Kirkus Reviews QR Code
HERMAN MELVILLE by Hershel Parker

HERMAN MELVILLE

A Biography, Vol. I, 1819-1851

By Hershel Parker

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-8018-5428-8
Publisher: Johns Hopkins Univ.

 This leviathan of a biography--the first half of a two-volume set--meticulously charts the early life and career of an erratic literary genius. Melville was born in 1819, a scion of new American gentry. Both of his grandfathers were revered Revolutionary War heroes, and both were wealthy. But in 1830 Melville's father went bankrupt and- -in an episode that provides Parker (English/Univ. of Delaware) with a dramatic opening vignette--fled New York City in disgrace, soon to die a broken man. The remaining Melvilles spent the next 20 years pursuing financial and social redemption. Through a painstaking collation of letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and other evidence, Parker sets their struggle amid a vivid panorama of the young commercial republic, with its unprecedented opportunities and huge risks. Parker concentrates on Melville's adventures as a sailor and his subsequent transformation of his experiences into prose: first, the popular South Sea adventure tales Typee and Omoo, then the novels through Moby-Dick, published in 1851. But Parker also devotes significant space to Melville's family. A particular focus is older brother Gansevoort, whose peregrinations as a Democratic party rhetorician culminated in a government position in London, whence he helped launch Herman's career. Parker closes this volume with an examination of Melville's famous friendship with Hawthorne, to whom Moby-Dick was dedicated. Parker's lifetime of Melville scholarship has eventuated in his complete mastery of detail here, a mastery that shows to great effect. His portrait of Melville lets intricacies shine like a newly cleaned painting. But while Parker outlines the passions that characterized both Melville and his times, his generally reserved tone can take the edge off of them. Indispensable for all serious Melvillians, whether professional or amateur, but given its measured approach and its heft, not a likely avenue for the uninitiated.