Another Brief and Daring Bio: Teasing, Tangled Melville Yarn

Herman Melville , by Elizabeth Hardwick. Lipper/Viking, 161 pages, $19.95.

The English excel at writing brief lives, a pocket-size genre long on style, short on facts. Invented by the second-century Roman historian Suetonius ( Lives of the Caesars ), aped by John Aubrey as an alternative to 17th-century dinner-party gossip, epitomized by Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) and David Cecil’s Two Quiet Lives (1948), recently perfected by Richard Holmes ( Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage )–the biographical sketch has fared poorly in America. We like our biographies the same size as our prizefighters, our Westerns, our cars: big and sweeping, like the country itself.

But does anyone really finish them–those meaty, meticulously researched, definitive studies based on thousands of pages of never-before-released documents, hundreds of interviews and complete access to voluminous and revealing papers? The critic and novelist Edmund Wilson summarized what biographers often forget: “It is important in writing a biography to remember that you are telling a story, and the problems of presenting the material are in many ways just the same as those of presenting a subject in fiction.” Or, to borrow A&E Biography ‘s more concise reminder: “Every life has a story.”

In the past 18 months, the smart new Penguin Lives series, edited by James Atlas, has succeeded in providing an authoritative short-form alternative to often unreadable 800-plus-page tomes. With six titles appearing each year (few run to more than 160 pages), the series pairs highly esteemed contemporary writers with major figures who have shaped European, Asian and North American culture. Career biographers have no edge here. Of the 10 titles already published, novelists have written six.

The Don King genius of Penguin Lives is in the heavyweight matchups: Garry Wills takes on Saint Augustine, Larry McMurtry faces Crazy Horse, Edmund White versus Marcel Proust. These thrillers, going into eight or nine printings, have drawn a big gate; Saint Augustine and Crazy Horse were best sellers. And if fans quibble with the fight card (I would have liked to see Ian Frazier matched with Crazy Horse; Andrea Barrett with Charles Darwin; and Sidney Blumenthal with Niccolò Machiavelli), we marvel most at the compatibility, the lack of strain, the naturalness of finding Louis Auchincloss coupled with Woodrow Wilson, Mary Gordon yoked to Joan of Arc, Edna O’Brien clapped together with her fellow Irish novelist James Joyce.

Fresh characterization and swift storytelling with no loss of erudition are the series’ signatures. Scholarly apparatus encumbers almost none of the compact, handsomely designed volumes. Instead of footnotes, Penguin Lives are salted with the kind of intuitive leaps and historical imagination that work magic in biography. Brevity, meanwhile, has encouraged experimentation. Freed from the wide-ranging duties of the “all-knowing” scholar, Peter Gay can focus on Mozart’s revealing confrontations with his father. Excused from cataloguing the vast versatility of Leonardo da Vinci’s genius, the Yale physician Sherwin Nuland brings new attention to the master’s prescient anatomical observations. Mary Gordon’s duties do not include reading all 20,000 books on Joan of Arc in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris; she is at liberty to meditate on a young French girl’s divinely sent voices.

In the series’ latest pairing, Elizabeth Hardwick, the novelist ( Sleepless Nights ) and critic ( Bartleby in Manhattan ), headlines with Herman Melville. As with Jonathan Spence’s Mao Zedong or Mr. Wills’ Saint Augustine , you won’t find a better written, more finely distilled introduction to a vast and complicated subject.

The Melville industry is scarily bulky. Since the 1920’s, when novelists and intellectuals like D.H. Lawrence, Lewis Mumford, E.M. Forster and Carl Van Doren reclaimed Moby-Dick from the depths of obscurity, Melville has become the American Shakespeare. When academics stopped counting in 1980, Melville’s life and work had attracted no fewer than 531 doctoral dissertations. In one recent biography, the selected bibliography topped 140 titles, shortened from 400. The most thorough narrative of Melville’s life, published in 1996, runs to 883 pages, and it only covers the first 32 years–for the last 40 (almost half of which the author spent as a $4-a-day clerk in the Custom House on the New York waterfront), you’ll have to wait for volume two.

