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

Delbanco’s quarrel was with a circle of angry “post-Vietnam” academics whose influence in American studies remains strong if somewhat diminished today. Their ruling premise is that the US has always been a racist, sexist, anti-labor, genocidally expansionist nation whose philosophers and literary pundits have facilitated oppression by promoting “consensus values,” such as freedom and independence, that put socially divisive issues under the rug. Declamatory prose in Melville’s era about spreading liberty across the American landscape, they maintain, was largely window-dressing for policies that would displace and slaughter Native Americans, seize Mexican territory, and extend the sway of slavery. Melville himself had written just such prose, and even when he voiced opposite sentiments, warning against nationalistic hubris, he did so in tones of flamboyant Emersonian individualism—an attitude that was now, post-Vietnam, stigmatized as the mark of an imperialist mentality.

In his American Renaissance of 1941, F.O. Matthiessen had ushered five white males—Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman—into a mid-nineteenth-century pantheon whose criteria for entry were a democratic spirit on the one hand and a fine literary complexity on the other. To the revisionist or “dissensus” school forty years later, the Matthiessen canon amounted to an aestheticizing of the authors’ political evasions. Why admire Hawthorne’s prim formal effects if they served as a distraction from his shocking complacency about slavery? And as for Melville, his father-in-law and his chief stay against bankruptcy was Lemuel Shaw, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, an adamant if conflicted upholder of the Fugitive Slave Law. Thus, in the eyes of some revisionists, Melville’s curious silence about abolition bore an appearance of self-interested family solidarity.

Although some of the revisionists eventually found ways to rehabilitate Melville as an anti-establishment figure, they were still, in doing so, judging him against the standards of their own modern leftism and allowing for no middle ground between total condemnation and total vindication of his views. Such latter-day Puritanism is anathema to Delbanco. “Herman Melville,” he asserts in his new study, “was one of those writers whom Lionel Trilling described as ‘repositories of the dialectics of their times’ in the sense that they contain ‘both the yes and no of their culture.'”

Delbanco’s invocation of Trilling may not have been expressly designed to infuriate his remaining “dissensus” peers, but it will surely have that effect. The sententiously liberal Trilling, far more than the anguished socialist F.O. Matthiessen, has been the bête noire of the academic radicals, who regard him as having been all too quick to sublimate sociopolitical struggle into Arnoldian detachment and an aestheticizing “tragic consciousness.” But Delbanco, while acknowledging a certain pomposity in his predecessor on the Columbia faculty, has taken substantial inspiration from him. Trilling helped to shape his pedagogical ideal; he served as the model critic in another book of Delbanco’s, Required Reading, about the capacity of major American authors to surmount limitations of class; and Delbanco is reciting his own credo when he says that Trilling stood for “the idea of living self-critically with respect but without idolatry toward standards inherited from the past.”6

Respect for the past, in Delbanco’s case, includes eschewing the revisionists’ “gotcha!” approach to a dead author’s limitations and instead trying to recreate the dilemmas that he faced. On the pivotal issue of abolitionism, for example, Delbanco doesn’t buy the crude idea that Melville’s reluctance to become an activist was motivated by a wish to avoid offending his benefactor and kin, Judge Shaw. No one in Melville’s day could envision how the slaves might be emancipated without causing secession. Although the novelist made it plain that he detested slavery, he joined the great majority of his Northern compatriots in hoping to avoid the gruesome war that would soon cost over 600,000 American lives. To condemn him with the hindsight of 150 years, Delbanco would doubtless say, is simply to reveal one’s own failure of historical imagination.

Because Delbanco has no difficulty dealing with a writer who sensed an impasse between his gut sympathy and his fear of a holocaust, he is well equipped to illuminate what has become, “in our own time of terror and torture,…the most salient of Melville’s works,” “Benito Cereno.” According to one recent revisionist analysis, Myra Jehlen’s, that story of a slave uprising at sea is to be deplored for its racist demonizing of the rebel leader, Babo, who, unforgivably, “remains locked inside the limits of his own perspective” and thus isn’t accorded the same respect that Melville elsewhere grants to the Caucasians Ahab and Ishmael.7 But Delbanco shows that “Benito Cereno” gained artistic power precisely by refusing the agreeable expedient of turning Babo into a hero.

Melville’s emphasis in the story, Delbanco points out, falls on two representative instances of white “race psychology”: the haunting of the traumatized Spanish captain, Cereno, by his own devilish idea of “the negro,” and the inability of a cheerful, shallow, obtusely benevolent Yankee, Amasa Delano, to clear his mind of a contrary Uncle Tom stereotype. In the latter case, as Delbanco puts it, Melville captured “the kind of moral opacity that still seems to afflict America as it lumbers through the world creating enemies whose enmity it does not begin to understand.” As Ralph Ellison surely realized when he took his epigraph for Invisible Man from “Benito Cereno,” no such reverberating significance would have been possible if Melville had refrained from imparting a devilish aspect to Babo.

