Melville and Faulkner Biographies Explore Two Mysterious Writers

ONE of the paradoxes of biography is that the better-known someone becomes, the harder he or she is to know. The problem is compounded when the figure under scrutiny lived in the last century, a time when records were scarcer, photographs cruder, and descriptions couched in an English now foreign to our ears.

Even family members may be left in the dark. Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Melville's granddaughter, wrote that ``the core of the man remains incommunicable: suggestion of his quality is all that is possible.'' It takes time as well as tireless archive-delving to make figures as mysterious as Herman Melville and William Faulkner come fully alive, as they do in these two new biographies.

Melville was notoriously inscrutable. Following a brief period of contentious celebrity, he appears in the opening pages of ``The Civil War World of Herman Melville'' as one who had lost his direction. ``Except for his poetry,'' notes Stanton Garner, ``he was drifting, just as his country was drifting.'' He had achieved fame with his early, fact-based writing, startled the literary world with ``Moby-Dick,'' and then followed that masterpiece with the highly idiosyncratic ``Pierre,'' a book so strange that one newspaper ran the headline ``Herman Melville Crazy.''

Then came the war. The conflict that either stilled the pen of other writers or turned them toward oratory and cheerleading gave Melville a subject on which he could exercise his new-found love of poetry. The result was ``Battle-Pieces,'' which, to its author's dismay, was met with the same public shrug that all his later books received.

As Garner promises in his introduction, the Melville one encounters here is ``somewhat different from the received picture of the author ... one who is earthier and more concerned with everyday events than previous portrayals would suggest....''

This is never more true than in the section of the book that describes the days Melville spent with a scouting party that actually engaged with Colonel John Singleton Mosby's daring Partisan Rangers, a cavalry troop wreaking havoc in Union-occupied Virginia. Melville was the only major author to get this close to the action, and the experience brought him alive again as a writer.

The poems that resulted are another matter. Paul Fussell once wrote that ``Battle-Pieces'' occasions ``the shock one always experiences upon seeing how badly a great writer can write.'' Perhaps the best that can be said of the poems is that they are like everything else Melville wrote: eccentric, even goofy at times, yet uncompromising in their insistence on seeing all sides of an issue.

Was Melville really one of the ``three innovators'' who, along with Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, answered Ralph Waldo Emerson's call for a new American poetry and changed forever the literary landscape? This is too lofty a claim, yet it is one that might have been true had Melville's readers not already decided that his career had ended years before.

But even if Melville didn't contribute significantly to the development of 20th-century poetry, he predicted better than any writer of his time the ambiguities of the 20th century itself, thereby paving the way for such writers as Faulkner.

In ``William Faulkner and Southern History,'' Joel Williamson notes that Faulkner's greatest books, such as ``The Sound and the Fury'' and ``Light in August,'' were about people who had lost their grasp of their racial or sexual identities. The novelist himself had a nature as protean as Melville's and, like Melville, -

like any great author, perhaps - he was as capable of a crippling inconsistency as he was of a range and depth that gave his work immense power.

If Garner treats a seven-year period of Melville's life with microscopic thoroughness, Williamson takes a near-geologic view of Faulkner's, beginning nearly 150 years before his birth and dwelling at length on the status of his reputation in the 30 years since he died.

Faulkner, like Melville before him, became a victim of his own success when his readership found that his late works weren't as well-written as his early ones. Yet the curious thing is that, as Williamson says, ``none of his books had ever been met by a flood of rave reviews and an eager market.'' Instead, Faulkner's celebrity status, his growing reputation in intellectual circles, and the awards and honors he had received (rather than the actual books he had written) turned him into a ``great writer.'' Thus, when a book like ``A Fable'' appeared late in life, the public didn't really know what to do with an author whose work they had never read in the first place.

At a time when the reading public still wants to think of its authors as gifted geniuses and at least some academics are bent on destroying the concept of authorship altogether, one can only feel gratitude to scholars like Garner and Williamson, whose arguments suggest that the best writers aren't smarter or more talented than everyone else but more persistent, more adaptable, and, above all, more complexly and deeply human.

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