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Review WILLIAM B. DILLINGHAM, Melville G his Circle: The Last Years (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1996), xiii, 213 pages. T his is the fourth book in William C. Dillingham’slong study of Herman Melville, a towering achievement in close critical reading that offers benchmark interpretations of virtually everything Melville wrote, excepting Battle-Pieces and Clarel. This volume focuses on 1877- 1891, a natural division in Melville’s literary career between his publication of Clarel in 1876 and his death in 1891, with the unfinished manuscript of Billy Budd still on his desk. Although Dillingham includes Silly Budd here, because he discussed it in Melville5 Later Novels (1986), he concentrates mostly on the late poetry, including the unpublished works:John Maw and Other Sailors (1888), Timoleon (1891), “At the Hostelry” and “Naplesin the Time of Bomba” (1924), and Weeds and Wildings (1924). Studied in the rich context of Melville’sreading and marginalia, along with his scanty letters and shorter unpublished poems, these works reveal an aging author seeking inner peace while still retaining the stimulations of an active imaginative life. The quest for selfknowledge , following the motto “keep true to the dreams of thy youth” that Melville pasted to his writing-desk, becomes here, as in Dillingham’s other studies, the polestar of Melville’swriting. Specifically, Dillingham argues, this quest leads Melville to share strong affinitieswith Buddhism, the still center of selfhood that eluded him for much of his life and now, with the encouragement of the authors he read in his final years, seemed within his reach. This central insight alone makes Dillingham’sbook a worthy addition to Melville criticism and should provoke further discussions of Melville’slater religious values. The fourteen years Dillingham covers are the most difficult to address in Melville’slife. Leon Howard devoted only thirty pages to this era in his longstandard biography, and Edwin H. Miller’sbiography offers only fifteen pages. Even Jay Leyda’s Log provides only eighty pages of material, only 8%of the total for 20% of the years. Other scholars such as William Shurr, Stan Goldman, and Clark Davis have sought to rectify this inattention by focusing on the poetry,but only William Bysshe Stein’squirky mythopoetic reading, The Poetry of Melville5 Later Years (1970) covers the same precise period as does Dillingham. Clearly, scholars have found it difficult to write about the years between Clarel and Billy Budd without focusing on one of these masterpieces and, inevitably,reading the shorter poems as afterthoughts or prolegomena. Dillingham finds depth and significance in the short poems by interL E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 1 0 5 R E V I E W preting them in light of Melville’sreading and marginalia. Books and authors were Melville’s chief companions during these lonely years, and they, rather than actual friends and literary peers, constitute the “circle” of Dillingham’s title. We know that the older Melville was an isolated man who lived out his days in Manhattan, working for the New York Custom House through 1885 and then retiring to his home on 104E. 26th Street for six short years of muchdeserved rest from wage labor. Yet his intellectual life was busy, as he continued to read, purchase, and annotate a variety of books. Dillingham arranges his chapters around these books and their intersections with Melville’s literary productions to trace themes of isolation, Buddhism, “scientific pessimism,” creativity, and death. William Rounseville Alger’s The Solitudes and Nature o f Man (1869) and Edwin Arnold’s The Light ofAsia, a long poem included in The Poems of Edwin Arnold (1879), led Melville to appreciate Buddhism, particularly its antidogmatism, indifference to materiality, and emphasis on the illusoriness of life. He found similar ideas in such contemporary writers asJames Thomson, Giacomo Leopardi, and Arthur Schopenhauer, writers whose “ScientificPessimism”may have influenced Melville’s portrait of Captain Vere, a man who betrays his own ideals and thus violates one of Thomson’s highest principles: personal integrity Because of the fuller record of Melville’sannotations on...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 105-109
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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