The incredible voyager

Frank McLynn acclaims the prince of whales; Herman Melville: A Biography Vol I, 1819-1851 by Hershel Parker, Johns Hopkins University Press, pounds 27.50

What have the following got in common: R L Stevenson, Lawrence of Arabia, C G Jung, F R Leavis, Jack London, Orson Welles, D H Lawrence, Robert Graves, Albert Camus, E M Forster and Somerset Maugham? This list could be extended almost infinitely, and the answer is that all were passionate admirers of Herman Melville. Yet, in Britain at least, Melville seems to have joined that legion of the literary lost who are paid formal obeisance but never read.

Unfortunately, Hershel Parker's biography, which takes his hero through the first 32 years of life at an average of 30 pages per year, seems unlikely to reverse this trend. This is American academic biography at its stodgiest, long on exhaustive scholarship, short on explanation as to why Melville has enthused so many talented admirers. There is no real sense of America's greatest writer.

A New Yorker, Melville shipped out to Liverpool as a deckhand after working as a bank clerk and teacher. He next joined a whaler, jumped ship in the Marquesas and lived among Typee cannibals before serving on a US frigate. He began writing in 1846, after marrying the daughter of a Chief Justice of Massachusetts and retiring to farm in Pittsfield.

As a Melvillean, I have often wondered why so many people are blind to his towering genius. The criticisms seem to be, in ascending order of seriousness: that the author of Moby-Dick wrote about the politically incorrect subject of whale hunting; that there are no women in his novels; that he is "dated"; that his preoccupation with evil has no more resonance for a post-Auschwitz world; and that his masterwork is a bloated Leviathan of German mysticism, New England transcendentalism and sub-Carlylean metaphysics.

Melville was not, contrary to popular belief, the famous homo unius libri - the man who wrote one book. Redburn and Whitejacket are classic sea stories. Typee and Omoo, describing Melville's roamings in the Pacific from 1841 to 1844, launched a thousand romantic adventures in the South Seas. Melville was also a master of the short story and impressionistic piece. Among his neglected achievements in this genre are the novella Billy Budd, which inspired Benjamin Britten to produce his finest opera, and the haunting Benito Cereno, which director John Huston spent half his life unsuccessfully trying to film.

In his story Bartleby the Scrivener, Melville effectively created the avant-garde alienated hero, while in Pierre he anticipated modernism. His uncompleted The Confidence Man joins those other enigmatic "unfinisheds", Edwin Drood and Weir of Hermiston.

But it was with Moby-Dick in 1851 that Melville unquestionably joined the world's "top ten" novelists. An academic industry has grown up around it. Symbol-hunters have managed to attribute almost every conceivable interpretation to Moby-Dick. The meaning of a great book can never be exhausted. But against those who argue that this is a baggy monster, a Yankee madman's answer to Laurence Sterne, I would submit that Moby-Dick is delightful perfection.

Dealing with the profoundest themes, it is a marvel of symmetry and balance. This is achieved through Melville's genius in unerringly locating the point of equilibrium as he constantly navigates between naturalism and symbolism, good and evil, conscious and unconscious. Moby-Dick is first and foremost the story of a quest, by the monomaniac Captain Ahab, for the white whale. But the quest is also the search for ultimate reality. It would have been easy for Melville to allow the minutiae of whaling to get out of hand, or for metaphysical speculations to make the maritime adventure a mere afterthought. But the quest for the whale deepens the speculations and is deepened by them. One can see why Jung, with his emphasis on "one world" neither purely material nor psychological, was so drawn to this work.

There is a similar interpenetration in Melville's treatment of evil. He implicitly denounces the Christian ideal of perfection as a metaphysical misunderstanding: "good and evil braided be". The narrator Ishmael's survival at the novel's end denotes the tacking between the two perspectives. To make humanism prevail when there is no logical reason for hope completes Moby-Dick on an ambivalent note that mirrors the ambiguity of all that has gone before.

Melville is never greater as an artist than when, unlike Ahab, he allows the heart to resist the head. At a cerebral level, though, he was one of those who can believe in the reality of evil but not good: "Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright."

Melville's work will never be popular with readers who feel that a novel must deal primarily with relationships or else display political commitment. But for those who revel in whale-hunting scenes, who thrill to encounters with typhoons, sharks, giant squid and pirates, and who like the brew served up with lashings of St Paul, Kant and Hegel, Moby-Dick will remain one of the wonders of the world.

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own