A graceful, sympathetic portrait of a writer all but forgotten in his day, but now seen as central to understanding the American character.
Delbanco (American Studies/Columbia Univ.; The Real American Dream, 1999, etc.) observes at the outset that Herman Melville left behind little documentary material about his life, even experiences as central as the suicide of his firstborn son; given the classic status accorded to works such as Moby-Dick and The Confidence Man, we tend to forget that he wrote fiction only for a period of about 15 years, turning after the age of 40 to poetry. Delbanco reads Melville’s prose work against the backdrop of American history, remarking that though Melville was born in a world whose rhythms were medieval, he died in one “that had become recognizably our own,” and linking Melville’s themes of quest and conquest, always on morally unstable ground, with the ambiguities of America in its dawning age of Manifest Destiny. In this regard, one of the first acts of American expansionism, Delbanco memorably notes, took place on a Pacific island Melville visited as one of the last practitioners of the preindustrial whaling trade; that work may have been wild, he adds in a luminous detail, but Melville’s shipmates included poets and readers, one of whom counseled, “That’s the way to publish . . . fire it right into ’em; every canto a twenty-four-pound shot; hull the blockheads, whether they will or no.” Melville took the advice, but the blockheads always blocked his way, so that, after the Civil War, he abandoned trying to write for a living and went to work for the Customs Department. Delbanco’s smart readings of Melville’s works, major and minor alike, do much to explain why literature remembers him more generously now.
Lively and endlessly informative: a welcome addition to literary history, of a piece with Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club and David Reynolds’s Walt Whitman’s America.