted and unwarranted: Delbanco's book is hagiography, though not pure and simple.