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Lizzie’s chapters alternate with third-person accounts of Melville’s crowded life: his shipping off to sea on a merchant vessel as an impoverished young aristocrat; his fateful voyage on a whaling ship; his desertion in the Marquesas Islands and sojourn with cannibals—a great adventure and polymorphous sexual idyll—and his instant fame as a novelist; his fateful encounter and soul-deep friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne; and the long years of physical decline and literary obscurity.
Jay Parini creates a Melville who is at once sympathetic and maddening, in sync with the vast forces of the universe and hopelessly impractical and abstracted. And one who, in thought and deed, is unambiguously attracted to men—a surmise well supported by the known biographical facts but still sure to create controversy. Parini penetrates the mind and soul of a literary titan, using the resources of fiction to humanize a giant while illuminating the sources of his matchless creativity.
Following novels based on Tolstoy (The Last Station, 1990) and Walter Benjamin (Benjamin's Crossing, 1997), Parini offers his seventh: a piquant exploration of the life of Herman Melville as sailor, writer and family man.
Why piquant? Because Parini places considerable emphasis on Melville's homoerotic impulses. From the time of his first sea passage to England at 19 (recorded in Redfern), Melville's journeys "had been strangely full of elusive young men." These attractions were a natural outgrowth of men living in close quarters for long periods; beauty transcended gender. Sometimes these men were as well versed in literature as Melville. The friendships were never consummated, however, and are always treated with delicacy by Parini. They grew alongside Melville's gifts as a storyteller under the mast, where he learned the power to transmute, the foundation of his writing. The stories became more extravagant after his time among the Polynesian natives of the Marquesas (see Typee). Their combination of prelapsarian innocence and (unsubstantiated) cannibalism proved irresistible. There were other stirring events: run-ins with inebriated captains, a mutiny. The passages, nautical and spiritual, would continue throughout Melville's life; sailing to Bermuda as an old man, he would encounter a young waiter and feel inspired to write Billy Budd. Parini splices his third-person narrative of Melville's adventures with a first-person account of Melville's marriage by his wife, a sparsely documented figure. Parini's voicing is impeccable; and with her disarming candor, Lizzie is a treasure. She often felt trapped in her marriage to this difficult man, who terrified his children (they adored him anyway). There is so much to cover, though, that the novel can feel crowded. The friendship with Hawthorne (ultimately as elusive as the young men) receives the requisite attention. And then there is God. Melville never stopped wrestling with the question of his existence, but knelt unhesitatingly before a vision God sent him in a cave in the Holy Land. It was a young man, as it happened.
An appealing portrait of a questing, turbulent spirit.
It's tempting to seek the roots of literary mystique, the real-life analogues and harbingers of unforgettable images, characters, and scenes. The lives of some authors, like Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, are so enigmatic that the wellsprings of genius remain haunting and elusive, while others offer life stories so fraught and colorful that we're inclined to hang their every inventive figure and detail on one biographical snag or another. In The Passages of H. M., novelist and critic Jay Parini tackles the glorious jungle of Herman Melville's life -- where he finds the roots and shoots of invention springing forth from every nook and cranny.
Like contemporaries Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne -- indeed, like many culturally-inclined Americans of their generation -- 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 fight at Lexington and Concord; Hawthorne's great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, famously served as a judge at the Salem witch trials. Like many of their contemporaries, these authors struggled beneath the weight of such glamorous, ambiguous legacies. Melville was the scion of one of the most gnarled and many-branched of American families: his grandfather, Thomas Melvill, a participant in the Boston Tea Party, strutted around the streets of post-Revolutionary Boston in the garb of the Colonial era, making him perhaps the city's first historical reenactor; Melville's mother's family, the Gansevoorts, were of prominent Hudson-Valley Dutch stock. In fleeing the fetters of expectation, Melville would sow the seeds of his greatness, although he would not live to see the fruit ripen to fullness. The grafts, prunings, and scars of his tortured habit are the stuff of literary legend: the youthful sea voyages, most notably on the New Bedford whaler the Acushnet; stupendous early success with his sea thrillers Typee, Omoo, and White-Jacket; thrilling, influential friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne; the mystified reaction of readers to his magnum opus, Moby-Dick, the disappointment of which served as prelude to a career lost in psychotic rages, marital unhappiness, and abandonment to the uncertain pursuit of epic poetry.
Parini dramatizes Melville's genius at work in chapters that alternate between a third-person narrative of scenes from Herman's life with the first-person account of his long-suffering wife Elizabeth Shaw, called Lizzie, as she reflects on her unhappy marriage and the seemingly utter failure of her saturnine, violent drunkard of a husband. It's the work of Passages of H. M. to bring these two vectors together as Herman's early enthusiasms and victories give way to disappointment and breakdown. Lizzie's accounts of her life with Melville are heartbreaking and fluidly written -- almost too fluidly. At once lucid and lukewarm, they have the the sound-bitten, confessional quality of testimonial interviews from an episode of Frontline or 48 Hours.
