Melville Mystery Cannot Be Stifled By New Biography

At 29, Herman Melville had a wonderful wish, that Shakespeare was alive in New York.

“Not that I might have had the pleasure of leaving my card for him at the Astor, or made merry with him over … punch; but that the muzzle which all men wore on their souls in the Elizabethan day, might not have intercepted Shakespeare’s full articulations. For I hold it a verity, that even Shakespeare was not a frank man to the uttermost. And, indeed, who in this intolerant Universe is, or can be?”

This letter is painful to read because Melville soon muzzled his own soul. His great novels written by his early 30′s, Melville sank slowly over the next 30 years into depressive oblivion in a yellow brick townhouse on East 26th Street, leaving the pages of a masterpiece, Billy Budd , to be discovered in a bread box.

The misery of those years is underscored by the most authoritative account of them ever: Herman Melville, A Biography, Volume 2, 1851-1891 , by Hershel Parker, lately published by Johns Hopkins. The book is 1,000 pages long, a generous monument of research that lovingly details Melville’s reading and his family’s activities, and seeks to uplift his poetry.

But when it comes to Melville’s muzzle, and the issues raised about the particular sources of Melville’s agony-was he insane? Was he a homosexual? Did he beat his wife?-the biography is a tremendous disappointment. The job of imagining a great artist’s passion in the way that, say, Van Gogh’s passion has been set forth remains undone.

As a young man in the 1840′s, Melville became famous for stirring narratives, Typee and Omoo . Then Moby-Dick ‘s metaphysics led the way to the more challenging work of his 30′s-the twisted Pierre , the misanthropic Confidence-Man , and the perfect “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Following years of tremendous production and somewhat indifferent reviews, Melville went silent. He became a customs inspector on the New York docks and published only poetry over the last three decades of his life. When he died in 1891, he was largely unknown to a popular audience.

His works continued to be passed around by cultists, many of whom were-befitting stories about men in boats-homosexual. Then, 30 years after Melville’s death, Raymond Weaver precipitated the Melville revival when he published the first real biography and also discovered Billy Budd . That short novel, written in Melville’s last years, has a very nearly explicit homosexual theme surrounding the handsome and stammering sailor.

Reviving Melville was a spiritual, cultural and academic necessity. But for those concerned with status, the assertion of Melville’s greatness always had to contend with domestic horrors.

Early biographies touched on the question of madness but did so lightly, noting, for instance, that at one point Melville’s family had him examined by a doctor on psychological grounds. Biographers also tiptoed around the children: Melville’s oldest son committed suicide at 18, his next son died a drifter, one daughter was a spinster, and the last daughter reportedly did not want to hear her father’s name, regarding him as a beast.

Then came the Kring Find.

In the late 1970′s, a religious scholar named Walter Kring discovered two letters concerning Melville’s marriage. The letters, written by Melville’s wife Elizabeth and her brother, Sam Shaw, were addressed to a leading New York pastor, H.W. Bellows, in 1867, when Melville was 47.

Shaw’s letter was shocking. It rejected a plan by Bellows to end the marriage by having relatives appear to abduct Lizzie to Boston.

Shaw wrote, “I think that the safest course is to let her real position become apparent from the first, namely that of a wife, who, being convinced that her husband is insane, acts as if she were so convinced and applies for aid and assistance to her friends and acts with them. I think she would have done this long ago were it not for imaginary and groundless apprehensions of the censures of the world upon her conduct …. “

A lawyer and scion of a leading Massachusetts family, Shaw said that Herman had “ill-treated” Lizzie to the point that she could not live with him, that the marriage had been a cause of anxiety to the family for many years, and that even Melville’s family now agreed that action must be taken.

Lizzie’s letter indicated that she had decided not to leave her husband but would “pray for submission and faith.” Four months later, the couple’s oldest child, Malcolm, shot himself on the second floor of the house on 26th Street.

The Melville establishment circulated the letters in a discreet fashion. The Melville Society published a pamphlet misleadingly titled The Endless Winding Way in Melville: New Charts from Kring and Carey (Kring’s co-author), which printed many writers’ comments on the find.

Not till 1994 did the letters get the attention they deserved. Then a young Melville scholar named Elizabeth Renker published a paper in the journal American Literature called “Wife-Beating and the Written Page,” in which she said that the letters and other evidence clearly suggested that Herman had physically abused Lizzie.

“The terrible issue I here attempt to bring to wider attention has gone largely uninvestigated,” she wrote, because of the author’s image as a hero.

Ms. Renker pointed to many passing statements from Melville followers that the author had beaten his wife.

The poet Charles Olson: “[Melville] remained periodically violent to his wife …. “

Biographer Lewis Mumford: “When harassed by external circumstances, one wants to attack the universe, but … one takes revenge on the first creature that crosses one’s path. Too likely it will be a creature one holds dear …. An explosion, a blow: a raised hand: an uncontrollable burst of vituperation-then drink, remorse, repentance …. “

The Jungian psychologist Henry Murray (as quoted by his biographer): Melville was a “sometimes violent husband and father,” his home one of “ritualized, emphasized, exaggerated aggression.”

