Herman Melvilleby Elizabeth Hardwick
A single novel, an eternal classic, established him as a founding father of American literature. Now, a century after his death, a new popular surge of interest in Herman Melville calls for Elizabeth Hardwick's rich analysis of "the whole of Melville's works, uneven as it is, and the challenging shape of his life . . . a story of the creative history of an extraordinary American genius."
Hardwick's superb critical interpretation and award-winning novelistic flair reveal a former whaleship deckhand whose voyages were the stuff of travel romances that seduced the public. Later, a self-described "thought-diver" into "the truth of the human heart," Melville harbored a bitterness that knew no bounds when that same public failed to embrace his masterwork, Moby-Dick. Invaluable for enthusiasts of American literature, Herman Melville is itself a masterpiece of critical commentary in the tradition of D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature.
Elizabeth Hardwick is the author of Sight Readings, Bartleby in Manhattan, A View of My Own, and Seduction and Betrayal, which was nominated for the National Book Award. Her novel Sleepless Nights was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Gold Medal for Belles-Lettres and Criticism from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
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Herman Melville: sound the name and it's to be the romance of the sea, the vast, mysterious waters for which a thousand adjectives cannot suffice. Its mystical vibrations, the great oceans "holy" for the Persians, a deity for the Greeks; forbidden seas, passage to barbarous coasts-a scattering of Melville's words for the urge to know the sparkling waters and their roll-on beauty and, when angry, their powerful, treacherous indifference to the floundering boat and the hapless mariners.
The sea and the Whale, the Leviathan, monarch of the deep, preternatural immensity, exorbitant appetite, "a barrel of herrings in his belly"; hairless blubber, horizontal tail-the lure of the whale himself, his island bulk, "one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air." We take Melville at his word, for he is the historian, the biographer of the whale; the Sperm Whale with its precious oils and bones, the shy Fin Back, the Hyena Whale, the Right Whale, the Killer Whale. Cetology-a challenge to the mind and soul; the whale a fish for Melville, not a mammal, however warm-blooded the great one may be.
To go from contemplation of the Whale to Whaling is a brute descension should youthful wanderlust see the world by this dark contract, by signing on. It's a floating abattoir, an abysmal duty to sight one or a group coming up for air, to man the boats hanging on the ship's side and in the boiling splash of the water with appalling human effort match the whale's torrential struggle with the flying spears. Caught, lashed to the boat's side, gallons and gallons of blood and the sharks competing. There it is, the huge, dying cargo, then dead, ready for "cutting in." The thick blubber to be stripped off, not in sections but as a blanket. "Now as the blubber envelopes the whale precisely as an orange is sometimes stripped by spiralizing it...for a moment or two the prodigious blood-dripping mass sways to and fro as if let down from the sky."
Captured, hacked off, the huge, neckless head of the whale, its decapitation in a whaler looked on as a precious crown, if you like, for its spermaceti, tons of oil, and soothing ambergris; oil boiled to make candles, give light in the darkness; and somewhere in the slaughter, bones for Ahab's leg, for corsets, scrimshaw trinkets; many domestic refinements and scents there in the blood and guts. The texture of the slabs is not quite felicitous for food, Melville tells us, although it was eaten by the early hunters, by the Eskimo, and by the second mate, Stubbs, on the Pequod, who attacks in a comical chapter several huge whale steaks with a personal relishing.
The whaler, the exploitation of the dead beast, is not a youthful, romantic adventure of bracing experience. So many of one's companions have come sulking away, address unknown, from howling creditors, accusing wives, alert policemen, beggary on shore. Except for a few of a sensibility refined like Melville's own, it is day and night, months, years with the thoroughly ruined, the outcasts, the drunken and diseased, and here and there a welcome ordinary sailor of harmless eccentricity and vagrant skills.
