Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Nicholas Delbanco's "Melville: His World and Work": Book Review

Given we know much less than expected about Herman Melville's life, outside of the hints in his own fictional and poetic creations, Nicholas Delbanco's narrative offers a welcome critical biography. He shows us how the works and the man intertwined, and with it, through a life begun in 1819 and ending up in 1991, that dramatic shift from an America with family memories during the Revolutionary War into one with clattering trains and tall buildings accelerating into our own metropolitan rush and clang. A professor at Yale, Andrew Delbanco skillfully argues for Melville as balanced between Whitman's "New York bluster" and his friend Hawthorne's "New England gravity", and as in his increasingly sophisticated and erudite works, how their author learned in New York City, 1847-50, to tell tales that balanced between Romantic-tinged evocations of savagery and the wild, and those which examined the "Enlightenment emissary" sent from the West on a civilizing mission of exploitation and awe.

While naturally "Moby-Dick" is associated most with Melville, and certainly the opening colophons (echoing that novel's own appearance) and pop culture references ("The Sopranos" and Osama bin Ladin, Mad magazine and Ken Kesey, Leslie Fiedler and Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad and Albert Camus) that bring us into this study emphasize this well, Delbanco peppers these pages with citations from the whole oeuvre, so we can judge how Melville revealed himself, or hid, within. With most of his manuscripts and correspondence apparently lost, any biography needs to look beyond the standard sources, but Delbanco blends those extant smoothly into his own depiction of 19th century America.

We need reminding that as with "Huck Finn" very little we choose to perpetuate today from that era (outside the classroom) permeates wider consciousness. Melville broke through the barrier (copyright played a role in pumping up English authors instead, as Dickens found on his tour here) in his times limiting American authors who sought a wider audience. Delbanco credits him with figuring out how to "express American ideas and sentiments through European forms". He matured from the exaggerated tease of tropical delights in "Typee" and the more business-minded exchanges of Polynesian beauties in "Omoo". These were successes, but Melville grew impatient with the formula.

He used his seafaring experience, "borrowed" what needed fleshing out from his reading (Delbanco finds it increasingly lofty as he lived in lower Manhattan in the late 1840s and incorporated a "democratic imagination--both in substance and style"), and he listened, this critic avers, to the clanging tone and the typically bustling rhythm of the "oceanic city" where he (it is often forgotten) was born and died.

Delbanco notes that the preparation of "Moby-Dick" and a love-hate relation with the city lured Melville to his brother and his relatives to settle for a productive stint in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, but still, that epic began in a port and near a harbor. That novel's like browsing and walking down a city street: it's unpredictable. Delbanco compares a walker in New York to a reader, needing "high alertness" combined with "willed insouciance" to fend off sly appeals from the margins. Delbanco compares too that fantastical take on lotus-land, "Mardi" and the 135 chapters of "Moby-Dick" with a similar sprawl to the bills posted on municipal walls, one over the other, full of arresting slogans and advertising come-ons; out of a verbal melange, in "Moby"'s chapters and its clauses, that at-first straightforward whaling yarn began to warp into something odd, unanticipated.

Much of it to Delbanco "reads like a transcription of a patient under analysis moving from bravado to depletion", but the novel taps Melville's "bipolar" swing between "public jesting" and "private brooding", and reveals the untapped imagery and manic associations that consumed its composition.

Troubles followed for Melville, as Delbanco gives a lot of space (and we can argue over how much is needed for the psychoanalytical approach he and others take for "Pierre" in light or shadow of its author's purported sexual preferences). "Bartleby" found Melville recovered, finally able to record how ordinary Manhattanites sounded, and that story's appeal to the confounding tension of a radical protest against a rapacious capitalist system and a conservative acknowledgment that in tradition, stability, and intimacy lay hope, kept its own ambiguities vivid. But, stung by criticism, Melville seems to have by the early 1850s started what Delbanco discerns as Melville's uneasy transformation of his "genius" into touches of his "madness".

Weariness dominated his sensibility. In his mid-thirties, he seemed worn-out. "And then the darkness closed in."

Delbanco handles this period with as much attention as the height of Melville's fame, carefully analyzing the writings and other contexts to provide as full a picture as a relatively brisk single volume aimed at a general audience can contain. He keeps the narrative over 330 pages of text vivid, but he avoids moralizing or sentimentality.

Despite the best bits Delbanco gleans, "Clarel" as Holy Land epic is not Melville's return to form. That return did come sporadically: the tension between radical challenge to the social order and conservative compassion and traditional stability in "Bartleby" finds Melville integrating how real people talk. "Benito Cereno" improves on "White-Jacket" by using a naval setting to deepen a moral dilemma, and widening the scope to take on the issue of racism and slavery.

Concluding, "Billy Budd" shows in the late 1880s his steady, if by now streamlined and simplified, style. It emerged slowly, Delbanco tells, "as if he could not bear to let it go". As a "eulogy for the hopes of his youth", it returns to the youthful outlook of "Redburn" and "White-Jacket". But, as labor unrest contended against corporate brutality in Melville's final years, that novella proves the fragility of culture, pitted against the pressures of the law allied with political control. Delbanco judges that Melville shows himself in this last story a "reformed, if not repentant, Romantic".

This fine study fits a necessary niche. It's neither too brief nor too detailed for the curious reader who, perhaps having read some Melville or coming for the first time to him, wants an overview of his life and times. While some earnest Freudian analysis cited or concocted within may stretch the bounds of credulity when it comes to certain critics trying to discern hints of Melville's sexual preferences, and while the treatment of the congressional disputes over slavery digresses a bit, generally this is well-documented without wallowing in professorial jargon or score-settling, Delbanco's 2005 book, for me, proved the companion I needed when I wanted an accessible introduction to why Melville endures nearly two centuries after his birth in the early decades of this vexed United States. (11-23-13 Amazon US)

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