It’s tempting to seek the roots of literary mystique, the real-lifeanalogues and harbingers of unforgettable images, characters, and scenes. Thelives of some authors, like Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, are so enigmaticthat the wellsprings of genius remain haunting and elusive, while others offerlife stories so fraught and colorful that we’re inclined to hang their everyinventive figure and detail on one biographical snag or another. In The Passages of H. M., novelist and critic Jay Parini tackles the glorious jungle ofHerman Melville’s life—where he finds the roots and shoots of inventionspringing forth from every nook and cranny.
Like contemporaries Ralph Waldo Emerson and NathanielHawthorne—indeed, like many culturally-inclined Americans of theirgeneration—Melville bore the burden of a glamorous past. Emerson’s grandfather,William Sr., was a chaplain in the Continental Army and a leader in the fightat Lexington and Concord; Hawthorne’s great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne,famously served as a judge at the Salem witch trials. Like many of theircontemporaries, these authors struggled beneath the weight of such glamorous,ambiguous legacies. Melville was the scion of one of the most gnarled andmany-branched of American families: his grandfather, Thomas Melvill, aparticipant in the Boston Tea Party, strutted around the streets ofpost-Revolutionary Boston in the garb of the Colonial era, making him perhapsthe city’s first historical reenactor; Melville’s mother’s family, theGansevoorts, were of prominent Hudson-Valley Dutch stock. In fleeing thefetters of expectation, Melville would sow the seeds of his greatness, althoughhe would not live to see the fruit ripen to fullness. The grafts, prunings, andscars of his tortured habit are the stuff of literary legend: the youthful seavoyages, most notably on the New Bedford whaler the Acushnet; stupendousearly success with his sea thrillers Typee, Omoo, and White-Jacket; thrilling, influential friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne; themystified reaction of readers to his magnum opus, Moby-Dick, the disappointment of which served as prelude to a career lostin psychotic rages, marital unhappiness, and abandonment to the uncertainpursuit of epic poetry.
Parini dramatizes Melville’s genius at work in chapters thatalternate between a third-person narrative of scenes from Herman’s life withthe first-person account of his long-suffering wife Elizabeth Shaw, calledLizzie, as she reflects on her unhappy marriage and the seemingly utter failureof her saturnine, violent drunkard of a husband. It’s the work of Passagesof H. M. to bring these two vectors together as Herman’s early enthusiasmsand victories give way to disappointment and breakdown. Lizzie’s accounts ofher life with Melville are heartbreaking and fluidly written—almost toofluidly. At once lucid and lukewarm, they have the the sound-bitten,confessional quality of testimonial interviews from an episode of Frontlineor 48 Hours.
Parini is a gifted cultural observer, however, catching the strands ofMelville’s critique of modernity, a perspective that we’re only now beginningfully to absorb. In the early phase of an inter-connected world, in which afar-flung shipping custom prefigured the interlaced networks of products andideas with which we’re familiar, Melville recognized the ways in which aglobally-distributed economy diluted collective responsibility for sufferingand exploitation. Parini captures the source of this bright and brittle strandof Moby-Dick in young Melville’s musings while laboring in the try-worksof the Acushnet:
The alchemy that transmogrifieda whale into oil took three or four days per whale, depending on its size. Itwas a sight to witness: the pots bubbling and steaming, the oil drained intopans, transferred to cisterns and barrels. The hold filled with its valuablestore…. [Herman] understood in a visceral way now that the work of whaling,this murder at sea, led directly to the light that glowed in countless parlorsand bedrooms, that illumined the flickering pages of thousands of books. In thedark process that involved him so intimately on the Acushnet, death itself seems necessary to produce light, even thelife of the mind.
Too often, however, the experiences and observations ofParini’s H. M. seem more crudely rooted in the fertile loam of the original’sfiction. The Acushnet‘s glowering, tyrannical captain; the handsomebeloveds who prefigure the doomed eponym of Billy Budd; the uncomfortable meeting with a louche and queenie old WaltWhitman—Parini’s watershed of literary wellsprings seems to gush from theundergraduate syllabus and the latest edition of the Norton Anthology ofAmerican Literature. It’s a workmanlike telling of Melville’s troubled life, but itlacks the grand estrangements of a work like Paul Metcalf’s Genoa, which tangles together fiction-twisted strands from the lives ofMelville and Columbus with essayistic weavings of history and paleontology. Ashamefully neglected writer, Metcalf was a great-grandson of Melville,shouldering a measure of the same legacy that helped to break the author of Moby-Dick.Unlike the H. M. depicted in Parini’s novel, Metcalf showed that such a legacycould be both honored and lightly held. One of his favorite images of thecreative act, learned from Ezra Pound, was that of the “rose in the steeldust”—the patterns and prodigies that emerge from the chaos of elementsheld in tense suspension. Perhaps Metcalf’s image is a fit figure for thelimning of a literary life as well.