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Published Sep. 16, 2005

MELVILLE: A Biography

By Laurie Robertson-Lorant

Clarkson Potter, $40

Reviewed by Adam Begley

Perhaps America's greatest writer, Herman Melville is being revived _ again. Trickle-down from an adoring academy accounts for part of his sudden cachet, but amateur and professional Melvilleans insist that there's also some mysterious alchemy at work that makes this a Melville moment.

John Updike wonders whether it isn't "the pessimism and even the disorder present in Melville. Moby-Dick just manages to hang together, and Pierre and The Confidence Man don't really hang together at all. But in the '90s, as the century itself disintegrates, we are more accepting of disorder, and take it as a sign of honesty, a sign of having heard the real music, which is no music."

Melville was first resuscitated in the 1920s, 30 years after his death and 50 years after a painful slide into literary oblivion. That's one half of the pittance most of us know about his life: that he was briefly feted, then forgotten. We also know that his popular early novels, Typee and Omoo, were based on youthful adventures in the South Seas. He was the "man who lived among cannibals," then a man who wrote failed novels (Moby-Dick and every book thereafter), then nobody at all. His artistic ambition ran up against implacable commercial reality: "Dollars damn me," he wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco, who is undertaking a book about "the age of Melville," agrees that Melville is just now especially hot. But he added a cautious qualifier: "He's our greatest writer because he has always provided resources for thinking about the pressing questions of the day."

Melville is hard to read, and his popularity with the "general reader" has lagged behind that of his fellow dead white males, most of whom are easier to peg. Loner Henry David Thoreau inspires noble disobedience; Edgar Allan Poe, weird and sad, chills the bones; the highbrow romances of broody, handsome Hawthorne have us reaching tearfully for a hanky (embroidered, natch); Walt Whitman, ever expansive, fills our lungs with bracing air.

And yet _ here's where the mysterious alchemy operates _ Melville's creations have morphed again; they seem inventions of the instant. Ishmael opens his heart to the diversity we all piously wish to embrace, and anguished Ahab haunts our fits of monomania. Bartleby's "I would prefer not to" echoes louder and louder, affirming every contrarian cause and rallying the unassimilated.

Much of the current excitement among Melvilleans stems from anticipation: In December the first volume of Hershel Parker's oft-delayed two-volume biography of Melville will at last appear. Parker, the dean of Melville scholars, will cover his subject's first 32 years, up to the publication of Moby-Dick, in a scant 928 pages.

Meanwhile Laurie Robertson-Lorant has come out with Melville: A Biography, which is thorough, highly accessible, relatively compact and unabashedly passionate. Instead of an enigmatic "isolato," Robertson-Lorant gives us a flesh-and-blood family man, "tormented and great-souled," a writer rooted in place and time, critical of his cultural milieu but not exempt from its foibles. Robertson-Lorant's is the first full-scale biography to appear since 1975, and thus also the first to exploit a cache of 500 Melville family letters discovered about a dozen years ago in a trunk in upstate New York.

Melville was born on Pearl Street near the Battery in 1819, in the midst of a Manhattan heat wave. He died of a heart attack in the house where he lived out his last 28 years, at 104 East 26th Street. Robertson-Lorant's index lists more entries under "New York City" than under "Whales" and "Whaling ships" combined _ which makes it all the more peculiar, though typical of his contradictory nature, that Melville's story peaks when he leaves the city behind.

The first such peak comes in 1841 when the 22-year-old common seaman, who had signed up for a four-year voyage, jumps ship in the Marquesas and makes friendly with the natives. The Polynesian interlude brought him fame, but not on terms he was willing to accept. It galled him to be called a travel writer, to have his books classed as entertainment. He aimed higher with Mardi, a loopy and interminable allegory, and flopped.

In 1850, with the help of his wealthy father-in-law, Melville bought a farm in Pittsfield, Mass. Living in the next town was Nathaniel Hawthorne _ and when the two authors met, the effect was electric. Melville was writing Moby-Dick at the time, and Hawthorne's example inspired him to turn a hokey sea yarn into high art. When he was done he wrote to his friend, "I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb."

The hundred or so pages Robertson-Lorant devotes to Melville's first few years in the Berkshires in Massachusetts are nothing short of thrilling. This was the time of an outrageous spurt of creative energy (Moby-Dick and Pierre completed within a three-year span), a social whirl of picnics and outings, and the extraordinary letters (available unabridged on the Internet) Melville was dashing off to Hawthorne _ letters bursting with what Updike calls the "tonic vigor" of his best prose.

In 1863, by which time his critical reputation had hit rock bottom, Melville moved his family back to the city. He worked for two long decades as an inspector at the New York Custom House, an ill-paid job he could not afford to quit. The years of his decline, punctuated by illness and the death of relatives, including the suicide of his eldest son, make for sad reading. Once he has renounced novel-writing and settled with wounded dignity into literary obscurity, it becomes clear how much his explosive, exploded narratives mirror his essential self: a manic metaphysician drunk on words and ideas. The bitter late years never blocked his genius, as Billy Budd, his magnificent unfinished last work, nobly attests.

Robertson-Lorant is better at evoking context than she is at critical exegesis.

On occasion she slips into guidance-counselor mode. When she alludes to the "wall of denial Melville had erected" concerning his son's suicide, or when she suggests that toward the end of his life Melville managed to "reconcile the masculine and feminine sides of his nature and embrace the inner women," one feels the urge to borrow a Melville phrase and say "NO! in thunder" _ not because she's wrong but because psychobabble is kitsch and Melville hated kitsch with all his huge might.

To have any hope of lasting, a modest, wholly text-based Melville moment needs one thing, and Robertson-Lorant provides it: a recognizable Melville persona, a handle for readers who might want to get to know the guy before they join him for a 600-page cruise aboard a doomed whale ship.

Robertson-Lorant has succeeded in fitting this persona into a web of connections _ people, places, events _ all of which mark him as a 19th-century man. Which he was. It can hardly be denied. But he was also too vast for any century. As Delbanco once wrote, "he possessed the closest thing in our literary history to an unfettered mind."

Adam Begley is the book review editor of the New York Observer.