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Melville the Great


It ought to be relatively easy by now to get a clear general view of Herman Melville, whose reputation has long been unsurpassed among American writers. Although he left relatively few documentary traces and went unnoticed through the last three quarters of a literary career that began in the 1840s and extended all the way to his death in 1891, herculean scholarly efforts by Harrison Hayford, Jay Leyda, Henry A. Murray, Hershel Parker, and others have unearthed more than enough facts to establish how his social station plummeted when, at age eleven, he endured his father’s business failure and sudden death; how his sea voyages and his omnivorous reading vastly broadened his outlook; how, after much effort in subsequent novels, tales, and sketches, he gave up trying to retain the admiration of readers who had welcomed such early adventure novels as Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Redburn (1849), and White-Jacket (1850); and how he eventually became a reclusive poet, an ill-paid customs inspector, and an unhappy husband and father whose domestic life was punctuated by horrors—the suicide of one son and the early death of another—that reinforced his already pronounced susceptibility to depression.

Notoriously, however, nothing close to agreement prevails about the intent behind the two great works that have fascinated the public and preoccupied the critics, Moby Dick (1851) and Billy Budd (1924; corrected edition 1962).1 Nor is anyone content merely to say that those fictions must be ambiguous at their core. Since the 1920s each new American generation has wanted a Melville of its own, and the figure served up by the critics in one era always looks like an artifact of those critics’ pretensions and illusions when a new cohort takes its turn.

Once Melville studies became an ever-expanding industry in the 1940s, the very traits that had rendered Moby Dick unreadable for many in the nineteenth century—its boisterous raids on history, ethnography, zoology, mythology, and religion, its abrupt shifts of register and perspective, its transmutation of natural and artifactual objects into portentous symbols, and its apparent wavering between sympathy for Captain Ahab and condemnation of his hubris—turned that novel into the premier hunting ground for Americanists in search of suitably complex interpretations. But all of those thematic inquiries resulted, collectively, in a loss of feeling for the immediate texture of Melville’s prose and a widening of the gap between specialists and amateur readers.

By 1962 the Harvard professor Warner Berthoff felt that it was time for the academics themselves to be reminded of why Melville is widely cherished. It isn’t, he wrote in The Example of Melville, because the author possessed great notions or a stoic attitude or a symbolic imagination or some ineffable “Americanness,” but because he commanded a sentence-by-sentence authority, a “plenitude of released and extended power,” that bespoke a unique combination of energy, intelligence, and magnanimity, along with a “thrust toward explication” that would settle for nothing less than “an entire explicitness.”2

Berthoff’s argument was refreshing, but it was also tilted toward a phase of Melville’s career that ended with Moby Dick. His subsequent works, among them Pierre, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” “I and My Chimney,” “The Piazza,” “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” “Benito Cereno,” The Confidence-Man, and Billy Budd, do not drive toward full explication but slyly withhold it; they are as pregnant with unspecified discontent as Moby Dick is (deceptively) hearty. And when Melville seems most explicit, he may be merely toying with a hypothesis or representing a literal-mindedness that is inadequate to the horror or the moral scandal at hand.

In any event, Berthoff’s one-man campaign didn’t alter the headlong course of academic Melville studies—“psychological, mythic, ideological, social, ethical, epistemological, linguistic, metaphysical,” as one observer has noted—even for a moment.3 And we will see that when criticism changed direction again in the 1980s, it moved still farther from Berthoff’s mode of assessment. His cause, however, has found a new and formidable champion in Andrew Delbanco. If any one volume stands a chance of satisfying the lay public without oversimplifying the current state of knowledge, Delbanco’s Melville: His World and Work is that book.

Like Berthoff, Delbanco speaks up unabashedly for sheer literary quality and its ultimate source in a writer’s character. “It was his words,” he writes of Melville, “that seized and dazzled us,” and he wants us to bear in mind D.H. Lawrence’s observation that Melville “wrote from a sort of dream-self, so that events which he relates as actual have indeed a far deeper reference to his own…inner life.” That inner life is just what Berthoff meant to designate through quotation and analysis of passages representing Melville’s most exuberant manner. Delbanco, however, is mindful of the stylistic break that occurred in Melville’s writing in the early 1850s, leading eventually to the coldly formal, halting, unpictorial prose of Billy Budd. And he knows that the break didn’t occur within any dream-self but in the shaken mind of a man who was wrestling with his own volatile temper, with vexations and debts, with the incomprehension of reviewers and readers, with sexual confusion, and with the cooling of the one relationship (with Nathaniel Hawthorne) in which he had rashly invested all of his hopes for close brotherhood.

Delbanco wants to tell that story and many others besides, not for their own sake but because he takes solace from the way a great artist can “make something beautiful and enduring out of the recalcitrance and fleetingness of life.” And so he has written a mid-sized biography that restores Melville’s literary achievements to their original setting: the writer’s physical and intellectual adventures, his relation to predecessors and contemporaries, and, most generally, the social development, politics, and culture of an America that was convulsed and utterly transformed during his lifetime.

