In these biographically minded days, Professor Delbanco has not called his work a biography of Melville—his subtitle does not say “His Life and Work.”  I think this distinction is not without significance, particularly because his book takes the form, if not the substance, of a literary biography: It follows the course of an author’s life and production in chronological order.  Of course, in this case, we have to say, “Some life!  Some production!”  Odious comparisons force us to conclude that Herman Melville had the most spectacular career in the history of American letters, when we consider his ascent, his fall, his years of withdrawal, and his resurrection in the 20th century.  Even so, the blanks in Melville’s life are chasms which must daunt any biographer, while requiring extensive passages of speculation and of cultural criticism.  And so it is here.

The thing is brilliantly done.  Andrew Delbanco’s writing is so resourceful and flexible that I was a bit embarrassed to realize that, ground down by too much exposure, I had begun to expect or even to wish for a plonking level of mediocrity when it comes to the academic treatment of such a set topic.  Though the professor is fortified by extensive scholarly knowledge, he is not weighed down by it, and his book has a quality of imaginative flight and a bracing ease that is remarkable and especially to be prized as the vehicle for the delivery of a story that has inherently more than its share of gloom and doom and leaden melancholy.

But there is also the possibility that Andrew Delbanco’s prose style has had the paradoxical effect of highlighting his idiosyncrasies and even of distorting his message, which is that Herman Melville’s work speaks to us today with a particular force and appeal.  Of course, there is much truth to this argument, and his treatments of Benito Cereno and Bartleby the Scrivener quite rightly emphasize the point.  Yet this very point can be blunted if there is any slighting of Melville’s critical or dialectical quality—he wrote against the grain of 19th-century liberalism, so that to see him as the prophet of postmodern attitudes is to understand him rather too conveniently.  The figures of Captain Delano in the one story and the lawyer/narrator in the other are shown to be uncomprehending witnesses of the truths that others suffer.  The American ethos was incapable of tragic awareness, as witness Emerson, but there was no such lack on the part of Herman Melville.  In spite of his metaphysical sophistication, or rather because of it, Melville is not the culture hero of his time who speaks to ours.  That role has been taken over by a channeling Ralph Waldo Emerson and a cruising Walt Whitman and a masturbating Emily Dickinson and whomever.  Melville was more appropriately the hero of strenuous modernism in the 1920’s and later, or even of the chastened postwar liberalism of men such as Trilling and Niebuhr after 1945.  Delbanco has hold of a culture hero, to be sure, but that does not mean that he fits every mold or that he is necessarily the exemplar of polymorphous perversity.

In his comments on Moby-Dick, Delbanco has, to my mind at least, misinterpreted a point of literary allusion.  He asserts that an allusion to the Palinurus of Book V of Vergil’s Aeneid (itself an allusion, as he does not mention, to a passage in Homer’s Odyssey) is confined to a passage of Ishmael’s imagination.  But the allusion to Palinurus is more powerfully exercised in the disappearance of Bulking-ton, which would then redeem what Delbanco sees as a botch.  If, as has been suggested, the character of Bulkington is an allegorical nod to Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, it would also fit into the political allegory of Moby-Dick.  But then, Delbanco has gone further to distort that obscure allegory.  The ship of state is driven to disaster by the oddly sympathetic monomaniac; and, as a book of its time, Moby-Dick is a prophecy of disaster.  That disaster seemed to materialize in the Civil War in which the Old Republic destroyed itself.  But, for Delbanco, a more telling analogy is with Adolf Hitler and fascism, and this analogy is repeated, as he stretches the string even unto George W. Bush.  With this kind of insight, Herman Melville doesn’t need any foresight, or any hindsight, either.

But for that, the treatment of the outrageous Moby-Dick is very good.  And so is the account of that most “terrible” of American books, Pierre, or the Ambiguities, the one that caused Melville to be called “crazy.”  But it is a remark of Delbanco’s, about that book’s reflection of Melville’s own reality, that seems crazy to me: “What goes on between husband and wife is a sealed mystery even if one hears the couple through the bedroom wall—and so we cannot hope to know much about Melville’s actual sexual life.”  In the first place, the word hope, placed so closely to the image of coitus, seems strongly to suggest a prurient interest in the sex life, if any, of dead people, or even live ones.  Related to this are suggestions about Melville’s putative or presumptive or just presumed homosexuality, and a few allusions to what we may call the erotics of reading.  There is something a wee bit distasteful, as well as plenty absurd, about recruiting good old Herman as part of the contemporary “gay rights” movement, and that is not an invention of Delbanco.  But he does think that such speculation makes Herm more cool for the contemporary reader.  Right—but I thought we had just declared that we cannot hope to know much about Melville’s actual sexual life.  Or about anyone’s, except, maybe, that of Paris Hilton.  Herman, I never knew it could be like this!

Andrew Delbanco’s book on Herman Melville may be hip to a fault, and it neglects the best poetry written about the Civil War, but it is at heart an excellent work and a provocative treatment of the subject.  Interested readers might want to continue with Stanton Garner’s The Civil War World of Herman Melville, Robert K. Wallace’s Melville and Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright, and Ann Douglas’s treatment of Pierre in The Feminization of American Culture.


[Melville: His World and Work, by Andrew Delbanco (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 416 pp., $30.00]