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  • 3 Melville
  • Dennis Berthold

The major event this year is Andrew Delbanco's one-volume biography, a work that makes Melville accessible to a wide audience and should spur greater recognition of his accomplishments. Among other publications, as usual, Moby-Dick receives the most attention, and little significant appears on the poetry, the less-read novels, or even the stories, with the exception of "Benito Cereno." It is a banner year for Billy Budd criticism, however, both in single-text articles and in two books that connect it to Melville's other works. There is somewhat more attention to Melville's rhetoric and style this year among narratologically inclined critics, and one can only hope more readers will exercise their hermeneutic skills on the poetry as well as on the prose. These less familiar methodologies challenge us all to rotate the Melvillean prism so it refracts the orange alongside the violet tints.

i Biographies, Editions, and Reference Works

Delbanco's biography Melville: His World and Work (Knopf) is the year's most important book, a compact and eminently readable account that balances nicely the discoveries of recent scholarship, particularly those of Hershel Parker, with the popular demand for unimpeded narrative. Delbanco's primary concern is placing "Melville's work in the context of his life and times," an aim he achieves by interspersing generous quotations from the major works with discourses on South Seas colonialism, Indian removal, the Mexican War, European revolutions, antislavery [End Page 55] politics, labor unrest, the Melville revival, and Melville's iconic status today. Over fifty illustrations embellish the book and widen its appeal. Delbanco's Melville is a born and bred New Yorker whose art and life resonate with the city's cycles of prosperity and poverty, progress and violence, self-absorption and global outreach, aristocratic pretension and democratic ideals. Although Delbanco gives Melville's Pacific years their just due in a perceptive analysis of the conflict between savagism and civilization that permeates his work, it is New York that fosters Melville's literary career and provides the intellectual climate necessary to urge him beyond adventure tales to the heights of Moby-Dick and the best of the short fiction. Melville is, in Delbanco's view, an author who should be included in discussions of the "New York School" along with Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer. The Pequod is like a floating city testing the claims of urban democracies, Pierre satirizes the New York literary scene, "Bartleby" records the inanition of city life, and even Billy Budd echoes the conflicts between capital and labor rife in late-19th-century New York. Melville engages his time and place even during the so-called silent years after the Civil War and palpably merges life and art in almost everything he writes.

Delbanco makes Melville approachable and understandable for a wide contemporary audience through a familiar style and recurring reminders of his relevance: New York in the 1840s offered a "nineteenth-century preview of what twentieth-century Democrats were to experience in the 1960s"; Pip's leap into the open ocean compares to the astronaut tumbling into space in Stanley Kubrick's 2001; and Pierre is a "horny boy" whose opening melodramatics conjure Tiny Tim singing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." Some cross-century comparisons clearly work better than others. Usually, however, the book's stylish prose captures the essence of Melville's achievement, as when Delbanco finds that the more Long Ghost "delights in his own cleverness, the more one feels a dark belligerence in his charm"; when he concludes that "it was not so much on Melville's plots or characters or settings that New York left its mark as in the nerve and sinew of his prose"; or when he describes Ishmael as a "mobile consciousness, extracted from his own singular identity, then multiplied and redistributed into the mind of every man aboard." These are good sentences and good insights. Delbanco approaches the vexed matter of the inner Melville with similar aplomb, acknowledging the limits of psychoanalytical readings even while probing delicately into questions of Polynesian sexuality, homoeroticism, marital discord, [End Page 56] father-son quarrels, alcoholism, and depression. "The quest for the private Melville...


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pp. 55-74
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