Melville at Sea

Melville at Sea


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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