Into the Deep

Melville and his Messianism.

Melville: A Biography

By Laurie Robertson-Lorant

(Clarkson Potter Publishers; 710 pages; $40)

Here is a new book about Herman Melville. There is something alarming about reviewing such a book on the electronic screen that constitutes the pages of SLATE. For what was Melville’s greatest tale? It was the story of the Pequod, a whaling vessel that fell into the hands of mad Captain Ahab, who sent the ship and crew to a certain doom because of his crazy idea of hunting a murderous whale. And what is SLATE? I do not know. Yet I have signed on to write a review, and our captain assures everyone that all will be well, and we have been bobbing in the waves for two weeks now, in search of–but I do not know what we are in search of.

The challenge facing any biographer of Melville is to explain how a man with a maritime background such as his was able, as soon as he settled down, to write his several masterpieces. Other writers in the 1830s and ‘40s attended college in the ordinary way, or else, like Walt Whitman, worked for the newspapers. In either case, they served a proper apprenticeship to the literary trade. But Melville sailed the seas. The story that he told in his first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life–of a sailor marooned on a lonely South Sea isle, living a romance of sexual pleasure among the very agreeable islanders and beauteous bare-breasted nymphs, yet fearful after a while that the islanders and nymphs planned to serve him for dinner–was drawn from life, give or take a few congenial liberties.

Yet the transition to writing, once he got back to New York and Massachusetts, seems to have been effortless. Eleven books came out of him in as many years, Moby Dick included, written at the mature age of 31. He was a volcano. As Robertson-Lorant tells us in Melville, his family worried that from spending so much time spewing prose in his study, he might go mad. Instead he went deeper and deeper, philosophically speaking. Depth was his obsession. He was the opposite of his contemporaries, the Concord transcendentalists, in that respect. Emerson and Thoreau were obsessed with surfaces, in the belief that through close examination of visible nature, the mystic glories of the universe might be glimpsed. Those writers worshipped the forests and the fields, gazed upward at the stars, and blinked in ecstasy. But Melville worshipped the inner core. He gazed downward:

So then, Solidity’s a crust–The core of fire below;All may go well for many a year,But who can think without a fearOf horrors that happen so? 

Robertson-Lorant reminds us that one of Melville’s grandfathers was an “Indian” at the Boston Tea Party, and the other was the rebel general who captured Fort Stanwix from the Redcoats during the Revolutionary War. This ancestry, as I interpret it, accounts for a good part of his energy and inspiration. By the time he came of age, the belief had sunk in among Americans that their grandparents’ revolution had been a success, and a grand euphoria swept the country. People convinced themselves that “republican progressiveness,” in Melville’s phrase, was going to remake the world. In their excitement, they spouted all kinds of patriotic and Christian bombast and behaved like imperialist bullies. No one wrote more scathingly about those responses than Melville.

But the revolutionary euphoria had a distinctly literary side, as well, which Melville shared in full. He and any number of other writers conceived the keenly Messianic expectation that republican progressiveness was going to remake the world of literature, too, and that a radically new kind of writing, capable of replacing the religions of the past, was fated to arise–something as different from traditional literature as democratic America was from feudal Europe. Melville expressed the idea in his wonderful and grandiose essay, “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” He looked for a new American Jesus to be born, except in the secular form of a poet or novelist. And if you keep that very strange expectation in mind, you can picture how he must have felt when, back from his voyages, he pulled a chair up to his desk and dipped his pen in the inkwell. Authors in other ages had merely written books; but Melville and a number of his fellow-thinkers felt they were redeeming mankind–were trying to, anyway. How can the pressure have been anything but volcanic?

