MELVILLE by Laurie Robertson-Lorant


A Biography
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 Robertson-Lorant's debut is a solid, eminently readable life of Herman Melville (1819-91), one of America's more enigmatic literary geniuses. Rather than build Melville up--and then hunt him down--as a ``Great White Male,'' Robertson-Lorant explores the sensitive soul of the creator of Moby-Dick--a sensitivity symbolized, to her mind, by Melville's death from ``an enlargement of the heart.'' Melville grew up in New York City and, after his father's life ended in disaster, went to sea as a cabin boy. He would travel the world before settling again in the US in his mid-20s. Turning to writing, Melville published the only works of his to find immediate popular success: the novels Typee and Omoo. Robertson-Lorant shows how these quasi-autobiographical tales of adventure in the Pacific were understood by Melville's readers in the 1840s to make significant, even radical, statements about sexuality and society. Melville married a judge's daughter, and moved in elite circles. But aside from a close friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, he never really capitalized on his prominence. His subsequent books, most of which, like his masterpiece Moby-Dick, were epic allegorical romances, found few contemporary admirers. By the 1860s Melville had to accept work as a low-level customs bureaucrat. Family troubles--discord with his wife, and the apparent suicide of his son--plagued him. Displaying an impressive grasp of literary history, Robertson-Lorant ably catalogues Melville's intentions and unconscious impulses, relating them to the ups and downs of his personal and public lives. Her pacing is brisk throughout, her readings of Melville's fiction sophisticated and just, although they occasionally suffer from a touch of syntactical indigestion, as complicated deconstructive and gender concepts threaten to burst the bounds of mainstream biography. But the effort to incorporate such insights pays off, helping legitimate Robertson-Lorant's claim that Melville, while a sexual progressive, cannot be categorized by today's labels. Nonetheless, a fine guide to Melville's peregrinations in literature and in life. (40 illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-517-59314-9
Page count: 736pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1996