In another of the Penguin Lives series, the estimable Hardwick offers a critical biography filled with tapestry-like riches from start to end.
Naming him “this profligate benefactor of our literature,” Hardwick, rightly enough for so brief a treatment as this, provides less a fact-by-fact life of the great—and greatly tormented—Melville than she does an almost Whitmanesque song of what the man was and what his work is. The approach leads her naturally enough to present the man by presenting the work—and so it is that she praises Moby-Dick (a novel that came into existence “with no antecedents at hand”) in passages of criticism almost as memorable as many in the novel itself. Other elements of Melville’s life are brought to the surface even so—his never-ending financial straits; the vapor-like dissolution of his literary audience after Moby-Dick, never to be brought back again; the sheer volume of the writer’s output and the sheer energy poured into it; his wife’s thoughts of separation, suspecting her husband to be “deranged”; the pitiable death of a son by suicide at 18, of the second by tuberculosis at 25; the never-quite-successful friendship with Hawthorne; the effort to turn to poetry; the dreary long years of wage-slavery at the customs house. Hardwick prods delicately, in addition, at the possibility of Melville’s homosexuality—citing, in particular, passages in Redburn, the bed-scene with Ishmael and Queequeg, other scattered but important hints—and makes clear how differently such a possibility may have been taken (or ignored) in Melville’s century as opposed to those later. Hardwick’s final assessment of the great author, however, is grand, broad, high, and entirely right, albeit against the grain for our current age of literary reductionism and single-theme-thumping. Melville, for this true critic Hardwick, must not be “robbed” of his “melancholy atheism,” his understanding of what it means to be “damned by life.”
Fine, worthy, and built strong.