Our Best Writer, Revived Again— Melville Made Whole at Last

High above the intersection of Park Avenue and 26th Street, exactly where no one will notice it, a small metal sign silently proclaims the crossroads to be “Herman Melville Square.” So the city pays heed—barely—to the greatest writer ever to live and write here.

Of course, no one would ever call Melville obscure. Moby-Dick has been interpreted by everyone from John Huston to Led Zeppelin to Laurie Anderson. “Bartleby the Scrivener” is familiar to anyone who’s ever written a high-school essay on alienation—or, more likely, preferred not to.

Yet the full contours of Melville’s life remain only dimly understood to all but a fanatical band of Melville admirers. He’s famous, yet difficult to know, lacking Whitman’s easy camaraderie, or Poe’s cult appeal, or the smoothness of his more successful friend, the 19th century’s blue-eyed darling, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Now, perhaps, that will change. At long last, Melville is poised to emerge as a flesh-and-blood figure, and a New Yorker to boot, thanks to Andrew Delbanco’s Melville: His World and Work, the finest biography ever written of this essential American.

To be sure, there are already plenty of biographies out there. They came chockablock in the 1920’s, after Melville’s rediscovery by writers seeking a more potent American tradition than Longfellow’s lachrymose verse about the shores of Gitchee Gumee. There have also been ultra-biographical reference books chronicling Melville’s every appearance on the page of history—books that resemble Melville’s own parodies of the knowledge business. Jay Leyda’s The Melville Log is still indispensable; and Hershel Parker, the dean of Melville scholars, finally finished in 2002 his two-volume doorstop that, while awesome in its way, also led one to wonder at what point a fact becomes too small to merit inclusion.

The glut of information seems remarkable when you think of the complete anonymity into which Melville faded during his own lifetime. But even with this welcome new material, most biographies over the last generation—particularly those coming from academic precincts—have failed to capture the spirit of his magnificent struggle. There’s a nice line in Moby-Dick about the futility of information overload: “Why then do you try to ‘enlarge’ your mind? Subtilize it.” That is precisely what Mr. Delbanco has achieved, building the most real—and thrilling—Melville we have seen to date.

Andrew Delbanco has been chasing Melville for a long time. Like this reviewer, he studied under an extraordinary Harvard teacher, Alan Heimert, who filled a generation of students with such excitement and dread that they never got over it (one student, Peter Benchley, created Jaws in the image of Moby-Dick, and a gruff protagonist, Quint, in the image of Heimert). Since moving to Columbia two decades ago, Mr. Delbanco has kept alive that university’s tradition of nurturing public intellectuals who move easily between centuries and disciplines—Trilling and Hofstadter spring to mind. Like a photographer, he enjoys the interplay between light and dark. His book on evil, The Death of Satan (1995), offered a useful primer well before the word “evil” began turning up routinely in Presidential speeches. His essay on hope, The Real American Dream (1999), was shorter—perhaps appropriately. Anyone interested in both extremes usually ends up reading Melville, who voiced the most soaring ambition for America’s greatness and the bitterest disappointment when things fell apart, as they were when he was writing his masterpiece.

True to its subject, this is an unorthodox book. Melville has always drawn the iconoclasts. Orson Welles directed a stage version of Moby-Dick, revived this summer in East Hampton. Peter Ustinov directed a brilliant film version of Billy Budd in 1962, filled with ambivalent reflections on Cold War tensions. Camus, Kubrick, Robert Lowell and Maurice Sendak are all in the club. Mr. Delbanco fits comfortably inside this not-very-academic tradition. From the beginning, he strikes an in-your-face posture: The opening montage lists quotes about Melville from his own father (“He is very backward in speech”) to The Sopranos to former counterterror czar Richard Clarke (“Maybe I’m becoming like Captain Ahab with bin Laden as the white whale”). Melville would enjoy this mischief, which is much like his own.

Mr. Delbanco tells the life, straight. There’s no writer’s story quite like it in our annals. It’s a long life, connecting the aftermath of the Revolution (one of Melville’s grandfathers still had bits of tea that he had found on his clothes after the Boston Tea Party) to the lifetimes of Einstein, Picasso and Chaplin. And more than most, it shows the extraordinary capriciousness of fame and oblivion in American letters. With the possible exception of Zora Neale Hurston—buried in a pauper’s grave until Alice Walker repatriated her—no writer had to sink lower before coming back to his proper place in the firmament.

