A recent review in the Times Literary Supplement of a new edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales predicted that the book under discussion would fill “a yawning gap” as it rescued the fairy tales from children and folklorists so that we might see the collection as a major literary work. I read this interesting, pertinent sentence over someone’s shoulder, while sitting on a plane, just as I was about to open Andrew Delbanco’s new biography of Herman Melville. Surely, the book in my lap would be setting out to do the same: rescue the author of Moby-Dick from the miles of scholarship informed by received wisdom that already surround Melville’s life and work, thereby making the great nineteenth-century writer live anew for the current generation of readers.

Herman Melville was born in 1819 in New York City into a family of social connection and financial failure: The mother was a Gansevoort, both grandfathers were Revolutionary War heroes and the father died a bankrupt when Herman was 12 years old, leaving a wife and eight children to struggle on as best they could. None of the children grew up to be what is commonly called successful. Herman went to school now and then; clerked now and then; considered surveying now and then. In the same aimless way, at the age of 21 he signed on as a common seaman on a whaling ship from which, after six months at sea, he deserted in the Marquesan Islands, where he was held for some weeks by a native tribe in what he later called “indulgent captivity.” Upon his escape he slowly made his way back to America, now in possession of the experience on which his deepest self would draw for the next fifty years. He’d been gone nearly four years.

He decided to write a book about life among the Polynesian islanders. The book was called Typee, and it achieved a commercial success that, for a minute, made Melville a minor celebrity; more important, it made him realize that he was a writer. Within the next five years, he published four books–Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, White-Jacket–each less well received than the one before. One by one, the books moved further away from the simple adventure tale with which he had begun, but the readers of Typee did not follow.

Writing had released in Melville a passionate, brooding nature that turned ever more inward, puzzling openly over the concern that had been pressing on him since he’d gone to sea, namely, the metaphysical truth of human existence. As Babbalanja says in Mardi, “I am intent upon the essence of things, the mystery that lieth beyond…that which is beneath the seeming.” What tormented men, Melville had come to realize, was not so much the longing to believe that there is meaning in the universe, as the suspicion that behind the longing lies the fear of nothingness. At sea he had watched both the longing and the fear play themselves out fully–seen the ongoing struggle in those around him between the potential for savagery and the desire for transcendence–and he’d come to understand that the behavior Christians call civilized does not reach down to the center. Given the right circumstances, most men can demonstrate that both Good and Evil are conditional, and that the elemental forces of life are overwhelming. Wherefore, then, God and Satan?

The question obsessed him. There developed within him a moodiness that William James would trace to “the craving of the heart to believe that behind nature there is a spirit whose expression nature is.” As this craving could not be satisfied, it haunted him. Years after they’d met, Nathaniel Hawthorne, during a visit with Melville in Liverpool, wrote in his journal: “It is strange how he persists…in wandering to-and-fro over these [theological] deserts…. 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…. He has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than the rest of us.”

For the readers of Typee, each new literary offering of Melville’s seemed a cheat. These morbid, confused abstractions were not what they had signed on for–and, indeed, the narrative line in these books is often bogged down as Melville struggles to clarify what compels him yet resists his control. He knew he was alienating his readership–“If doubts distract you,” says a character in Mardi, “in vain will you seek sympathy from your fellow men”–but what could he do other than become his own searching self?

In the spring of 1850 Melville sat down to write another tale of whaling ships and the men who work on them, but this one overtook him as none before it had. Suddenly everything came together–language, structure, metaphor–with extraordinary multiplicity; one story, as he said later, turned out to be two, the larger of which drank his blood, while the other demanded only his ink. Here, at last, he knew what he was doing–and what he was doing was making a major contribution to American literature in a Modernist style that would not come into its own for another century. The book, of course, was Moby-Dick; and it was (famously) as great a critical and commercial failure as his other books had been. Only a handful of people–among them Hawthorne–saw Moby-Dick for the masterwork that it was.

Melville kept writing–poems, stories, novels, among them Pierre, Bartleby the Scrivener and, at the last, Billy Budd–but the forty years after Moby-Dick (he died in 1891) constituted something of a life sentence: the long, painful years of a failed writer living in depressed and reclusive obscurity, working in the New York Customs House, seeing almost no one, entirely forgotten by whatever public he had once had. Upon his death many were surprised to learn that Melville had still been alive.

Oh, yes, one other thing: He was married for more than forty years to a woman of his own class with whom he had two sons and two daughters, but neither in his wife nor in any of his children did Melville find a soul mate. Nowhere at home did he receive solace of the spirit, find relief from or exaltation in that which pressed so sorely on him. Perhaps it was this unhappy circumstance that turned the impassioned and volatile writer into a stricken domestic tyrant who stormed about the house, frightening all who came his way, then dissolving in bitter regret. For years on end the family, according to Melville’s granddaughter, suffered “not only from insufficient funds for daily needs but far more from his bursts of nervous anger and attacks of morose conscience.” One son committed suicide at 18, the other died at 35 far from home.

For some contemporary readers, this dramatic failure of domesticity is added proof of Melville’s homoerotic leanings. I say “added” because much has also been made of his extravagant unhappiness over Hawthorne’s willingness to let their friendship drift (in a letter Melville writes bitterly that Hawthorne “withholds” himself, and in a poem he seems to beg the older writer, “Give me thyself!”). But above all, it has been argued, it is in the writing itself that the homoerotic Melville is inescapably to be found: in the extraordinary portraits of male companionship (Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick), the clear adoration of male beauty (Billy Budd), the erotic cast of men in bondage to one another (Benito Cereno). One could easily go on and on. But what, exactly, are we to make of that which is clearly there for all to read?

For me, Melville’s homoeroticism is akin to that of D.H. Lawrence. They were two men who hungered to reach down to the very center of human existence, where the self that was dark, free, wild, even mystic–have I left out any piece of the rhetoric?–was waiting to be discovered. Both wanted to know, with an almost religious hysteria, the primitive “truth” of things more deeply than either wanted anything else. Each writer associated such knowingness entirely with the world of men; the world of strong and vivid action; the one in which one came dangerously up against one’s own fears and desires. It was only with men that one could get naked, so to speak. With women one was always somehow clothed. In their world there was the relief of order, sentiment, convention; but here one struggled incessantly against the constraint that domesticity placed on inner exploration.

Yet each man was ineluctably attached to women–clung to them, wouldn’t have known how to put it together without them–at the same time that he eroticized in imagination if not in actuality (the truth we’ll never know) what passed between men. In short, whether he understood it or not, each felt the amazing complexity of sexual force–and it was out of what he felt that he wrote. The genius lay in the strength of sensibility.

It seems to me that these are the complications we are calling homoerotic, and they are interesting when seen in the light of a psyche divided in anguish and excitement against itself, rather than that of straightforward sexual attraction to the members of one’s own sex. This self-division is, in fact, the key that, when turned, unlocks the door–in Melville as well as in Lawrence–to the inner drama out of which both made great fiction.

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.

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.