HERMAN MELVILLE By Elizabeth Hardwick Viking 160 pp., $19.95
From the first paragraph of Elizabeth Hardwick's portrait of the great American novelist Herman Melville, the reader understands that they're in for an overheated affair. She compares his name to the "romance of the sea, the vast, mysterious waters for which a thousand adjectives cannot suffice." She goes on to describe the mystical vibrations, forbidden seas, and passages to "barbarous coasts" that "Herman Melville" evokes.
Mind you, she's just getting started, and all of this swooning is merely for the sound of his name. In this latest short volume of the Penguin Lives series, Hardwick would seem to be warming up for a love letter to the 19th-century novelist.
Or, she at least has a lot of empathy for him. Melville is possibly the least well known in the pantheon of great American writers. Hardwick, one of America's finest literary critics, seems resigned to this, and indeed, she turns it to her advantage. Her flights of theorizing make up some of the best (although maddening) passages: "He is elusive, the facts of his life, only a frame, as perhaps they are for the honored, much-studied dead, as well as for the obscure. This often-unhappy man knew many happy days: or was it that this more or less settled gentleman had periods of desolation? All is true, if you like."
As might be imagined, Hardwick doesn't make a point of shining a spotlight on the existence of Melville. However, she does manage to put together a laundry list of misery that the great writer had visited upon him: His son Malcom committed suicide. Another son, Stanwix died of tuberculosis at 35. Finally, the greatest indignity of all, the lukewarm reception of what ended up to be arguably the seminal work of American fiction, "Moby Dick."
Life did not start out this way for Melville. His family had connections to New England/Revolutionary War aristocracy (Major Thomas Melville was one of the participants in the Boston Tea Party). However relatively well born Melville was (and Hardwick indicates that he was as well born as most Americans of the time), he was hardly well off at any point in his life. Hardwick mentions that this was so prevalent in the Melvilles that bankruptcy constituted a near genetic flaw.
Melville's first and most successful work in his lifetime, "Typee," was based on his adventures in Polynesia living among cannibals. It was a great popular success and was based on fact to the point that Melville was stung by the relatively mild criticism of the book's believability factor.
Hardwick notes that Melville was only 32 when he wrote "Moby Dick," which sealed his fate as a great American novelist. She notes that the story was a great leap from his previous audience-pleasing reads, which she characterizes as "boys' books."
Her analysis of the work is interesting. Not least for the way it manages to remind the reader what a weird tale it is: This is a book about a whale that is not only white and a mortal enemy of a one-legged sea captain, but this whale has a name, for heaven's sake. Her analysis of Captain Ahab as a character is also interesting. She points out the poetry in Ahab's speech. She also manages to deconstruct Ahab's more-complicated-than-you-would-think relationship with his crew.
In the midst of this astute and dense analysis, Hardwick alights on a couple of passages in "Moby Dick" that fairly beg for Freudian interpretation. Descriptions of the whale and the warmth of male comradeship make a fairly airtight case for the presence of homoeroticism in this particular work. But what of Melville himself?
Hardwick is too honest about the unknowability of Melville to make any definitive claims about his sexual orientation. However, these passages in "Moby Dick" and her analysis of his deep friendship with the more worldly (and more happily married) Nathaniel Hawthorne raise many questions that this biographer is unwilling to answer. She does, however, indicate that Melville's appreciation of the connections that men under pressure feel for each other conveys the kind of nobility that he seemed to appreciate most in life.
Ultimately, Hardwick's work sets out to do what she said she would do: Fail to explain an unexplainable man. However, her respect and understanding of the intensity of his work, the meaning of his life, and her own forgiveness of his failures add up to a sublime sketch of this great writer and failed man.
*Mark Rhodes is a freelance writer in Brookhaven, N.Y.
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