By Andrew Delbanco

Note the full title. Not Melville: A Life. But a Melville in context, a biography that gets at its subject through a study of his world and work.

Why? Because it would be hard to do it any other way.

Melville is one of the giants, if not the giant, in the pantheon of neglected authors. He did have some success with his first book, Typee, but from there it was all downhill (that is, commercially). Classic works like Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, and the novellas Benito Cereno and Bartleby, the Scrivener were still to come, but were unrecognized (in the case of Billy Budd, unpublished) until the twentieth century. When Melville died, people who knew him were surprised to hear the news. As one writer remarked, his own generation had “long thought him dead.” Even the New York Times famously misspelled his name for his obituary.

He hadn’t been dead all those invisible years, but writing poetry that virtually no one read (then or now) while working as an agent for the U.S. Custom Service. He had become unknown. Which doesn’t make things easy for a biographer.

Even at the peak of his literary fame the record isn’t lush. For example, we know nothing about his four years before the mast but what he made of it in his fiction. And despite the attempts he made to convince his audience that Typee, the most autobiographical of his novels, was the “unvarnished truth,” it wasn’t. Nor do we know very much about his personal life. There is only one surviving letter from Melville to his wife, leaving Andrew Delbanco with “little on which to draw for an inner history of the life they shared for more than forty years.”

Little it may be, but literary biographers can always find something to talk about. Delbanco dutifully goes through all of the usual steps. He looks at the critical literature. He looks at contemporary politics. He talks about Melville and race. He talks about Melville and sex. Just what, for example, was he doing on those whale ships for release? Delbanco’s answer is uninspired:

Whether Melville availed himself of male partners, or relieved himself in as much privacy as he could find aboard ship, or waited for the next contact with island women, no one can say.

Ho-hum. Next item: Was Melville gay? Well, it’s “difficult to know.” While “there is something plausible about Maugham’s suspicion that Melville may have been perplexedly aware – in himself as well as in others – of impulses for which there was no established language,” we must remind ourselves that the “quest for the private Melville has usually led to a dead end, and we are not likely to fare better by speculating about his tastes in bed or bunk.” Is that clear?

You have to wonder just when it became necessary for a biographer to indulge in this kind of speculation, wondering whether his subject masturbated on long ocean voyages or ever had impulses of which he was only perplexedly aware. But like it or not, this is now the state of the art.

And, given the record, speculation is almost all we can do. As with Shakespeare, another great writer about whom we know next to nothing, we focus on the characters Melville created. Was there a foreshadowing of the monomaniacal Ahab in the young author’s literary ambition, his willingness to be a spectacular failure and “utter wreck” rather than just another hack? And was there a bit of Bartleby in his disappearance from public life into the living death of a gray bureaucratic post? How could there not be? Character is fashioned by the imagination as much as by environment or will.

Delbanco’s main effort here is to make Melville our contemporary. Of course the central fact of Melville’s story is that his best work never gained an audience in his own time. But that’s not because, as Delbanco suggests, he was “precociously modern.” It’s because popularity and the public taste follow their own rules. Moby-Dick is no more “the work of a 20th-century imagination” than Great Expectations. This is the sort of observation that gets trotted out every time we find something in an author that we still respond to. The fact is, all great writers are our contemporaries. They are all prophetic. We wouldn’t still read the classics unless they still spoke to us in some way. Melville was a great nineteenth-century novelist who was ignored in his own time and had to wait until the twentieth century to be discovered.

Discovered, and re-invented. This is a Melville for our times. In bringing Melville up-to-date Delbanco has fun taking him out of his cultural space and into contemporary pop culture. Pip alone on the ocean is a precursor to the floating astronaut whose lifeline has been cut in Kubrick’s 2001 (“a very Melvillean film”). Pierre at one point “seems a nineteenth-century Tiny Tim doing his eyeball-rolling rendition of ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’,” while Israel Potter “starts out as a kind of eighteenth-century Forrest Gump.” In a clever series of “Extracts” there is some dialogue from The Sopranos discussing the homosexual subtext of Billy Budd, and newspaper editorials comparing the U.S. involvement in Iraq with the story of Bartleby.

It all makes for an odd sort of book. Focusing on historical context, sources, reception, interpretation, and influence, Delbanco doesn’t spend a lot of time with the facts of biography. Twenty years as a customs clerk go by in a paragraph. And the readings follow the modern fashion of focusing too much on political and sexual subtexts. But this is still a refreshingly entertaining take on the man and his myths, our world and his work.

Review first published November 19, 2005.

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