Among recent lives of Melville, this one has no peer for grace of style, vividness of historical evocation, and sympathy for a subject whose flaws and prejudices are nevertheless kept in view. One never feels that Delbanco is shuttling routinely between “influences” and their mechanically produced effects in Melville’s fiction and poetry. Instead, with a tact born of respect for genius, he indicates in a looser, more suggestive way how the autodidact Melville seized on elements of his experience and transformed them into a new manner of thinking in images.

Take, for example, Delbanco’s exposition of the strong effect that was exerted on the writer’s style and thought by his several years of residence, in the late 1840s, in New York—already the most bustling, polyglot, and liberated of American cities. Melville wrote little about Manhattan itself, but the brashness of its journalism and the rhythm of its daily life, Delbanco finds, were reproduced in his sentences. “Moving clause by clause through Melville’s New York prose,” he says,

is like strolling, or browsing, on a city street: each turn of phrase brings a fresh association; sometimes we are brought up short by a startling image requiring close inspection; sometimes a rush of images flickers by; but there is always the feeling of quickened pulse, of some unpredictable excitement, in aftermath or anticipation. And if New York broke open Melville’s style, it opened his mind as well to the cosmopolitan idea of a nation to which one belongs not by virtue of some blood lineage that leads back into the past, but by consent to the as-yet-unrealized ideal of a nation comprehending all peoples…in a future of universal freedom. New York was the birthplace of Melville’s democratic imagination—both in substance and style.

This is recognizably Warner Berthoff’s intuitive and greathearted Melville—the one who was replaced in the early 1850s by a warier man who had learned how to satisfy magazine readers with well-wrought tales and sketches that exposed as little as possible of his wounded self. Delbanco is acute in characterizing, if not in fully explaining, that withdrawal into canny professionalism and then the more drastic retreat into isolation and verse. And because he stays primarily attuned to language, not to themes, he can’t join some other recent Melvilleans in elevating the 18,000-line meditative poem Clarel (1876) to parity with the novels. Clarel abounds in ideas on which critics can batten, but Delbanco insists that its mostly prefabricated “poetical” language bespeaks a loss of the reckless agility of mind that allowed Melville at midcentury to tease out an observation or a figure of speech until it yielded some unforeseen and liberating insight.

Among nonacademic readers of Delbanco’s Melville, perhaps the only ones who will be disappointed in his book are those expecting to find pat interpretations of what each studied work “means to say.” Delbanco refers to many such readings, but, with one controversial exception that I will challenge later, he doesn’t feel a need to choose among them. It isn’t modesty, I gather, that motivates this discretion, but rather a belief that the capacity of Melville’s strongest writings to generate and sustain rival notions of meaning attests to their classic standing.


Delbanco, then, has written an eclectic, humane, historically grounded tribute to Melville’s best achievements and a moving account of the troubles that closed in on him, all but snuffing out the creativity that he summoned for one last triumph in Billy Budd. Whether this study will have any more effect on academic Melville criticism than Berthoff’s The Example of Melville did in 1962, however, is another matter. Although history is the watchword of nearly all work in American studies these days, and although Delbanco’s command of Melville’s life and times is impressive, his book quietly but knowingly goes against the academic grain.

Two earlier essays by Delbanco make it clear that his Melville is meant to exemplify principles that are honored only spottily in contemporary academic work. One of those pieces, attempting to account for the low esteem in which English departments are now held, puts much of the blame on a lapse of dedication to the idea of introducing students to works whose complexity and amplitude of spirit can dislodge their prejudices and draw them into imaginative sympathy with other minds and eras.4 Instead, wrote Delbanco, the professors have turned to epistemic relativism, pop-cultural leveling, radical proselytizing, and the tunnel vision of “subject positions,” or reading solely for the reinforcement of group identity. For Delbanco now to put forward Melville’s major writings on the basis of their objective (not their “socially constructed”) greatness thus constitutes a deliberate reassertion of a traditionalist perspective.

Just how Delbanco’s critique of “English” relates to Melville studies can be discerned by consulting his earlier article evaluating works in that subfield that were published in the 1980s. Echoing the novelist Dan McCall, whose book The Silence of Bartleby struck him as “the single most sensitive response to Melville’s genius since Warner Berthoff’s The Example of Melville,” Delbanco referred demeaningly to “prosecutorial” books and articles that “have the quality of a belated inquest convened not to determine if a crime took place—the crime is called culture—but to determine the degree of Melville’s complicity in it.”5

  1. 1

    I agree with those scholars who think that the hyphen on the title page of Melville’s first American edition was a mistake or editorial arrogation that needn’t have been perpetuated. “Moby Dick” is unhyphenated throughout the printed text (including a chapter title) and in a surviving letter to Sophia Hawthorne in Melville’s hand.

  2. 2

    Princeton University Press, 1962, pp. 206, 208.

  3. 3

    Giles Gunn, introduction to A Historical Guide to Herman Melville, edited by Gunn (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 11.

  4. 4

    Andrew Delbanco, “The Decline and Fall of Literature,” The New York Review, November 4, 1999.

  5. 5

    Andrew Delbanco, “Melville in the ‘80s,” American Literary History, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Winter 1992), pp. 709–725. The quotations are from pp. 710, 711, and 715.

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