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). 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.”

Berthoff’s argument …

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