In Melville's novels before Moby-Dick, to sign on for work on shipboard is soon to plot an escape no matter what the risk. The whale itself, the idea of it, does not reach its apotheosis until the imaginary voyage on the Pequod, where, of necessity, for the art of the book, the terms of the whaling life will offer a sort of advancement, an upgrading. From a chapter in Moby-Dick with the title "The Advocate":
Doubtless one leading reason why the world declines honoring us whalemen, is this: they think that, at best, our vocation amounts to a butchering sort of business; and that when actively engaged therein, we are surrounded by all manner of defilements. Butchers we are, that is true. But butchers also, and butchers of the bloodiest badge have been all Martial Commanders whom the world invariably delights to honor...what disordered slippery decks of a whale-ship are comparable to the unspeakable carrion of those battle-fields from which so many soldiers return to drink in all ladies' plaudits?
Then he goes on to list the advantages to mankind brought by the whaling industry: "the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn round the globe, burn, as before so many shrines, to our glory!" And the whaleship as an instrument of exploration: "For many years past the whale-ship has been the pioneer in ferreting out the remotest and least-known parts of the earth. She has explored seas and archipelagoes which had no chart, where no Cook or Vancouver had ever sailed." And in what we can read as a facetious "Postscript"-his title-he asserts the advantage of the pomade, the hair oil, on the head of the king at his coronation, "even as a head of salad....Certainly it cannot be olive oil, nor macassar oil, nor castor oil, nor bear's oil, nor train oil, nor cod-liver oil. What then can it possibly be, but sperm oil in its unmanufactored, unpolluted state, the sweetest of all oils?"
This is the mood of Moby-Dick and the whaler Pequod, a death ship but not a vessel of mundane commercial ferocity. The aim is, under Captain Ahab, only incidentally, if that, bound to fill vats with oil and return to Nantucket with household and family income. It's a voyage of arcane personal vindication, the death of the White Whale in payment or vengeance for the leg he has taken from Ahab. A magical plot of great strangeness and something of the grandeur of historic kings in battle. From the Pequod, Melville does not propose an escape to islands as in his other sea novels. It is to be an intense plot and a history of the whale and whaling, given in encyclopedic detail and written with a wild, inexhaustible language coming in a rush like waves, thereby honoring the deadly enterprise.
"If at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. in my desk, then there I prospectively ascribe all the honor and glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard." Not quite, indeed not at all, far from it. Melville is the most bookish of writers, a tireless midnight student. He has read and uses everything: Shakespeare, the Bible, Sir Thomas Browne, the epic Lusiads by the Portuguese poet Camo�ns, national history, marine history, natural history, zoology. The chapter "Cetology" is divided into a sort of mock academic shape; the Folio Whale, the Octavo Whale, the Duodecimo Whale. This expansiveness of information is necessary for a public that knows little of the whale and whaling and has its source in the same instructive purpose as Zola on coal mining in Germinal. But Melville's method of information is an extravagant, poetic language, an exalted factuality:
The Fin-Back is not gregarious. He seems a whale-hater, as some men are man-haters. Very shy; always going solitary...this leviathan seems the banished and unconquerable Cain of his race, bearing for his mark that style upon his back.
In the commentaries about Melville there is considerable sentiment about sailing and the oceans and Melville himself as a sea-struck vagabond, a land-bred youth with a lust for wanderings. Although he didn't know it at the time, the sea was to give him his art, his occupation, but the actual romance of landscape, the sun on the waves, the stars at night, are nearly always mixed with the brutality of life on board. And the art that saved him, the discovery of his genius, was a sort of Grub Street, a book a year, sometimes two. And not altogether different from Macaulay's description of "the writing game" at the time of Doctor Johnson:
Even an author whose works were established, and whose works were popular, such as author Thomson, whose Seasons was in every library, such an author as Fielding, whose Pasquin had had a greater run than any drama since The Beggar's Opera, was sometimes glad to obtain by pawning his best coat, the means of dining on tripe at a cookshop underground, where he could wipe his hands, after a greasy meal, on the back of a Newfoundland dog.
And Melville himself, although slaving away in a respectable house in Manhattan and in the luxuriant meadows of a pleasant town in western Massachusetts, might, in his obscure and never quite assimilated nature, have preferred life in the underground cookshop with the Newfoundland dog.
