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.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies