MELVILLE: HIS WORLD AND WORK by Andrew Delbanco

by JF

Had Herman Melville been around for the 20th century it wouldn’t have taken nearly as long as it did for his genius to be recognized. In the 1800s, he was clearly ahead of his time, his themes anticipating the 1900s–themes like megalomaniacal despotism (Moby Dick), the near-total loss of honor and truth in a world full of deception (Pierre), innocent sinlessness vs. total depravity (“Billy Budd”), the collision between human liberties and hierarchical societal order (“Billy Budd”), and the pointlessness of modern urban life (“Bartleby, the Scrivener”).

        Unfortunately, apparently Melville didn’t leave behind many extant writings, letters, or other documents with which to easily build a proper biography of the man. The man was nothing if not enigmatic in his life, and he remains so today. But this author, Delbanco, has written a commendable biography of the man nevertheless, scouring through what little documentation is available, at times making reasonable inferences to fill in gaps. He begins with Melville’s immediate antecedents, then briefly speaks of Melville’s upbringing, his fleeting sailing adventures as a young man, his early though mild literary success (with the delightful adventure novel Typee), his slow, inexorable declining literary success during his lifetime as his lofty literary aims overshot the heads of his American readers, the many tragedies in his life (note: the most moving, and quite reasonable, inference the author makes is when he infers that Melville consciously or subconsciously created the doomed, angelic, eponymous protagonist of “Billy Budd” to be an amalgam of his two lost sons), and finally the overwhelming posthumous Melville revival of the 20th century.

        Melville may never have declared his faith in Jesus Christ either publically or even privately, but according to this author Melville was in fact a spiritual questor who was greatly bothered by the onrushing tide of the godless religion of “scientific naturalism” that swept into vogue everywhere around him in the 1800s. Near the end of his life, Delbanco writes that Melville seemed deeply troubled by what he came to believe was the loss of credibility in the miracles and mysteries of the Scriptures according to the newly enshrined materialistic worldview.  This was a most interesting take on Melville.

        The bottom line: This author is a fine writer; this book is a real page-turner. If someone wants to know about the life of Herman Melville, this is an excellent place to start.

Rating: Δ Δ Δ Δ Δ
6/2011

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