The poet of the sea, the youthful observer of ships and enchanted islands; there's that and Ishmael washed up in the savage's coffin, a lone survivor. And down the years, more than a century later, so much of the writer had lain submerged that poor Melville seems to come to mind when we think of this profligate benefactor of our literature.
There is a forlorn accent shadowing the great energy of his thought and imagination. There is a rueful dignity in his life and personal manner, and sometimes a startling abandonment of propriety on the pages. He was not a gifted angel winging up from the streets, the slums of the great metropolis Manhattan. Instead, he was as well-born as any American of his time. And yet funds were scarce and scanty throughout his youth and not always forthcoming for one who published ten works of fiction in eleven years before giving up to spend nineteen years as a customs inspector down on the Battery, before dying at the age of seventy-two.
There have been poorer writers who died younger than Melville; indeed, poor Melville is a sigh not only for the bill collector at the door and the neglect of his work but also for the sense we have of a haunted and haunting man. Who was he? Godless or God-seeking? Mystic or realist? Natural husband and father or one swimming in oceanic homoerotic yearnings? Disappointed, restless, or near to madness? The gorgeous phantasmagoria, Moby-Dick: Who can finally know the whole of Melville's intention in the creation of the wild gladiators, Captain Ahab and the White Whale?
He is elusive, the facts of his life only a frame, as perhaps they are for the honored, much-studied dead, as well as for the obscure. This often unhappy man knew many happy days; or was it that this more or less settled gentleman had periods of desolation? All is true, if you like. There was a fireside and a dinner table, the admirable Elizabeth Shaw Melville as a wife, two sons and two daughters.
We think back on neglected artists and esteem the reclamation, the fresh discovery that comes to some in the shape of books, interpretations, exegeses of an almost violent exuberance, a search of crevice and cranny. There will be analysis that returns to the womb of the mother or to the longing for the love of the lost father. Secrets of the tomb may lie in verbal ambiguities, calling for a dictionary excavation of root and interesting doubleness. Melville was unearthed in the 1920s, the whole skeleton, as it were, put under the floodlights, a penetrating radar giving the bones a voluptuous rebirth. This anthropological honor by so many gifted readers at last placed Melville in the high regard earned by his early creative energy and by the fantastic explosion of genius in Moby-Dick.
He is a New Yorker, born in 1819, like another New Yorker, Walt Whitman; and dying together, or nearly-Melville, 1891, and Whitman, 1892. They did not meet on the Manhattan waterfront in a bardic salute or some other recognition; however, Whitman wrote favorable reviews of Typee and Omoo in the Brooklyn Eagle. Birth on Pearl Street, down near the Battery on the Hudson River, with the big ships coming in and going out, is a romantic beginning for Melville's challenging career. The landscape of his art is to be the open sea surging around the prison that is a lone boat under sail, with its sundry human cargo, its presumptuous mission to capture and strip the largest animal in nature. It is a youthful escape to a cannibal island, a slave-ship mutiny, a derangement at sea with catastrophic finalities. On land, a Gothic New York family, a picaresque masquerade, a loner in a Wall Street office.
Every day for twenty years, 1846-1866, it was his aim and duty to make a living for himself and his family. The gods were with him at the beginning, but they lost interest after a time, as the capricious spirits will. He was published and sold less and less as the years went on; he was known as a man of letters but not much read. Resignation? Writing poems at night, yes, but during those nights his state was often such that his wife thought him deranged and considered a separation. His son, Malcolm, his firstborn, put a pistol to his head. The son was eighteen years old and had incurred the displeasure of his father by the typical defaults of young men; drinking, staying out late. Stanwix, the second son, died of tuberculosis out in California at the age of thirty-five. And there is the author of Moby-Dick, at the age of forty-seven, looking out on the Hudson not as a dreaming youth but as a clerk for hire in the waterfront shed, weighing goods for tax.
W. H. Auden's poem on Melville:
But it was the gale had blown him Past the Cape Horn of sensible success Which cries: "This rock is Eden. Shipwreck here."
Hart Crane: "At Melville's Tomb." (The actual tomb is an unremarkable one in a cemetery in the Bronx.)
Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive No farther tides...High in the azure steeps Monody shall not wake the mariner. This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.
