Book review: ‘The Passages of H.M.’

Special to the Los Angeles Times

The Passages of H.M.

A Novel of Herman Melville

Jay Parini

Doubleday: 454 pp., $26.95

“The time for me hasn’t come yet: Some men are born posthumously,” Nietzsche wrote in “Ecce Homo.” It’s a statement that might have provided comfort to Herman Melville, whose books — including “Moby-Dick” and his more popular early tales of seafaring adventures, “Typee” and “Omoo” — had been out of print for years when he died in 1891, at age 72, in his Manhattan home.

Jay Parini’s deeply absorbing seventh novel, “The Passages of H.M.,” is an agile mix of fact, fiction and embedded literary quotation. It adds strongly to Melville’s posthumous presence. Grossly underappreciated in his lifetime, Melville received overdue acknowledgement as a genius of experimental, philosophical fiction during a literary revival in the 1920s that also saw the publication of his last, unfinished novella, “Billy Budd, Sailor.” Since then, Melville’s life and work have engendered numerous scholarly studies and biographies, the very first volume of the Library of America in 1982, an opera by Benjamin Britten, movies and literary spinoffs, including Sena Jeter Naslund’s “Ahab’s Wife.”

Parini, a professor of English at Middlebury College in Vermont, comes well-suited to the task of wrangling this often elusive literary titan onto the page. In addition to his rightly acclaimed novel about the final year of Leo Tolstoy’s life, “The Last Station,” which was made into a film last year, he has written biographies of three major American writers, John Steinbeck, Robert Frost and William Faulkner, the last of whom, like Melville, wrote with an almost brazen disregard for his audience, refusing to make his work easier or more inviting to them.


“The Passages of H.M.” takes a two-pronged approach to Melville’s life, interleaving the highly subjective, not always reliable, first-person perspective of his long-suffering wife, Lizzie Shaw Melville, with that of a third-person, omniscient account of Melville’s adventures in his early adulthood as a seaman on various merchant and whaling ships, his literary aspirations and struggles, and his downtrodden years spent trudging through the streets of New York as a customs inspector.

The novel opens two decades into the Melvilles’ marriage, with Lizzy bitterly complaining about her disappointing, washed-up, volatile husband. Thinking she’d wed her “very own Charles Dickens,” she soon realizes she’d instead “married a volcano, my very own Vesuvius.” At first, it seems as if we’re headed into another domestic battleground like the one Parini so vividly captured between Tolstoy and his wife. in “The Last Station.” Fortunately, this time, marital strife is just a toehold for a structurally and emotionally complex character study.

Parini’s novel travels backwards to more hopeful times — including Lizzie’s optimism over her husband’s literary prospects, and his early travels to the South Seas and Sandwich Islands, “the exotic and incalculable hoard of experience from which he would extract a lifetime of writing.” The narrative also plows onward into Melville’s 40s, when he abandoned fiction for the even less commercially viable poetry, as Lizzie rails. By his 50s, she says, “H.M.”, as she calls him, “was already posthumous, ghosting the streets, watching and listening.” Part of the pleasure of reading about the Melvilles’ despair over his dashed aspirations is, of course, the smug comfort of knowing what the future held in store for him — an immortality beyond his wildest dreams.

Parini notes in his acknowledgements that outspoken Lizzie, the daughter of the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, is a largely made-up character, since very little is known about her. She’s a terrifically vivid presence, however, both as her husband’s toughest critic — ruing “the endless facts” in “Moby-Dick” — and, ultimately, as his steadiest support.

Much more has been written about the many objects of homoerotic longing that populated Melville’s life and literature. This is a theme that Parini follows with both persistence and delicacy, charting the writer’s generally unrequited pursuit of intimacy with several elusive male friends, including various shipmates and his fellow author and onetime Berkshire County neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne. In each case, it was a love that, “however profound, had nowhere to lodge.” Lizzie, eavesdropping on a conversation between H.M. and Hawthorne, notes that “Mr. Hawthorne was restrained, less eager to unfurl the banner of his soul. This frustrated my husband, who wanted easy intercourse of a type rare among men.” During another disappointing conversation with Hawthorne in England in 1856, H.M. confides, “I have never succeeded in touching anyone as vehemently as would please me.”

“The Passages of H.M.” is a literary novel in every sense of the word. Parini balances plot and character with insights into not just the sources and evolution of Melville’s specific works, but also the very nature and role of fiction. Should art “uplift the reader,” as Lizzie desires, or must it change “how we think, act, dream,” as Hawthorne wrote to Melville in praise of “Moby-Dick”? Parini’s biographical novel manages to both inform and transport.

McAlpin reviews books regularly for and other publications.