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Beyond Melville the literary legend

Melville His World and Work Andrew Delbanco Alfred A. Knopf: 416 pp., $30

October 16, 2005|Robert Faggen | Robert Faggen is the Barton Evans and H. Andrea Neves professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College. He is the editor of the forthcoming "Selected Poems of Herman Melville."

A few days after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, I heard a report that a station had been set up at the Lexington Avenue Armory at 26th Street to provide information on the dead and missing. A mild embarrassment came over me, because at a time of national tragedy I was having a literary association: There's a plaque on the armory commemorating the fact that Herman Melville lived there. In a house on that site, Melville wrote "Clarel," "Timoleon" and "Billy Budd," and there he died, virtually forgotten, in September of 1891.

Associations grew in the months ahead. There is the newspaper headline that Ishmael imagines reading in the first chapter of "Moby-Dick": "Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States / Whaling Voyage by One Ishmael / Bloody Battle in Afghanistan." The coincidences (including the biblical Ishmael's role as father of the Arab people) were disturbing. Others noticed this convergence and wrote about it. Likewise, in "Melville: His World and Work," Andrew Delbanco, who teaches American literature at Columbia University, observes that Capt. Ahab's monomaniac pursuit of the white whale has everywhere been appropriated as a symbol for political fanaticism.

Delbanco's engaging, comprehensive and well-written biography focuses primarily on Melville's work, asserting its undeniable presence in our literary consciousness as well as our popular culture. He provides much necessary and useful background about Melville's family and working life, about which relatively little is known. He avoids overindulging in speculation about Melville's marriage and sexuality, although the questions are there for those who wish to consider them in light of Melville's work -- particularly the fascinating oscillations of his novel "Pierre, or the Ambiguities." Delbanco's study is also richly textured with insights from some of the best Melville critics of the last half century.

His own contribution to understanding Melville's enormously diverse and complex work is less biographical than historical and political. He sees "Moby-Dick" largely as an allegory of antebellum America, with the fiery, skeletal, pro-slavery Sen. John C. Calhoun as Capt. Ahab. While he argues plausibly that certain references would have satirized the political moment and been recognized by readers at the time, those readings seem almost as trivial as equating Ahab with George W. Bush (or Donald H. Rumsfeld, or name your politician).

Melville's contempt for slavery and racism is indeed palpable, and Delbanco is surely correct when he points out that the masterful short story "Benito Cereno" reveals in the naivete of its protagonist, Capt. Amasa Delano, "the kind of moral opacity that seems still to afflict America as it lumbers through the world creating enemies whose enmity it does not begin to understand." But he is a little too eager to turn Melville into a finger-wagging liberal warning of the evils of totalitarianism and American imperialism. Delbanco's focus on "Benito Cereno" as a political allegory about slavery blinds him to Melville's insight into history's endless cycles of power and oppression as well as the universal human capacity for evil. Babo, the leader of the slaves' shipboard rebellion, was, after all, the slave of black men in his homeland, and in the end proves as merciless as his oppressors.

Melville is far too distant from politics, and his books are much too psychologically complex and multi-vocal to sustain a one-dimensional political interpretation. Readers of "Moby-Dick" and such baffling works as "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and "The Confidence-Man" tend to be surprised by their unresolved contradictions and their author's shifting allegiances and trickster elusiveness. One of the ironies of Delbanco's emphasis on politics is his failure to see it at work in "Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War" (1866), Melville's first published book of poems. Delbanco faults the book both for its lack of authenticity ("Melville was not there to hear the screams and see the body parts fly") and its failure fully to address slavery. He relies too much on the dismissive readings of earlier critics, including Edmund Wilson (though Delbanco does better than Elizabeth Hardwick, who in her presumptuous and incompetent 2000 biography all but ignores the poetry).

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