An ambition harpooned

Herman Melville
March 28, 1997

Perhaps Moby Dick is extolled as the Great American Novel because it resembles America so much. Big, sprawling and ambitious, it spills over in all directions. It encapsulates multitudes. And it never seems to get where it is going. Like mad Ahab, Herman Melville went searching for great things, and as a result wrecked himself on the crest of his own ambition. In other words, he never found his white whale. Rather, his white whale found him.

According to the first volume of Hershel Parker's densely informative biography, Melville spent his life trying to transmute an excess of personal experience into art; and for the most part, he succeeded. Born on August 1 1819 in New York City, Melville came from good revolutionary stock - his paternal grandfather had dumped tea in Boston Harbor, and his maternal grandfather won renown as the "Hero of Fort Stanwix". As a result, Melville grew up believing that greatness was something you earned, and not something you simply inherited.

When his father's bankruptcy (and subsequent death) left his mother and sisters without a proper income, Melville quit school at 12 to support them. He worked as a bank clerk, a schoolteacher and a farmer, and eventually went west to seek his fortune (without success). Then, when his elder and more gregarious brother Gansevoort followed their father's example by going bankrupt as well, Melville signed up with a whaling ship and went forth to see the world. He did not, however, always like what he saw.

Like many Americans, Melville hated to have anybody tell him what to do, which did not leave him well-equipped to enjoy the sailor's life. He deserted from his first ship in order to go live with the Typee, a tribe of Marquesan cannibals, then fled the cannibals when they grew too possessive. He mutinied from a subsequent ship and quit a series of further jobs until he found himself in the one position he could not outrun - as a sailor in the United States Navy. After four years at sea, he returned to New England with enough material for his first six books, and a burning desire never to work for anybody again.

A man of great physical energy and passion, Melville could pound out roiling prose and big ideas with the best of them, but he never learned to handle rejection. When his first book, Typee (which recounted his adventures among the cannibals), was rejected by the only American publisher to read it, Melville turned the manuscript over to his brother Gansevoort, who subsequently went to London as an American diplomat and placed Typee not only with a British house but, with the help of Washington Irving, with an American one as well.

Typee went on to earn Melville a notorious reputation as someone who voyaged to strange places and slept with voluptuous native girls. As a result, Melville's morality became as much of a critical issue as his ideas. Many of his rude comments about South Sea missionaries (Melville hated imperialism in any form) were cut by his editor. And some critics went so far as to argue it was impossible to read Typee without being sexually aroused. But despite all this sudden notoriety, Melville's first and most successful book never earned out its advance. He wrote a sequel, Omoo, which likewise earned great reviews and poor sales, and eventually grew tired of having his veracity doubted. As a result, Melville set sail in his third book for imaginary islands located in uncharted waters. Mardi, a genuinely weird book about voyaging through metaphysics, laid the groundwork for many ideas Melville would develop further in Moby Dick, and showed critics that when Melville really decided to invent a fictional world, they would know it.

"Those who boldly launch", Melville wrote in Mardi, "cast off all cables; and turning from the common breeze, that's fair for all, with their own breath, fill their own sails." Filling his sails with the fantastic inspirations of Mardi, Melville ended up taking most of his readers places they did not want to go. The first volume sold well, the second poorly, and the third not at all. To recoup what was left of his reputation, Melville tied up to the docks for one long industrious summer and wrote two "jobs" for money, Redburn and White Jacket. Both reestablished his credibility with the critics, but at a time when America boasted only two novelists (Cooper and Irving) who could live off the sales of their books, Melville still could not afford to be a full-time writer. This situation did not dissuade him from his chosen occupation, it incited him further.

Melville was forever journeying away from things, especially his own successes. When marriages to women with good dowries allowed him and his brother, Allan, to move their family back to New York City, Melville flirted with the literati just long enough to learn he could not stand to be near them. He moved to the Berkshires, pursued a shaky friendship with his neighbour, Nathaniel Hawthorne (who, it seems, was shy of big bearish men who would not leave him alone), and soon embarked on his most ambitious literary journey. Inspired by accounts of ships being wrecked by the whales they hunted, Melville's Moby Dick set off from a relatively real port into increasingly unreal waters. And before it was finished, this brilliant, sloppy, incomparable novel created a virtual ocean around itself, resounding with everything from allusions to Shakespeare and Milton to issues of abolition, manifest destiny, and the annihilative nature of the American republic. "I love all men who dive," Melville once wrote of Emerson. "Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more."

Melville, mad with ambition, certainly dove deep. So deeply, in fact, that most of his admirers gave up seeing him come up for air ever again. As a result, Melville's career after Moby Dick grew so sad and disheartening that he eventually kept much of his best writing to himself. "Dollars damn me," Melville wrote in a letter about the same time he realised he could not afford to make his greatest book as great as he hoped it would be. "Try to get a living by the truth - and go to the soup societies."

It is a pleasure to find that the first volume of Parker's biography ends at the moment of Melville's greatest triumph - the day he presented his first copy of Moby Dick to his favourite contemporary author, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Parker, the associate editor of the excellent and invaluable Newberry edition of Melville, has assembled here one of the most complete and staggeringly researched biographies of an American novelist ever published; it will certainly remain the undisputed standard Melville biography for many years to come. Packed with selections from letters, ships' logs, and reviews by contemporaries, Parker's Melville does not rest content with representing the life of a man, but conveys the weight and texture of his world as well.

Like Edwin Haviland Miller's recent biography of Hawthorne, Parker's book does a fine job of bringing Melville's life up to date in the light of recent scholarship, as well as reinvigorating modern interest in a true American original. In fact, Parker's biography even resembles Melville in some of its weaknesses. An excess of information and critical ideas often disrupts the book's narrative momentum and sends the casual reader spinning off-course.

Melville was a man of great appetites who scared off many souls more timid than his own. While his writing often proves difficult to follow, he always remained intensely committed to his own personal vision of the world. And while that vision often lured him into stranger waters than our own, he made sure to leave behind some extraordinary maps of how he got there.

Scott Bradfield is associate professor of American literature, University of Connecticut.

 

   

Herman Melville: A Biography. Volume One: 1819-51

Author - Hershel Parker
ISBN - 0 8018 5428 8
Publisher - Johns Hopkins University Press
Price - £.50
Pages - 941

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