- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 28, 2002

Whenever I'm asked if I think the great American novel will ever be written, I reply "read (or reread) 'Moby Dick.'" The biblical prose cadences, lavish wealth of information, and tragic characterizations that give Herman Melville's masterpiece an epic breadth and dignity seem even more impressive as minimalist realism waxes and wanes, and generations of challengers fall by the wayside (William Faulkner at his very greatest approaches Melvillean richness; no other American writers need apply).
Surely one could argue that we cannot know too much about the imagination that created such a work, and the circumstances that produced that imagination. Yet this vastly inclusive new biography by textual editor and Melville scholar Hershel Parker earned only severely qualified praise when its first volume appeared in 1996.
In nearly 1,000 pages Mr. Parker traced the decline of a once prosperous and prominent family (in whose bosom young Herman enjoyed "a patrician childhood") victimized by its patriarch's financial irresponsibility, the young Melville's adventures as an "ordinary seaman," and the composition, publication, and reception of those early romances set mostly in the South Seas islands (including "Typee," "Omoo," and "White-Jacket") that earned their author fame as "the Defoe of America" and also as what Mr. Parker tartly calls "a national sex symbol."
Grumblings about Mr. Parker's excessive devotion to unremarkable detail, and especially his extremely detailed attention to Melville's immediate and ancestral families, understandably surfaced. But the volume remains highly interesting in spite of its many longueurs, especially for its broad and deep portrayal of the beginnings of a transatlantic literary culture and for the revealing emphasis Mr. Parker places on Melville's deferential friendship with his somewhat distant neighbor and mentor Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose approval the younger writer seems to have sought throughout his life.
In fact, Mr. Parker's first volume concludes following an elaborate history of the writing of "Moby Dick" with Melville's offering to Hawthorne of a first edition copy of the book that he knew well was his best thus far.
Its hefty sequel, "Herman Melville, Vol 2, 1851-1891" begins with the reviews of that novel many devastatingly unfavorable (at least two of the more damaging, Mr. Parker argues persuasively, written by critics who almost certainly failed to finish the book). The word from England (where "Typee" in particular had been generously praised) was on balance far more encouraging but, as we now know, Melville never saw many of the reviews that might have stimulated him to persist in what too many readers were calling his folly, if not his outright madness.
Instead, he produced the disastrous "Pierre" (1852), "a psychological novel, a meticulous case history of an ignorant idealist, in the guise of an American Gothic romance," whose daring fusion of Shakespearean grandiloquence with the materials of incest and murder had to wait several generations for a more sympathetic readership.
A "ruinous contract" offered by Melville's now wary publishers, the Harper brothers, fueled his discouragement, as steadily increasing financial pressures diffused his energies in short stories and miscellaneous nonfiction written for various popular magazines. The early 1850s did also produce a novel entitled "The Isle of the Cross," which was never published, and which Melville later destroyed. And in the immediately ensuing years, he endured the further indignity of seeing his charming (though slight) historical romance "Israel Potter" damned with faint praise, while more substantial works like his masterly novella "Benito Cereno" (1856) and the flinty satirical novel "The Confidence-Man" (1857) were routinely pilloried.
As improvident as his father before him, Melville continued to buy huge quantities of books he could not afford, and resumed his old habit of extensive travel (much of which was financed by his wealthy father-in-law, Judge Lemuel Shaw). Back home at his farm (Arrowhead) in the Berkshires, he attempted a new career as a public lecturer. But fees were undependable, the eloquent author proved neither a felicitous nor a fully audible orator and, in any case, his audiences desired only to hear more about the pagan pleasures so lustily recounted in "Typee."
Never quite fully daunted, Melville decided on a new literary career. "To prepare himself to become a poet … [he] reread the great English poets"; that is, he literally studied masterpieces, with a view toward producing his own. Initial results were predictably negative. A first volume of verses would never see publication. His 1866 collection of Civil War poems, "Battle-Pieces" (which contained several unqualified successes) evoked an unfortunately influential unfavorable Atlantic Monthly review, written by the young William Dean Howells.
Critical opinion was then, and is now, divided over "Clarel" (1876), his "epic poem about a pilgrimage in the Holy Land" whose 18,000 lines have eluded the scrutiny of all but the most passionate Melvillians. Mr. Parker thinks highly of this enormous work (whose author had envisioned it as "his own 'Paradise Lost'"), and his close reading of the poem deftly reveals both its similarities to Melville's earlier works and the continuing possession of Melville's imagination by the figure of Hawthorne (deceased in 1864), who appears in "Clarel" as an oracular, elusive traveler named Vine.
During Melville's later years, one disappointment followed another. The grim memory of his eldest son Malcolm's almost certain suicide (stubbornly pronounced a "fatal accident" by the grieving family) was surely exacerbated when Malcolm's younger brother Stanwix, a drifter whose pointless wanderings ironically echoed their father's youthful peregrinations, died in his 35th year.
The Melvilles were forced to give up Arrowhead and move to New York City, where Herman having at last relinquished his dreams of securing a consulship accepted a four-dollar-a-day salary (later reduced to $3.60) as a deputy customs inspector for the port of New York (which experience was unforgettably fictionalized in Frederick Busch's recent novel "The Night Inspector").
Elizabeth Shaw Melville came into an inheritance too late to alter the downward arc of her husband's embittered and resigned later years.The ironies proliferated. The manuscript of "Billy Budd," "Foretopman" (even in unfinished form one of Melville's most haunting tales) was found among his papers following his death in 1891. And respectful eulogies expressed favorable judgments of his work utterly unlike the contemporary opinion that had eroded his confidence and sent his sensibility reeling in varied unproductive and unfulfilling directions.
"Hercules among the pygmies," one eulogist named him, "or … Moby Dick himself among a school of minnows." A titan, most readers would now agree, conceivably worthy of a titanic biography.
Hershel Parker's immense work of erudition and love, whatever its faults of emphasis or proportion (for it seems even in its best pages a mass of only partially shaped information ruled by no principle of selectivity), tells us far more than any general reader will ever want to know about Herman Melville (for scholars, of course, it is a goldmine).
Its minute attention to the histories of obscure family members (with the single glaring exception of Malcolm Melville, whose death remains unexplained) sometimes shifts focus annoyingly, and Mr. Parker's workmanlike prose only intermittently arrests the attention or brings a smile. But the reader feels like cheering when Mr. Parker notes Melville's writing labors being "broken up by farm work (which always seemed bracingly wholesome to those not performing it themselves)."
Most crucially, the thrust of Mr. Parker's work poses, even if it cannot answer, an enormously important question: What further heights, had his published work received its due and thus encouraged its author to continuing achievement, might the author of "Moby Dick" and "Benito Cereno" and "Bartleby the Scrivener" have scaled ? There's no way of telling, but the strange, seductive masterpieces of his cruelly foreshortened maturity remain, to make us wonder.

Bruce Allen is a writer and critic in Maine.

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