Melville's family: In the way distinction was measured at the time, he was as well connected as any of the New Englanders of the "flowering" period. The Melvilles were a good Boston family, and his mother was Maria Gansevoort, solid Dutch patroons of Albany. Despite that, the family history is of a somewhat unbalancing kind, especially on the Melville side. Things should have gone better with them, and they give the feeling of a defeated nation or, more exactly, of certain European families with a fading title, handicapped by the sweep of history or by maladaptation. Thomas Melville, grandfather, married Pricilla Scollay, and no doubt her name decorates Boston's Scollay Square, as does the name Gansevoort serve the downtown Manhattan street where Herman worked. He once, with a certain wryness, asked a passerby where the name came from. He was told it must have been some family that once bought property around there.
The Melvilles were a Boston merchant family who could claim the sort of heraldic honor that to this day, two centuries later, keeps the prideful busy with the genealogists; that is, service in the American Revolution. Major Thomas Melville was down at Boston Harbor in 1773 and with other young men boarded the ships of the East India Company and dumped their cargo of tea into the water. A handful of tea leaves, or what were thought to be, passed down to the heirs. This ancestor, grandfather, was a graduate of Princeton, fought at Bunker Hill, and was appointed naval officer of the port of Boston. Removed by a change of political administrations, he seemed content to spend his later years in the Boston Custom House.
(The Custom House, a fateful ring in American literature. Hawthorne, in his three years' service at the establishment in Salem, could paint some amusing portraits of the old fellows dozing through the day. But it was a scene of blinding tedium: "In view of my previous weariness of office, and vague thoughts of resignation, my fortune somewhat resembled that of a person who should entertain an idea of committing suicide, and, altogether beyond his hopes, meet with the good hap to be murdered.")
Old Major Melville, without artistic ambitions, seemed to take his Custom House with good humor as a sort of government pension. He was a "figure" about Boston, a war hero of the Revolution, volunteer firefighter, eccentrically dressed in a three-cornered hat and knee breeches. Daniel Webster delivered his funeral oration. Like other families, proud of early residence in the United States, they nevertheless had to come from somewhere. The Melvilles of America arrived from Scotland and along the way back claimed descent from the Scotch nobility, the family of the earl of Melvill and Leven, a connection much valued and often pronounced by Allan Melville, Herman's father.
Melville's mother was Maria Gansevoort of Albany, from prominent Dutch early settlers. Her father, Colonel Peter Gansevoort, was also a hero in the Revolution, fighting at Fort Stanwix against the Indian and Tory troops. This was a contest cruel and yet colorful in the historical record. Joseph Brant, a Mohawk chieftain who had converted to Christianity, in a reversal returned to lead his tribe in conjunction with the British against the Americans. The Indians stormed a fortress but were driven back to another position, where they massacred whites. Colonel Gansevoort, in retaliation, set fire to native villages, destroyed their crops, and held Fort Stanwix. Naming their son after the battle indicates that Herman Melville and his wife honored the position of the family in history, even if the slaughter on both sides makes Fort Stanwix a dubious honor.
The Gansevoorts fared better than the Melvilles, who seemed to have a genetic disposition to bankruptcy. After the Revolution, the Gansevoorts prospered, received land grants in upstate New York, near Lake George, and married into the Hudson Valley aristocracy. Allan Melville, the father of Herman Melville: As a young man he had planned a venture into real-estate investment with Peter Gansevoort of Albany and Lemuel Shaw, a Boston friend. The business arrangement, sadly foretelling of Allan's financial biography, did not come about, but he married Peter's sister, Maria Gansevoort. Lemuel Shaw, later chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, became engaged to Nancy Melville, Allan Melville's sister, who died before the marriage, and later his daughter, Elizabeth, was to be the wife of Herman Melville. The fraternal relationship was a felicitous one even though the Melvilles were to become a drain on the bank accounts of the Gansevoorts and Shaws. In a remarkably generous and forgiving spirit, Judge Shaw was the bountiful presence, a friendly deity, in Herman's life. Over and over, again and again, it is to be "on a loan from Judge Shaw" and "paid for by Judge Shaw."
