Melville: His World and Work, by Andrew Delbanco

The man who missed the boat...
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Herman Melville is probably the greatest genius, wholly neglected in his lifetime, of American culture. One wonders how many people in contemporary America, who are not forced to study him at school or university, actually read him today voluntarily and for pleasure. Yet his work is, if only through the subsidiary works of art it inspired, known and admired by millions. The recent revival of Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd was a triumphant sell-out at English National Opera last month. A film version of Melville's claustrophobic, almost Dickensian New York parable Bartleby the Scrivener appeared in America in 2002. And, for anyone who doubts Melville's abiding popular appeal, a few months ago a broadsheet newspaper distributed around half a million copies of a free DVD of John Huston's 1956 film of Moby Dick.

Andrew Delbanco is modest enough to admit that, while there is no end to the biographing of Melville, there are few new facts about him and there is a great paucity of documentary evidence (300 or so Melville letters compared to the approximately 12,000 of Henry James). Melville also destroyed or lost most of the letters he received. Thus there is no trace of the encomium that Nathaniel Hawthorne sent him after he had read, at a gallop, the first copy of Moby Dick and offered to review it favourably and prominently, an offer rejected by Melville. One can't help wondering how different US literary history might have been had Melville accepted that offer. The publication of Moby Dick in 1851 brought Melville scorn, abuse, incomprehension, minimal sales and, hence, no money. Delbanco estimates that Melville's entire literary output earned him about $10,000 in his lifetime, including both his British and American publications; about £2,500 at the rate of exchange then prevailing.

It's no wonder that Delbanco sensibly calls his book Melville: His World and Work. The biographical facts are neatly set out and interwoven with the writing and probably amount to only a third of the narrative. Melville came from a quite distinguished family, with at least two heroes from the American Revolutionary War. But the distinction seemed to skip a generation. His father was a flamboyant, feckless business man who, when Melville was only 11, went bankrupt, did a runner and died young. His mother was a domineering, puritanical pietist and Herman and his seven siblings lived a life of shabby, genteel, religious poverty. There was no question of university and he had a succession of dead-end jobs before going to sea on whalers and US naval ships and exploring the South Seas. This gave him the material for his early novels, Typee, Omoo, Redburn and Whitejacket, which had only modest success so that he had to write for magazines to survive at all.

He married Elizabeth, daughter of Lemuel Shaw, a distinguished Boston judge who ended up as the head of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, although earning much opprobrium in anti-slavery quarters for his rigid, legalistic attitude to the Fugitive Slave Law. Happily Shaw was a man of some wealth and generous to Elizabeth, in effect giving her her inheritance while he was still alive. Otherwise the Melvilles and their four children would probably have starved.

After the colossal effort of Moby Dick there came, in the wake of its failure, another novel called Pierre whose even worse failure is regarded by Delbanco as more or less deserved. The few dazzling subsequent novellas, like Bartleby and Benito Cereno, earned no money and, for 20 years, he had a minor job at the New York Customs Office where even his untidy handwriting told against him in the promotion stakes. He had to accept the corruption of paying part of his meagre salary to his political bosses and invariably declined the other corruption of bribery which could have given him a more than decent income. While at the Customs he returned daily to his modest house to lock himself up in his study to write verse, including his epic 18,000 line, 150-canto poem Clarel. The only poetry published in his lifetime was paid for by relations for private circulation in editions of 25 copies. To ask oneself the question whether he suffered more than any other great writer, before or since, is too painful even to contemplate. It is probable that the tragedy of the death of young and beautiful Billy Budd is in part a conflation of the death of his first son by suicide at the age of 18 - in Melville's own house - and the death, from natural causes, of his other son in California aged 35.

The marriage to Elizabeth, despite all the horrors, survived without being very happy but there is touching evidence that in the constant revising of his last masterwork, Billy Budd, which spent more than three decades in a tin box before being rescued for posterity, Elizabeth's handwriting can be seen in the mostly abortive attempts by Melville to create a definitive fair copy.

Melville's reputation as a great writer had to wait until the 1920s, but by 1945 his genius was not only recognised but firmly established. Writers as diverse as Lewis Mumford and D H Lawrence - in a brilliant if somewhat perverse chapter in his Studies in Classic American Literature - began the deep and sophisticated exploration of his oeuvre that made him a cornerstone of American literary criticism and a fixture in the reading lists. (To get the flavour of Lawrence's essay one need only recollect a single sentence from his study of Moby Dick; "But the Pequod's crew is a collection of maniacs fanatically hunting down a lonely, harmless white whale.") And so Melville became, like Shakespeare and Dickens, a kind of literary mirror in which different generations saw wildly different creations and more or less opposing political agendas. Because so much of his work dealt with the exclusively masculine world of whalers and the navy he was enthusiastically, but without any half-way adequate body of evidence, claimed by the gay lobby.

Perhaps in contemplating Melville, one should heed the warning of the distinguished American Frederick Crews who, while favourably reviewing the US edition of Delbanco's book, wrote: "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 artefact of those critics' pretensions and illusions when a new cohort takes its turn." In fact Delbanco avoids this trap; his exemplary exegesis of the main works is never modish or provocative and his analyses of Moby Dick, Bartleby and Benito Cereno are lucid, wholly convincing and, notably in his discussion of American anti-Bellum attitudes to the African-American in general and slavery in particular in Cereno, quite revelatory.

Inevitably it is Moby Dick that bears the brunt of both the necessary analysis and the equally necessary distancing when dealing with the shifting interpretations of different generations and, often diametrically opposed, writers. The Trinidadian historian and cricket writer C L R James compared Ahab's monomania with the "intense subjectivism" with which Hitler "repeatedly over-rode the opinions of trained diplomats and the German General Staff, committing blunder after blunder" that led to disaster. In the Vietnam years, Moby Dick was construed as a premonition of failed American imperialism. Delbanco also quotes Edward Said in the aftermath of 9/11: "Inevitably, then, collected passions are being funnelled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick, rather than what is going on, an imperial power injured at home for the first time, pursuing its interests systematically in what has become a suddenly re-configured geography of conflict." And Harold Bloom recently described Moby Dick as "the national epic of self-destructiveness".

Melville, no matter who construes him or when, is indestructible and will always illuminate our history; as will Delbanco's admirable survey for a generation - until the world turns again and a new interpreter arrives.