In the fifteen years since Delbanco began work on his Melville, the “post-Vietnam” mood in literary criticism has considerably eased, and now it is Myra Jehlen rather than Delbanco whose reproachful view of “Benito Cereno” appears dated.8 Nevertheless, Delbanco’s hybrid intention—to render Melville and his writings as they were shaped by their own age but also to establish where his permanent excellence lies—will cause uneasiness in some academic circles. Most Americanists now feel that nothing but ideologically blinkered anachronism can result from treating one’s own artistic criteria as if they were exempt from historical contingency. And, indeed, they won’t be reassured by Delbanco’s efforts in that vein.

Not entirely unlike Lionel Trilling, Delbanco has a Whiggish tendency to treat “modernity,” with its confronting of mass atrocity and its deep psychoanalytic insights, as the most developed and disenchanted stage of Western consciousness and art. As a result, he thinks he is paying Melville a compliment when he asserts, without sufficient reason, that Moby Dick is “the work of a twentieth-century imagination.” In illustration, he cites the fact that when Melville decided to eliminate from his plot a seemingly important character, the noble mariner Bulkington, he didn’t efface what he had already written in an early chapter but simply added another brief chapter announcing that nothing further would be seen of Bulkington. Thus, according to Delbanco, Melville left “what Freud calls a ‘memory-trace'” in his text, thereby rendering Moby Dick a “protomodernist” work in the vein of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Neither Joyce nor Woolf, however, would have found anything in Melville’s Rabelaisian extravagance and oracular soliloquizing to remind them of their own meticulous, coldly calibrated fiction, which doesn’t break decorum through authorial confidences or shards of superseded drafts. Melville’s casual farewell to Bulkington, calling attention to himself as the stage manager of his characters, aligns him less with any modernist than with, say, Henry Fielding. And more generally, it is neither necessary nor advisable to validate Melville’s stature by pushing him forward in time, as if the passage from Romanticism to modernism should be seen as qualitative progress rather than as a mere difference in aesthetic premises.


Delbanco’s attempts at modernizing Melville appear just often enough to raise another doubt about his assimilation of the writer to values of his own. Although the chapter-by-chapter excellence of his biography can hardly be faulted, his concluding summary of Melville’s evolving political attitudes appears to be a contemporary lesson in the virtue of looking beyond particular causes to the preservation of basic social order. It is clear that the lesson matters intensely to Delbanco, but less clear that it has anything much to do with Melville.

For the late Melville, Delbanco writes, “our fate as human beings is to live by norms that have no basis in divine truth, but that have functional truth for the conduct of life.” He continues:

As a young man, Melville had pushed against the norms in order to expose them as provincial and suppressive contingencies…. But in the works of his maturity—Moby-Dick, Pierre, “Bartleby,” Benito Cereno—Melville wrote more and more about the cost of overturning the norms…. By 1850 he already had become a reformed, if not repentant, romantic, who saw the fragility as well as the deformity of culture;…[and] by the time he composed Billy Budd, he was not so much outraged as resigned to the disjunction between law and justice. Billy Budd was his farewell to what he had called, in Pierre, “the beautiful illusions of youth.”

This passage is oddly discordant with Delbanco’s previous discussions of the works cited here. Didn’t Melville share in Ahab’s rage against the world’s savagery, and isn’t Ishmael still a free anarchistic spirit, if a more haunted one, at the end of Moby Dick? Where is the surrender to “norms” in the frenetic, pugnacious, self-lacerating Pierre, whose characters, as Delbanco has already reported through John Updike’s words, “are jerked to and fro by some unexplained rage of the author’s”? Does Melville’s main emphasis in “Benito Cereno” and the Dickensian “Bartleby” really fall on the cost of overturning norms? (Norms of slavery? Of dead-end alienated labor?) And where, we might add, does the sardonically cynical The Confidence-Man—a book that Delbanco has earlier called “bilious” and “half-deranged”—fit into the picture of social reconciliation?

It is true enough that the young Melville “pushed against the norms,” if by norms we mean flogging in the navy, prejudice against nonwhites at home and abroad, indifference to starvation in the streets of Liverpool, devastation of South Pacific tribes by gunboats and missionaries, and the sexual poverty of straitlaced bourgeois marriage. The question, however, is whether he ever backed off from any of those convictions. Nothing in Delbanco’s biography points to such a change. What did vanish was Melville’s once cheerful belief in the possibility of social and political reform—a belief that was doomed by personal disappointments and by a subsequent disgust with the crudity of vindictive Reconstruction, the resurgent oppression of blacks, and the raw greed of the Gilded Age.

