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Cover Review | Hershel Parker has practically reconstructed
Melville's DNA and in doing so has rendered American
literature a signal service.

A Stoic of the Underground

HERMAN MELVILLE: A Biography, Vol. 2, 1851-1891, By Hershel Parker, Johns Hopkins University Press: 998 pp., $45

May 26, 2002|DOUGLAS BRINKLEY | Douglas Brinkley is professor of history and director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans.

Yet Melville persisted, publishing the extraordinary "Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land" (1876), a theological meditation reflecting his Manichean view of God and conceived during a tour of the Middle East. Other less exemplary volumes followed.

Meanwhile, Melville evolved into a stoic of the underground, shunning friends and shopping in the secondhand stores of Manhattan for provisions. "Melville was living a hidden life," Parker concludes, "what journalists a decade or so later would begin calling a buried life, away from his old literary associates, almost lost to fame." When he died at 72, only one newspaper wrote a meaningful obituary.

By the time he had reached 30, an ethereal muse had consumed Melville, and he remained strangely untouched by the literary conventions of his time. Abandoning the commercial success of his early works, Melville had become a dedicated sufferer for art. As a craftsman of what he called the "inside narrative," he surpassed Hawthorne and went on to challenge Shakespeare, falling just short. Carl Jung, in "The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature" (1967), rightfully deemed "Moby-Dick" the "greatest American novel" and explained why Melville's entire literary oeuvre offered "the richest opportunities for psychological elucidation." There was something ghostly or otherworldly about Melville's prose and poetry, which upon reading often conjured a hallucinogenic effect.

Fittingly, Parker informs us that Melville's family motto was Denique coelum--Heaven at Last. Religious immortality, Melville believed, could be had if he stayed truthful to his God-ordained task of honest composition. Reading Parker's biography made me realize that the time has come to amend Ernest Hemingway's overused dictum that all American literature emanated from one book: "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." We all know that, in truth, it came from Herman Melville's holy and heavenly hand.

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