Herman's father, Allan Melville, one of eleven children, appears to have been a dashing, good-natured, sophisticated young man, altogether promising. He had been a good student in the West Boston School and went off to Paris under the wing of his older brother, Thomas, learned French well, and set himself up in Albany and Boston in a dry-goods importing business. He moved from Boston to New York in the belief that it would be more profitable for the fashionable goods he wished to offer. The family settled on Pearl Street, where Herman was born. Soon after, they moved to a "better address" on Courtland Street and then on to 33 Bleecker Street. More children, more deals, each turn begun in hope on borrowed capital. Hard times brought a shrinkage in the demand for laces and velvets and European decorative wares, with the result that Allan Melville could not pay the creditors, who were distressingly rude about it.
Mark Twain on the entrepreneurial mind: Yesterday I didn't have a nickel and today I owe a million dollars. The Melville family embarked on trade dreams that perhaps were modest enough in the America of the 1820s, when one encounters the wildly expansive imagination of Mrs. Trollope in the construction of her Bazaar in the city of Cincinnati. An unaccountable bit of grandiosity the building was: "taken in part from the Mosque of St. Athanese in Egypt," with elaborate colonnades and a ballroom in "the style of the Alhambra, the celebrated palace of the Moorish kings in Granada." Mrs. Trollope, destitute, fled the country, returned to England to make her fortune writing Domestic Manners of the Americans. A revenge, perhaps, at least against the idea that everything in the United States turned to gold.
Meanwhile, Allan Melville's older brother, Thomas, who had brought him to Paris and to acquaintance with the French language and with certain interesting Continental figures of the time, was suddenly cast down from his attractive and promising life by the family's inclination to fall into dramatic insolvency. Thomas had succeeded in the Paris banking world and married the adopted niece of Madame R�camier's husband. He was forced to return to Massachusetts with his French wife and six children, the youngest of whom, along with the mother, died in Pittsfield, where Thomas took over the farm bought by the elder Melville. Pittsfield was the pleasure of Herman Melville's youth, and later, with, as ever, a loan from Judge Shaw, he bought a house in the neighborhood and lived there for thirteen years before returning to New York. Moby-Dick was written in Pittsfield, in the house he named Arrowhead.
Thomas, Herman Melville's uncle, married a widow, and together they had eight children, which meant thirteen in all to be taken care of by the farm. Thomas appeared to have been an industrious gentleman farmer, managing the fields in a creditable manner. However, bank loans and mortgage payments accumulated, and the crops, in their eternal unreliability, frequently failed to do so. Frantic calls for new loans to cover payments on old loans. The old Melville and Judge Shaw, who had signed previous notes, failed to respond to yet another financial rescue, and as a consequence they were later sued by the bank, and the friendly orator Daniel Webster argued for the defense. Thomas went to jail for four months, until his father relented and bailed him out. Allan Melville was somewhat pompous about his brother's delinquencies, perhaps because they interfered for a time with his own solution to financial distress.
Allan and his wife, Maria, settled in Manhattan as they were, had to consider the city's way of defining one by an address, and thus they kept on the move, geographically and socially. So it was to be a large house on Broadway. Maria was not a Gansevoort for nothing and was serious in the matter of her social rights or preferences. Herman Melville's youth was spent going from a nice house to a nicer house and then quite soon moving down once more. More children were born, and an unsteady propriety was somehow assumed, with Gansevoort and Herman enrolled in the Columbia Grammar School, the best in the city. Still, dollars and cents, with their arrogant reality, prevailed, and the family was forced to flee New York in financial disgrace. Flee for Albany, the Gansevoort principality. There the father tried to set up a fur-and-cap shop, but he was as always underfunded. That too collapsed.
Allan Melville met his death at age fifty in a miserably unfortunate manner, the last days adding a blight to the sadness of death itself. He came down with severe fevers, a violent pneumonia with its accompanying sweats and deliriums. In about three weeks he was dead. The restless, unabating deliriums caused those attending and visiting to believe that he had gone mad, that he died as a maniac. Pneumonia before the discovery of penicillin was a devastating disease, and whether the ravings, the deliriums, could be considered a clinical madness rather than the lingering disorientation of the illness we might doubt today.
