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A Genius of Concealment : HERMAN MELVILLE: A Biography, Volume I, 1819-1851, By Hershel Parker (Johns Hopkins University Press: 941 pp., $39.95) : MELVILLE, By Laurie Robertson-Lorant (Clarkson Potter: 710 pp., $40)

December 15, 1996|ROBERT FAGGEN | Robert Faggen teaches English at Claremont McKenna College. He is the author of "Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin" (University of Michigan Press) and editor of "Striving Towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), both due this winter

"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.

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