"Bartleby, the Scrivener," a story Herman Melville wrote when his popular reputation had already undergone serious erosion, begins with a disclaimer by the lawyer-narrator that could be prophetic for any potential Melville biographer: "I believe that no materials exist, for a full and satisfactory biography of this man. It is an irreparable loss to literature. Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources and, in this case, those are very small." Aside from his large body of fiction and poetry, and despite the fact that his early years have the contours of a great adventure, Melville remained a quiet and private man, opening his heart and mind to only a very few around him. Melville biographies to date have covered his silences by being either hopelessly dull or dangerously speculative, embodying the worst tendencies of biographers to uncover their subject's hidden pathologies.
The devotion and exacting scholarship of Laurie Robertson-Lorant and Hershel Parker have produced two wonderful biographies that are interesting without resorting to the sensational or the lurid. These complementary studies will enable all Melville readers to get closer to the mind of this enormously complicated and intransigent American master. Robertson-Lorant's "Melville" provides a macroscopic critical biography with interpretations of all his major work in the context of the larger cultural forces that shaped them. Parker, who has devoted his life to the editing of all of Melville's writings for the Northwestern Newberry Library, has given us the first volume of two--a minutely detailed and vivid account of Melville's first 32 years. Parker's study is an awesome achievement, indispensable for all serious Melvilleans, with the vividness of a great Victorian novel and the precision of the finest historical scholarship.
In both studies, Melville's life emerges as something of a parable about the struggle of a great spirit to overcome the mediocrity of the American literary marketplace. Born into a distinguished family, the grandson of heroes of the American Revolution, Melville found himself fatherless at age 12 after his father, Allan, a reckless businessman, died demented and left the family in debt. Forced out of school at an early age, the restless and adventurous Melville eventually took to the high seas in adventures that included whaling, mutiny and living briefly among cannibals in the South Seas--an escapade that became the source for his first romance, "Typee." The book earned him the reputation of the American Robinson Crusoe, a literary celebrity whose irreverence for Christian missionaries and fascination with the liberating possibilities of life in a primal South Sea Eden irritated prudish members of his family, critics and publishers. It was the first of six novels he would write in as many years, culminating with the masterpiece "Moby-Dick."
Melville's vocation as a popular writer soon clashed with his avocation for truth-telling that encompassed not only the erotic undercurrents of human life but also a powerful belief in the reality of evil and hatred of a God he feared did not exist. As the hot coal of his genius burned brightest in the composition of "Moby-Dick," written in one year at the remarkable age of 31, Melville marched into literary oblivion as critics, readers and publishers alike fumed at him. Though he continued to write superb novels, stories, narrative poems and some of the finest poetry about the Civil War, Melville worked in almost complete obscurity while earning a living as a customs inspector. What becomes clear in both biographies is that Melville's career--if such a small-hearted word applies to this life--was not so much the tragedy of misunderstood genius but the ongoing drama of a defiant seeker who did not want to be completely understood. Not only did Melville refuse to concede to the demands of the marketplace, his mockery of it became an integral part of his work.
Parker's biography focuses on Melville's interactions with both critics and publishers, often providing fascinating insight into the literary world of mid-19th century America, and how Melville accommodated and eventually reacted against that world. Resisting the audience demand for fact and fiction to remain separate, Melville persisted in lacing his accounts of life on the high seas with his own ingenious blend of metaphysics and mysticism as he sought answers to the most profound questions of human existence. He reacted strongly to his early celebrity, cultivating a narrative style that sought above all to preserve the royal dignity of the self against the encroachments of a democratic, egalitarian and capitalist wasteland.
In his careful reconstruction of Melville's interaction with his critics, Parker reveals how Melville developed increasingly undemocratic strategies of concealment in his narratives. Melville's egalitarianism really meant dialogue only with his equals, and his fascinating marginalia, which Parker accounts for particularly well, shows the complex conversations he carried on, not so much with his contemporaries (with the notable exception of Nathaniel Hawthorne) but with a procession down the ages that included Milton, the Old Testament prophets and Shakespeare. It may be Parker's strength rather than his weakness that he does not carry interpretive speculation very far, instead allowing readers to make their own critical connections. He demonstrates convincingly that Melville saw himself primarily as a thinker pursuing ultimate questions; a writer for whom art served as an instrument to be bent in the service of attaining the truth.
While Parker is microscopically attentive to Melville, Robertson-Lorant gives us a macroscopic vision of Melville in the context of 19th century American culture. She describes how Melville's fiction bucked an American literary scene that was dominated by women and moral fiction rooted in sentimental Christianity. And she is most effective in cooling the wild speculations made in recent years about Melville's sexuality, particularly in light of his intense friendship with Hawthorne. While not denying the eroticism in Melville's life and art, Robertson-Lorant should be commended for refusing to make Melville a mascot or prisoner of contemporary gender politics or to impose dubious psychoanalytic theories on what amounts to little more than unremarkable behavior within 19th century codes of male conduct. Melville was not Walt Whitman, even if his eroticism outraged genteel American readers. And Melville never "repressed" what he knew of the sailor's lives or of the passions among men. Robertson-Lorant's biography would have benefited if she had been equally judicious about using vague notions of repression, matriarchy and patriarchy in her accounts of Melville's family life and, in particular, her assessment of his alleged "repressed" reaction to the suicide of his oldest son, Malcolm.
Robertson-Lorant's critical assessments are at their best when they outline the variety of interpretations that Melville's works have generated and leave those critical debates unresolved. Yet she has a tendency to make Melville into another version of his contemporaries--Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman--particularly in their romantic aspirations to treat the natural world as a transcendental and democratized scripture. This accounts for her lopsided interpretation of "Moby-Dick" as a rebellion against all Western thought and a paean to American pantheism. Captain Ahab remains Melville's greatest creation, embodying all the glory and madness of Judeo-Christian thought and Western science. And when Melville overturns established hierarchy and elevates the "savage," the lowly and the outcast--Queequeg, or the black cabin boy Pip (whose name means king) or, later, Bartleby--he does so only to give us a new aristocracy of prophet-kings and fallen stars who have become powerful black holes tearing apart the order around them with their impenetrable mysteries and silences.
Both biographers make it clear that the troubled life of Melville's father remained an enormous factor in his development, though this is nothing new to Melvilleans. Parker shrewdly begins his study with the young Melville setting out on a boat with his family's possessions to help his father flee creditors, and he concludes with a charming dinner scene in a Berkshire hotel in which Melville presents Hawthorne with a first edition of "Moby-Dick" dedicated to the genius of the older mentor. Parker presents this relationship with Hawthorne sensibly as part of Melville's need for a paternal and fraternal audience that could appreciate both his ambition and his uncovering of human and cosmic evil. Rather than reduce this drama to a dark sexual secret--for which there is precious little evidence--both biographers, and particularly Parker, show how the friendship inspired Melville to the height of his creative powers. We can only regret that a more extensive record of their friendship does not exist.
Melville's relentless commitment to telling the truth despite his acute awareness of the limitations of the marketplace and of knowledge and art make his life story all the more moving. It is clear that long after the lights of fame had been fumed off, after the publishers had found other sensations to promote, after he and his readers had parted company, Melville kept the cold masthead watch on the high seas of the human spirit, searching for the elusive forms that breached from the depths and describing them to whoever cared to listen. Melville justly remains one of our culture's heroes and well worth all the attention that these two very fine biographies have lavished upon him.