The Melville critic Robert Milder, who teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, has detected a socially revolutionary, though nonviolent, strain in Melville that fortified him against the materialism and timid conventionality of his era. In this view, the writer believed in a genial, democratic, anti-Calvinist and anticapitalist, homoerotically tinged humanism, melding Western sophistication with Polynesian spontaneity and sensuousness. However naively, he meant to commend that model of a new dispensation to his Bible-clutching countrymen by means of Moby Dick, and more particularly through the seriocomic “marriage” of Ishmael and Queequeg. Although he became permanently embittered when his oblique advocacy was ignored, there is no evidence to indicate that he lost faith in the fundamental rightness of his ideal. Milder is sure that he clung passionately to his fraternal “paradise to be regained, whether in some distant historical time or in the atemporal reconciliations of art.”9

As always in controversy over Melville, the question of continued defiance versus acquired resignation comes down to alternative readings of Billy Budd, the story of the execution at sea of an angelic youth who has accidentally killed a persecutor who was himself tormented by “the handsome sailor’s” grace of form and ingenuousness of mind. Here, no doubt in order to support his thesis about Melville’s growth toward accommodation, Delbanco departs for once from his reluctance to choose between rival readings. According to the interpretation that he favors, the novella, by representing an unavoidable, tragic clash between sympathy and duty, dramatizes Melville’s agreement with the anti-Jacobin Captain Vere that “forms, measured forms” must be preserved at all cost.10

“Why must Billy die?” asks Delbanco. The simple answer, he asserts, is to be found in the Royal Navy’s Articles of War, which prescribed capital punishment for any sailor convicted of striking a superior for any reason. “These norms are the grammar of culture,” Delbanco writes, “and the culture Vere has sworn to defend is that of the Royal Navy in time of war. Billy killed an officer. Billy must hang.”

As many dissenting critics have noted, however, the article’s strict or merciful application to Billy’s unusual case could have been determined by a properly convened panel on land at a later date. All of Vere’s subordinate officers and the ship’s surgeon are flabbergasted by his refusal to adopt that “way dictated by usage”—in other words, by his own flouting of the norm. Melville underscores Vere’s preemption of correct procedure through nervous actions that cause the ship’s surgeon, for one, to suspect that he has become unhinged.

Although Melville was still altering Billy Budd at the end of his life, his latest draft leaves no room for doubt that Vere’s legalistic rigging of the hastily convened trial, immediately prompted by his fear of mutiny, is ultimately rooted in self-mistrust. Billy must die as soon as possible because the ambitious but colorlessly “bookish” and “pedantic” Vere knows that he can’t command intuitive loyalty from his crew in the manner of Lord Nelson. And as if he wished to head off just such a tragic/heroic reading as Delbanco’s, Melville ended his tale by recounting an uncathartic flurry of rumors, lies, nasty innuendoes, and false recollections manifesting the unreformed social order’s distortion and disposal of Billy’s judicial murder without being discommoded by it in the slightest degree.

When Delbanco, back in 1992, was surveying Melville criticism from the previous decade, he reserved his sternest reproval for those commentators whose distrustful minds couldn’t grasp that Billy Budd is “a story about the agony of a man who has discovered, after long resistance, the incompatibility of love and innocence with culture itself….”11 That is what Lionel Trilling, who always preferred the larger picture and who took seriously the portentous banalities of Civilization and Its Discontents, might have said about Billy Budd. As Robert Milder observes, however, Melville’s unforsaken vision of a better society had less in common with Freud, who maintained that all civilization must be founded on repression, than with Herbert Marcuse,

who distinguished “civilization” from a particular historical form of civilization and who regarded capitalist social, economic, moral, and sexual organization as excessively denying.

In this light, it is the post-Vietnam revisionists who have most ironically misconstrued Melville. They are the ones who were reading Marcuse at the height of our campus troubles in 1968, when the crestfallen Trilling repented that he had ever called students’ attention to subversive modern texts. When those New Leftists later took to their fantasy battle stations in the English departments, they held Melville and the other literary giants of antebellum America to be guilty until proven innocent of ideological corruption. And so they failed to notice that in this writer’s case they were dealing with a persistent radical whose commitment to equality was more reflective, more intimate, and altogether more genuine than their own.

The revisionists have been right, however, on one point that Delbanco doesn’t seem to have grasped: liberal disinterestedness is itself an interest, and one that can leave a critic overeager to believe that a great writer has transcended political passions and arrived at a generous encompassing wisdom. Melville’s actual development, in contrast, appears to have been toward greater misanthropy. Already in 1851 he recognized that his commitment to “unconditional democracy” was combined with “a dislike to all mankind—in the mass.”12 And instead of subsequently acquiring a worry about “the fragility of culture,” as Delbanco alleges, he hardened his heart against the one culture, his own, whose predatory ways infuriated him.

The following lines from Clarel, spoken by one character among many but conveying a sentiment that had been festering in Melville ever since Omoo in 1847, capture the extremity of his late temper. And in the bargain they suggest why, in the early twenty-first century, that extremity needs no apology or softening:

The Anglo-Saxons—lacking grace
To win the love of any race;
Hated by myriads dispossessed
Of rights—the Indians East and West.
These pirates of the sphere! grave looters—
Grave, canting, Mammonite freebooters,
Who in the name of Christ and Trade
(Oh, bucklered forehead of the brass!)
Deflower the world’s last sylvan glade!

This Issue

December 1, 2005