Robertson-Lorant’s biography is more than 700 pages, which makes it easily the hugest Melville biography to date (though the first volume of an even huger biography is scheduled to heave into view later this year). The book tells us relatively little about the theological and philosophical notions that pressed on Melville’s imagination, which is a pity. But we do learn something about politics. The views of the biographer herself, as they emerge in the book, are those of a good-hearted and slightly simple-minded modern liberal. Robertson-Lorant is a foe of genocide, racism, and of the Republican Party, except when Lincoln was its leader. She feels that it is always necessary, when mentioning such 19th-century marvels as the Brooklyn Bridge, to remind her readers that many an oppressed immigrant worker died in its construction.

She is admirable, and predictable, and her only error is to project those instincts onto Melville, who railed against imperialism, racism, missionaries in the South Seas, and other bad things, yet was not always admirable, and never predictable. Melville was a brooding metaphysician, and Robertson-Lorant is merely an indignant idealist. And so she reads too much into certain of his writings. In his poem “The House-top,” for instance–about the New York draft riots of 1863–she sees a protest against “poverty, class conflict, and race hatred.” But the poem contains nothing of the sort. By reading too much in, she reads too much out, and we are presented with a Melville who is nine-tenths topical and one-tenth profound.

On the other hand, she does lavish more attention on Melville’s home and family life than any other writer has done. It may be relevant to observe that hers is the first full-scale Melville biography to be written by a woman–though by that comment I don’t mean to consign women writers to the kitchen and men to the fo’c’lse. In 1983 someone stumbled on a cache of 500 letters from the Melville family, which Robertson-Lorant has studied. While none of the letters beams a dramatic new light on Melville’s character, they do show that he led a more sociable existence than has been supposed. He was not so much a homosexual isolato (though many a homosexual implication appears in his writings, and in his life) as a husband whose marriage had its ups and downs–with the ups triumphing, ultimately. He did conceive a crush on Nathaniel Hawthorne, but even so, the friendship between the two men was a more mundane business than other biographers have supposed.

There were family tragedies, especially the suicide of his teen-age son, Malcolm, which Robertson-Lorant discusses with intelligent sensitivity. Except for a period after the Civil War, when Melville may have sunk into the bottle, he dealt with those several aspects of love, family, and friendship with the sternness and self-control that you might expect from a Victorian patriarch. Robertson-Lorant is a levelheaded judge of these things, and it’s only too bad that she dresses her conclusions in a language of “primordial resources of a self layered over” and “transgressive” urges and suchlike. She invokes Melville’s “ability to heal himself by writing” and even manages to tell us about his “inner mother,” who turns out to be a “great goddess,” as anyone could have guessed, and the psychoclichés are an ocean wave, and her book comes very near to sinking.

Melville’s era was a time of copyright anarchy, a small reading public, thievish publishers, and cretinous book critics (who during his lifetime, and for many years afterward, failed to see the greatness in Moby Dick). His income was such that, as Robertson-Lorant wittily observes, writing began to seem like “a charitable contribution to American culture.” Many years of charitable labor along those lines eventually led him to take a job as a New York harbor inspector for the Customs Service. He toiled on the docks for 19 years. He never once received a pay raise. Naturally, the material failures inhibited his productivity, until, by his later years, he was writing mostly for the drawer. Robertson-Lorant’s Melville is pleasant enough to read, for all its silly rhetoric and several inadequacies, but her final chapters are deeply depressing. America was booming during much of Melville’s life. Technologies came and went and fortunes were made, yet there was nothing in American life to guarantee that the country’s greatest writers, or even its non-greatest writers, would share in the general prosperity.

One of Melville’s favorite poets was Thomas Hood, from the generation immediately before his own. In his edition of Hood, as Robertson-Lorant tells us, Melville marked a gloomy passage that expressed his feeling about the writer’s lot–and expresses just as well how some of us present-day writers feel as we gaze at the flickering light of still newer technologies and try to gauge literature’s place in the electronic future:

What is a modern poet’s fate?To write his thoughts upon a SLATEThe Critic spits upon what is doneGives it a wipe–and all is gone.

Illustrations by Debbie Hanley