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Truly, Madly, Deeply

HERMAN MELVILLE By Elizabeth Hardwick; A Lipper / Viking Book: 160 pp., $19.95

September 17, 2000|THOMAS CURWEN | Thomas Curwen is the deputy editor of Book Review

"Call me Ishmael." Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--America came to embrace these words and the man who wrote them. It wasn't easy, a posthumous honor in fact, but something we now do with passionate fervor. Last fall, Laurie Anderson played her vision of "Moby Dick" to sold-out audiences at UCLA's Royce Hall. Sena Jeter Naslund spun a riff in the form of the novel "Ahab's Wife," and a perfect storm of an altogether different sort--an account of the sinking of the whale ship Essex by an 85-foot bull whale--is holding its own among bestsellers.

Compared to the reception Herman Melville received while he lived--dying poor and penniless and critically disdained in Manhattan, "Henry Melville" by error in a New York Times obituary--it's an extraordinary sea change whose course would lead us to believe that his own age had little tolerance for anything other than its own cultural chauvinism.

Let Nathaniel Hawthorne, his great contemporary, chart the 19th century American landscape by looking backward, Melville looked forward and, by doing so, created magnificent word-drunk disquisitions that grew increasingly encyclopedic with their twists of erudition and cosmic association, as if language alone could prop up what he saw, felt and imagined. Is it any wonder that when he stopped writing novels, he turned to poetry?

So how did we come to understand Melville? Is it enough to ascribe our late adoration to the 1921 publication of his life story or to the publication of "Billy Budd, Sailor" (1924, remarkably) or Lewis Mumford's assessment in '29. No, America needed to face its own godlessness before it could appreciate his. More than a civil war, it took a world war, a century's turn, Darwin and Freud, the invention of jazz, the sweep of "The Wasteland" and an impending depression to disabuse a dozing readership of its gilded illusions. Today we easily take for granted what once we so painfully lost.

Endless critical studies, annotated editions, journals, newsletters and societies have sprung up around Melville like trail guides leading to this literary Rushmore. What virtue lies in this bulk of scholarship? None, if it fails to reconcile his genius and defeat, his doggedness and exuberance, his irreverence and sublimity. And what can we hope for in a mere 160 pages? More than we might imagine.

Having once written a briefer life--"Bartleby in Manhattan" (1984)--Elizabeth Hardwick comes to her task with apparent great ease--in a field awash in scholarship by men--overstepping any notions of hubris in undertaking this mammoth life in so short a span. She accomplishes in compression what the old man himself did in leisurely digression. (She seems respectfully grateful to his indefatigable biographer, Hershel Parker, though mildly curious about the lengths and license of his project: Volume One, 1819-1851, 942 pages; Volume Two, still in progress.) Hardwick succeeds by relying primarily on the writing itself.

What isn't uncertain is clear: "The broad outlines of Melville's life are known to many who haven't read his books," she admits, adding, "[w]ithout the aggressive challenge of the books, he can have something of the shape of a woebegone fellow in a silent film." And what isn't clear--the implications of the homoerotic refrain in his books, for one--she's happy to consider and quick to dismiss: "so much about Melville is seems to be, may have been, and perhaps."

Twelve years old when his father died in 1832, he was thrust from a life long accustomed--by pedigree and habit--to gentility and into a more genteel poverty, more terrible than its abject cousin for its reminders of what had been and the accompanying "feeling of entitlement, a treacherous companion that encourages debt," she writes. "It is all expectation and dreaming."

After stints as a farmer, teacher and copyist, he took to the sea. Not once (to Liverpool and back) but again (into the South Pacific and back), and when he returned, he married Elizabeth Shaw. He was 28. She was 25. It wasn't an easy union; years later she nearly left him. They had children: Stanwix, the son who wandered far from the family to die in San Francisco; Malcolm, who committed suicide; Bessie, who lived at home confined by rheumatoid arthritis; and Frances, whose daughters would delight the aging author.

"Dollars damn me," he famously wrote and kept on writing. The critical success in 1846 of "Typee" (which earned him no more than $2,000 in his lifetime) was followed by "Omoo," "Redburn," "Mardi" and "White Jacket," books that marked a frenzy of growing introspection, a slow drowning, like Narcissus', until a mere five years later there emerged the inescapable voice of a man called Ishmael, the man we identify with Melville himself, the outcast, the son, Abraham and Hagar's child.

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