William Braswell, recalling a conversation with Melville’s granddaughter, Eleanor Metcalf: “She did … tell me that he had struck his wife.”

Melville’s great-grandson Paul Metcalf, on seeking dirt about Melville that his mother refused to share with him: “Charles [Olson] told me of Herman’s drinking, coming home smashed on brandy, beating up on Lizzie, throwing her down the back stairs, etc.”

Melville biographer Edwin Haviland Miller: “Family letters and tales made clear that his treatment of his wife was sometimes abusive, more often verbally than physically since his intention was evidently to humiliate.”

Elizabeth Renker also quoted a letter Lizzie sent secretly to a friend that indicated she was afraid of her husband: “I am actually afraid to have any one here for fear that he will be upset entirely …. If ever this dreadful incubus of a book [the epic poem Clarel ] (I call it so but it has undermined all our happiness) gets off Herman’s shoulders I do hope he may be in better mental health-but at present I have reason to feel the gravest concern and anxiety about it.”

Ms. Renker’s assertion caused great distress in the Melville community. Some said that she drew on an unreliable oral history. Or they dismissed her charge as imagined and speculative, as John Bryant, the former head of the Melville Society, lately stated in a Modern Library edition of Melville’s work.

Now Hershel Parker writes that the charge is “reckless.” But he cannot bring himself to mention Ms. Renker or her work by name.

“That’s a scholarly sin,” says Ms. Renker, a professor at Ohio State University. “They can say I’m full of shit till the end of time-I don’t care. But don’t hide the evidence. At least give a citation so that readers can confront the evidence for themselves …. “

Mr. Parker’s book often seems to writhe and beat its fists against the reality of the Sam Shaw letter, and to argue that Shaw had it all wrong. Mr. Parker presents Melville as a kind of respectable Christ figure, a great artist and family man who, in Mr. Parker’s melodramatic terms, is so lacerated and terrorized by poisonous critics that his career is destroyed and his own family turns against him for hurting their image.

As to Sam Shaw’s statement that Melville had “ill-treated” his sister, Mr. Parker says that Melville did so by getting harsh reviews: “It is hopeless to try to separate whatever Melville did to Lizzie to make her feel ill treated from everything she and the other Shaws had read about him in the papers and magazines. Even subjecting her to so much shame in the public press was a form of mistreatment.”

And the insanity claim?

Melville was “not at all insane,” Mr. Parker assures us. Then he imagines how such a belief might have formed.

“If any member of the Shaw family … heard Herman make a casual comment about his being a prose writer who ranked with Washington Irving, or as good a poet as Professor Longfellow, that person … would necessarily have thought him insane …. If he ever burst out, in the early 1860′s, with some comment implying that he was a great poet, then that was clear sign of madness …. “

These are nutty arguments. They soft-pedal a stunning resolution by members of two privileged families to intervene to end a marriage in crisis. The family members were at least somewhat sophisticated; they were not acting because a newspaper review of Pierre 15 years before said that Melville was nuts.

“These letters scream out family trauma,” Ms. Renker says. “Parker is blinded by hero worship; he can’t see his hero in three dimensions.”

One doesn’t want to valorize an aristocratic family’s misunderstanding of the genius in their midst. They would think he was insane. Still, the claims call for careful assessment.

Melville was surely a manic depressive. He seems to have suffered a breakdown after Pierre and had suicidal ideas. His sense of entitlement, and need for cash, apparently kept him from leaving the prison of his family. (And as John Updike has observed, Melville in his 30′s had exhausted his best material and lacked the tough temperament that a productive writer required. He was not capable of what Mr. Updike called the “hustling and catering” that literary production requires.) Melville was described as unwell for 10 years, during which he took a couple of long trips, urged on by his relatives, who hoped that he would recover his mental stability and cease to have “ugly attacks.” On one of these trips, to the Holy Land, Melville told his dear friend Nathaniel Hawthorne that he sought his own “annihilation,” and it was said that some family members wished he would never return.

And yes, Melville probably beat his wife. The evidence, by historical standards, is just too strong to be ignored.

The problem of the new biography is that you cannot conceive Melville as both revolutionary and respectable. Hershel Parker tries. At one point, he speculates that Melville’s sexual adventures may have occurred at sea and in foreign ports, then adds, “Surely he had done nothing reprehensible in the United States …. “

Well, no one can be sure of such a thing. And by what code is an artist’s sexual exploration “reprehensible”? Melville’s sexuality made him a heretic.

In 1864, three years before his wife thought of leaving him and his son actually did, Melville mourned Hawthorne’s death in the poem “Monody,” which reflects on a passionate friendship:

To have known him, to have loved him

After loneness long;

And then to be estranged in life,

And neither in the wrong;

And now for death to set his seal-

Ease me, a little ease, my song!

The privilege of regarding Melville so long after his death is that we can ease his song. Doing so means understanding the constraints he endured and his responses to them, including the abuse of his wife. We know too much about family dynamics and homosexuality to prevaricate on such issues. Treating them honestly could actually make Melville more compelling to readers in our time.