The facts of Melville’s life make a fascinating yarn. He was born into an old upstate Dutch family that went bankrupt. From age 12 he worked as a clerk to help bring the family out of poverty. Growing rebellious, he ran away to sea. In the Pacific, he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands, where he lived for several weeks among the Typees. The story of his being held “prisoner” by a supposedly cannibalistic tribe turned Typee , as he called his first novel, into a best seller. The book’s candid descriptions of naked South Seas women and its atmosphere of “lazy, tropical, amorousness” launched Melville as America’s first literary sex symbol and one of the highest-paid authors of the day. Four popular novels, based on Melville’s seafaring adventures, appeared in rapid succession: Omoo , Mardi , Redburn and White-Jacket . He was 30 when he sat down to write his masterpiece, Moby-Dick , which was published a year later to mixed reviews. On Nov. 20, 1851, The New York Observer pronounced it a “complete exhibition of the art and mystery of whaleology” and declared that the “peculiar tact of Melville appears on every page.” The novel sold 2,300 copies in its first 18 months, then faded quickly. The books that followed–two novels, a collection of short stories, four books of poetry and a novella–never put him back into the winner’s circle.

Exasperated by failure, half-mad with the cost of trying to write and lecture his way out of debt, Melville gave up writing, having published 10 works of fiction in 11 years. He sold his beloved farm in the Berkshires, moved his wife, Elizabeth Shaw Melville, and their children back to Manhattan, and slipped into a literary eclipse so total that when he died at age 72 he was remembered in a three-line obituary in The New York Times as “the late Henry Melville.”

When we contemplate Melville’s life, we are tempted, as Ms. Hardwick notes, to think poor Melville . “There is a forlorn accent shadowing the great energy of his thought and imagination,” she writes. “There is a rueful dignity in his life and personal manner, and sometimes a startling abandonment of propriety on the pages.” Which to choose, therefore: The life or the work? It’s an act of daring to take on either, let alone both, in just 155 pages. Ms. Hardwick chooses the work. Moving from book to book, she patches the minimum of biographical quilting on top of intelligent and brilliantly proportional set pieces on Melville’s novels. Attention, English majors: These are the classiest Cliffs Notes you’ll ever find on Moby-Dick and Billy Budd .

Ms. Hardwick is a trustworthy, elegant critic with innumerable intellectual gifts and years of experience toiling in the American literary landscape. At the simplest level, her writing is a pleasure to read because of her exquisite fidelity to the spirit of Melville; she writes up to her subject not down to her reader. She never falls into the trap of diminishing the work by unmasking the artist’s personal weaknesses and failings.

Sensitive reading is the creative source of her scholarship. She reads with a tender, sympathetic eye, which gives her writing the kind of sightedness one has in dreams: Atmosphere is acutely felt even when the facts are hazy. Ms. Hardwick does not know, for example, why Melville traded his Pittsfield farm for 104 East 26th Street. But she can picture the ramshackle Arrowhead from its owner’s window: “Years in the countryside have as many chores as beauties. Outside your window there is the late unmown grass as well as the tall New England trees. There is a miserable little stack of logs waiting to be replenished for the baking oven and the winter bedrooms. A garden is a grave, as Emerson said.”

Ms. Hardwick is on the right track–the only track. Outside of his own pages, Melville remains unknowable. His life’s record is so much a matter of ” seems to be , may have been , and perhaps ” that Ms. Hardwick is forced to conclude that Melville “earned the mystery of his inner life.” We know that his chronology spans the years when the still-young American imagination could remember its Puritan origins between the great sea and the old forest. As a young man, Melville escaped Protestant America by way of the sea and came back with sunlit tales to tell and sell. In the darker second half of his life he lived like a man struggling to find his way out of a forest. In the end he withdrew, leaving behind a bread-crumb trail of pages.

Long or short, Melville’s biography is finally more Jamesian than Melvillian, an inscrutable puzzle in which a man’s art flickers candlelight on the sea log of his days, the cabin fever of his nights.