The Great Leviathan

Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 1, 1819-1851

by Hershel Parker
Johns Hopkins University Press, 941 pp., $39.95

Son of one Revolutionary War hero and son-in-law of another, Allan Melvill had, as we would say today, good connections. Among the cousins of his wife, Maria, were the Van Rensselaers, and his own name was honored in the genteel circles of Boston and New York. But he failed miserably in his chosen business as an importer of fabrics and furs and spent his last decade begging his family for loans to ward off creditors unmoved by his pedigree. His health broken, he lived only a little more than twelve years past the birth, in 1819, of his second son, Herman. According to his brother-in-law, Peter Gansevoort, who attended his deathbed in the winter of 1832, he presented during his final illness “the melancholly spectacle of a deranged man.”

Allan Melvill left a widow (who added an e to her married name soon after her husband’s death), four daughters, and four sons without financial security or even immediate means. Herman, whom his father had judged, at age seven, to be “very backward in speech & somewhat slow in comprehension,” spent the decade after Allan’s death going sporadically to school (where he was overshadowed by his older brother Gansevoort), helping out at his uncle’s Berkshire farm, clerking in an Albany bank and in the hat store that Gansevoort was running, teaching at an academy eager for willing instructors, and working a stint on a merchant vessel that took him to Liverpool and back. None of these jobs opened into a career (he briefly considered surveying, and looked, without success, for work on the Erie Canal); and so, without prospects or plans, he decided to see more of “the watery part of the world.” On January 3, 1841, he boarded the whaler Acushnet at Fairhaven, Massachusetts (in Moby-Dick, the Pequod sets sail on Christmas Day), and embarked on a voyage that was to last nearly the collegiate span of four years. “A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” he wrote ten years later in Moby-Dick, with a mixture of resentment and relief at having missed the privileges of the caste into which he was born.

Sailing before the mast was a good choice for Herman Melville and for literature, but a bad one for his future biographers. Not even the log of the Acushnet survives—only brief notations on standard forms (known as the “abstract log”) about wind and currents and hunting conditions, by which whaling captains gathered data they hoped would be useful for future voyages. No letters remain from Melville’s sailor years, though the extant correspondence between family members does contain references to such letters having been received. “How Melville experienced the voyage, day by day,” as Hershel Parker laments in his very long new biography, “is wholly undocumented.”

Ashore, Melville left not much more of a trail. Fewer than three hundred letters, many of them perfunctory, survive from his life of seventy-two years, as compared, say, to the twelve thousand of Henry James. “Melville …

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