Melville burst onto the scene in 1846 with Typee, his sexy account of living with naked cannibals. Handsome, voluble, bearded, the Johnny Damon of his day, there seemed no limit to where he could go. He might have carved out a long career as a diverting conversationalist, entertaining New York’s merchants and their wives in the pretentious salons of the not-yet-Upper East Side. But it was precisely his ambition that did him in. Like Orson Welles, he harbored a desire for brilliance that was fatal to his commercial prospects, and to most of his friendships. Even among a circle of headstrong windbags, he distinguished himself by an immense New Yorkish impatience to succeed. More than to succeed—to astonish.

After a few mixed efforts, his ambition found an appropriately huge topic with the whale story he pursued, nearly as driven as his protagonist, in 1850 and 1851, as the Union was entering its death agonies. The book that resulted was so explosive that one can still find its flotsam and jetsam strewn around the world, from a brothel called Moby Dick Fun Pub in Belgium to a kebab restaurant in Tehran named after the novel.

Yet the public was utterly indifferent to Melville’s titanic effort, which marked the apogee of his career and left him stalled at the top of his climb, like a roller coaster just before a steep drop. The descent was swift. Pierre: or, The Ambiguities still delights readers as the model for how not to write a successful book.

He continued to pen short stories (including very brilliant ones) and then poems, and then bits of language that weren’t even really poetry at all, but simple thoughts in a word or two. And then nothing at all. For years, he eked out a humdrum existence as a Customs inspector on West Street, forced to take handwriting classes in hopes of getting a better performance rating. When he finally did expire in 1891, many were stunned that he had in fact been alive until then. But most paid no mind at all. An obituary in The New York Times identified him as “Henry Melville.”

Yes, it’s sad. But Mr. Delbanco resists the temptation to feel too sorry for him. There was always something Promethean about Melville’s thrust at greatness. He knew the odds were stacked against him. He knew the penalty for failure. But fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. After his death, a manuscript was discovered in a tin breadbox—the immortal Billy Budd—and his rediscovery began. It’s never stopped—and, as this book proves, we’ll always have more to learn about Melville.

Mr. Delbanco is very gifted at drawing links between Melville’s works and the larger paroxysms that his country was going through. It wouldn’t work for all writers, but it does work here—for Melville was undeniably paying attention. This book brings out the unbearable tension Americans felt over race in the decade before the Civil War. Mr. Delbanco’s treatment of “Benito Cereno” is particularly arresting. He also reasserts Melville’s closeness to the ground zero of the slavery argument—his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, was a Massachusetts judge who wrote the decision that served as the precedent for Plessy v. Ferguson, which legalized segregation.

Another great gift of this book is that it returns Melville to his native city. New York has been slow to claim him, perhaps because of some uncertainty over whether he, in fact, claimed it. But he did, over and over again. He was born here, became an author here, published here and died here. He was a true isolato—to use his word for people who are islands unto themselves. But that word could also be used in a happier sense, to describe both this island and the fellow Manhattanites that Melville liked to walk among, anonymously.

Mr. Delbanco restores a sense of Melville the reporter, noticing (as so many did not) the problems of New York’s rapid growth as well as the joys of living here. He notes especially how much Melville and his friends borrowed from the fast language of the city’s streets. With great enthusiasm, one of them recorded into his journal what is probably the earliest known use of the expression “eat shit.” (Translated into Latin, it would serve nicely as a motto on the city seal.) Even after his writing slowed, Melville was in the thick of it, watching boats unload their cargoes, showing up day after day at a hard job. Whitman never did that.

It’s tempting to say that Melville was depressed: He lived through unspeakable tragedies—including the suicide of his son Malcolm—and there are whispers that he struggled with mental illness of his own. But this biography, with its relentless humanity (the final word of “Bartleby”), also draws aside the curtain of gloom and shows us a Melville who never quite gives up, who still haunts used bookstores, goes for endless walks around the city, and continues to write, secretly, brilliantly, right up to the end. Thank God for Billy Budd, which proves a critical fact: Billy may have died, but Melville did not succumb.

In his great essay on Hawthorne, Melville praised a writer who can “work on more than one level, not alternately but simultaneously, so as to reach not only the ‘superficial skimmer of pages,’ but also the ‘eagle-eyed reader.’” For its wealth of information, its lyrical writing and its unsparing judgment, Mr. Delbanco’s book will define Melville for both specialists and general readers well into the next generation. It goes unstintingly into his tragedy, and yet—true to form—it makes precious room for hope and laughter.

Not all ambitious quests into the heart of darkness end in failure. Herman Melville proved it with Moby-Dick. Andrew Delbanco has proved it with Melville.

Ted Widmer directs the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. Our Best Writer, Revived Again— Melville Made Whole at Last