The Scrivener and the Whale
Melville: His World and Work is a full and faithful account of all that is already known and recorded of the writer's personal life, and it places that life richly (and again, fully) in the politics and culture of the writer's time. Delbanco has, of course, read everything by and about his subject and can--and does--rehearse a wealth of responses to Melville's work. On the one hand, this rehearsal demonstrates the authority of research; on the other, it gives us a book saturated in quotations from other readers. On every other page--or so it seems--Lewis Mumford notes, Elizabeth Hardwick observes, Harold Bloom remarks. A rudimentary list of those quoted includes Edward Said, Walker Percy, E.M. Forster, Newton Arvin, Edmund Wilson, W.H. Auden, John Updike, along with the lesser known but influential academics Frank Lentricchia, Richard Slotkin and Dominick LaCapra. The odd thing here is that much of what these scholars and writers say can be said without the invocation of their illustrious names. For example, as Hardwick remarked, the man who wrote Typee was not "a painter of his own face in the mirror"; as Mumford observed, in New York Melville "simply could not forget the wideness of the world"; as Slotkin has said, Moby Dick is "at once masculine and feminine, a phallus and an odalisque."
Now, Delbanco is a sophisticated writer who could easily have put these sentiments into words of his own. Yet he chose not to. Not, I think, out of the ordinary academic habit of piling up superficial appeals to authority but rather because he is intent on creating a brilliant surround for the work of a writer he does, in fact, love indiscriminately; one that is meant to draw us irresistibly inside the persuasion that Melville's work is not only majestic but inordinately protean: It can and does mean all things to all people in all times, accommodating itself easily to whatever system of interpretation the cultural moment brings into focus. That, I think, is the thesis to which this biography is dedicated.
Thus, we have quotes to support the suggestion of a transcendental Melville, a Modernist Melville, a cold war Melville, a gay Melville, an ecological Melville, a Melville of American imperialism and of anti-imperialist blowback. This last, in particular, gets a great deal of play. Edward Said is quoted as having said, on the eve of the Afghanistan invasion, "Collective passions are being funnelled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick," and Delbanco helps him out by observing that, later, many others "likened President George W. Bush to Ahab in his determination to attack Iraq." This book was published before Denis Donoghue ventured that Moby-Dick foretold America's bid for global domination but not before Delbanco could tell us that the Pequod is really the Democratic Party of 1850 falling to pieces.
But it is when we read, "The binary balance of [Melville's] sentences creates a seesaw feeling not very different from what one feels when reading a late twentieth-century postmodern writer like Jacques Derrida or Paul de Man" that we know we are in the presence of a writer whose claims for his subject are so far-reaching as to lose their interpretive value, and we cannot help wondering, What is going on here? Where is the "grand theme" that holds all this indiscriminate theorizing together? Merely to ask the question is to answer it.
The problem is one of imagination. When F.O. Matthiessen presented Melville in the truly grand terms by which we have considered him for fifty years--the tragic vision of Man Against Nature, our own Innate Depravity, the guilty need for Crucified Innocence, the Malign Intelligence of existence itself--those terms were fresh, original, exhilarating. Today they are worn thin, in criticism and biography alike. On the other hand, the simple substitution of newer terms derived from Freud, politics and literary theory are equally unsatisfying--reductive and schematic--when applied by scholars working within a mental framework derived from academic conventions that do not allow the subject to fly free. Delbanco's book is neither reductive nor schematic--it is well written and, more important, strongly engaged--yet it does not, cannot, bring us Melville anew because in the deepest sense it is hemmed in by these very conventions.
What is needed for a figure as iconized as Melville is a biographer possessed by a flash of original insight around which the "life" can be organized, the kind that is very little dependent on documentation. The only obligation of such insight is that it prove genuine, not fabricated, and that it deepen the writing until something true about the man who wrote Moby-Dick is acutely felt by responsive readers who are sure to recognize the close of a yawning gap when they see one.