Herman Melville was thirteen years old at the time of his father's death. His early life had the vivacity and vitality of his brothers and sisters, cousins, journeys with his father, and visits to the farm in Pittsfield. Just how the financial distresses played out at the fireside in the relations between husband and wife naturally cannot be known. But it seems to have been a mutual struggle to keep afloat in the world, and perhaps the parents were allies. Maria Gansevoort Melville was not a thrifty housewife but a name-proud spender, and that would give her a certain collusion in the dizzy swings of fate. They shared the anxiety and, always, the hopes for rescue. She had the tradesmen at the door, the school bills, the rent due, all turning up with an ordained regularity. Money frenzy for breakfast along with pride and hope.
At the father's death, the problems of the grieving family became more and more crushing. Gone was the emotional energy of the father, the buying and selling warfare, the waiting for him to come home of an evening with the news, even the liveliness of the efforts to fight off defeat. Allan Melville was lovable, engaging, and forever promising or he could not have secured so much ill-advised credit.
Genteel poverty, an ambiguous condition, each contradiction feeding upon the other. The atmosphere of gentility arises in village life from the remembrance of things past created by birth, prosperity, an honorable reputation, even charm. Good manners, certain fine pieces of furniture or silver, still remaining. And above all, a feeling of entitlement, a treacherous companion that encourages debt. It is all expectation and dreaming. Ordinary townsfolk, working, drawing pay, slowly adding a wing to the house, dressing the children better; a sort of organic progress, if such should be available. For the Melville mother and father the inclination seemed to have been, when things looked promising, to rush into the buying of emblematic signatures they had known in the past-a better house, servants, good social placement for the children. So it ever went; a reluctance to practice economy and foresight. On the other hand, thrift is as unpleasant as poverty. Nothing to offer in daily life except reality.
In Albany, Maria's family radiance did not suffice with past and present creditors threatening. Gansevoort Melville, four years older than Herman, was set up with loans in his father's fur business, and for a time he had a striking success and became a man about town. But with a lurid repetitiveness, the business went into receivership, and Gansevoort was sent to New York to live with a friend and to study law. Even in the time of a family death, the intransigent load of litigation did not subside. The elder grandfather Melville lived a year longer than his son Allan; however, when the father's will was probated, it was learned that Allan's debts had been deducted from the father's estate. The creditors sued, as they will.
In Albany: unremitting black weather for the Melville household. The widow and her children were forced to sell much of their furniture and other effects and to escape in ignominy to a cheaper town, Lansingburgh, nearby. Herman for a period taught school, took an engineering degree at Lansingburgh Academy, failed to get a position, wrote some youthful sketches which were published in the local paper-and then, perhaps, we can say his true life began. However, the life he left behind, the losses, the grief, the instability, the helpless love of a helpless young man in a damaged family, marked his sensibility quite as much as the wanderlust, the strong grip of the sea, so often claimed as the defining aspect of his nature. In 1839 he signed on as a lowly cabin boy on the St. Lawrence, a merchant ship bound for a four-month trip to Liverpool. He was twenty years old. --Reprinted from Herman Melville: A Penguin Life by Elizabeth Hardwick by permission of Viking Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Elizabeth Hardwick. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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The Penguin Lives series is an admirable effort, yet one cannot help but wonder about its ultimate usefulness. Hardwick's life of Melville is so superficial that the reader might be better off reading Cliffs Notes about Melville. While most academics recognize Hershel Parker's life of Melville as the standard biography, some readers may be unwilling to embark on a journey that, in its first half, lasts over 800 pages. Recall Ishmael setting off on a journey that might last five years! The appeal of Hardwick's book, then, is its brevity, for it purports to offer a brief overview of Melville's life. Hardwick's biography, sadly, is so brief that it offers nothing new regarding Melville's life whatsoever. Readers wishing a brief overview of Melville's life and works would be better off perusing 'Melville's Folk Roots,' by Kevin J. Hayes, which offers an easy-going, jargon-free overview of Melville's life and works that all can enjoy.