Parini is a gifted cultural observer, however, catching the strands of Melville's critique of modernity, a perspective that we're only now beginning fully to absorb. In the early phase of an inter-connected world, in which a far-flung shipping custom prefigured the interlaced networks of products and ideas with which we're familiar, Melville recognized the ways in which a globally-distributed economy diluted collective responsibility for suffering and exploitation. Parini captures the source of this bright and brittle strand of Moby-Dick in young Melville's musings while laboring in the try-works of the Acushnet:
The alchemy that transmogrified a whale into oil took three or four days per whale, depending on its size. It was a sight to witness: the pots bubbling and steaming, the oil drained into pans, transferred to cisterns and barrels. The hold filled with its valuable store.... [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 parlors and bedrooms, that illumined the flickering pages of thousands of books. In the dark process that involved him so intimately on the Acushnet, death itself seems necessary to produce light, even the life of the mind.
Too often, however, the experiences and observations of Parini's H. M. seem more crudely rooted in the fertile loam of the original's fiction. The Acushnet's glowering, tyrannical captain; the handsome beloveds who prefigure the doomed eponym of Billy Budd; the uncomfortable meeting with a louche and queenie old Walt Whitman -- Parini's watershed of literary wellsprings seems to gush from the undergraduate syllabus and the latest edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. It's a workmanlike telling of Melville's troubled life, but it lacks the grand estrangements of a work like Paul Metcalf's Genoa, which tangles together fiction-twisted strands from the lives of Melville and Columbus with essayistic weavings of history and paleontology. A shamefully 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 legacy could be both honored and lightly held. One of his favorite images of the creative act, learned from Ezra Pound was that of the "rose in the steel dust" -- the patterns and prodigies that emerge from the chaos of elements held in tense suspension. Perhaps Metcalf's image is a fit figure for the limning of a literary life as well.
I had become, in middle age in the midst of marriage to Herman Melville, a captive. And I wanted my freedom.
But it's the rare bride who says "I do" and doesn't. I did. Even at the worst of times, I believed in the power of love--a bit of naïveté, perhaps. It carried me, however. To the end, it carried me.
H.M. (as we called him) was, to put it kindly, a volatile man, with improbable highs and lows. One had to avoid him at all cost in the valley of his shadows, where darkness was his name. Yet part of my faith was to know he would climb, looking out at times from glittering heights. That once in a while I shared his view was my consolation over the days--months, even years--when I bided my time, unsure I would make it. Or that he would.
Word of my misery spread to my family in Boston, and urgent letters from my brothers arrived, one of them from Lemuel, who understood my plight. "You must act, Lizzie," he said. "Herman is a madman, plain and simple. Have I not said as much before? You didn't listen to me!"
The other was from Samuel, who failed to register the gravity of my situation. "One can never be sure about the consequences of one's actions in life," he wrote in his lawyerly way. "In other words, act with caution, dear sister. Tread carefully!"
Tread, tread, tread . . .
I had been treading long enough.
Two decades had passed since August 4, 1847, when I stood there as a bride in my white gown and feathery veil of tulle in the sunlit living room of our house on Mount Vernon Street among a crowd of well-wishing relatives and close friends. I was almost drunk with joy, believing I had found my very own Charles Dickens--a robust and blossoming man of letters, who would lift us to fame and good fortune.
The pocket doors had been opened between the front parlors, and there were flowers everywhere in tall Oriental vases: stephanotis, gardenia, lilies, and cascades of yellow, pink, and red roses from the back garden--my stepmother's brilliant handiwork. Through open windows I could hear the clatter of hooves on the cobbles outside.
Herman stood before me in a handsome blue suit (purchased with a loan from his brother Allan and made to measure by one of the finest tailors in Manhattan). Young Thomas, his teenaged brother, looked suddenly mature, almost a man, having grown a beard for the occasion--if the raspy shadow on his chin could be described as such. I was dreaming, in a whirl; but I noticed the rustling dresses of the women, the rows of polished boots. The air was humid, almost unbearably so, and yet the porcine Reverend Mr. Young stood before us in full canonicals, sweating indiscriminately, eliciting the solemn words: "I do, I do." Afterward, we signed our names boldly in the gilt-edged Bible that Aunt Lucy had provided, her gift for the wedding, with our initials engraved on the leather covers: H.M. and E.S.M.
I had become, at a stroke, Elizabeth Shaw Melville.
"You have taken a massive step, my dear," said his mother, whispering in my ear. "I will expect you to take good care of him. He deserves that much." Her round red face was impassive, and she stared at me through the narrow slits of her eyes like a sea turtle. I saw that she hated me, and did not respond. One should not respond in these situations.
This marriage was "an unlikely match," as my stepmother put in less than delicately a few weeks before the ceremony. "He has no stable profession," she said, "and there is a touch of insanity among the Melvilles. You need only ask your father. He will tell you the truth if you insist." As I knew, my father had once nearly married Allan's sister, Nancy. In a strange way I considered Herman more of a brother than a husband. To marry him seemed only to extend an arc already begun before my birth.
I did ask my father about this fabled "touch of insanity," but he refused to say anything about the madness that had gripped Herman's unfortunate father at the end, reducing the poor man to raging incoherence while tenderhearted Herman, an innocent boy of twelve, stood to one side, helpless and defeated. I think Herman spent the whole of his life trying to comfort that child, to convince him that all would be well.
Allan Melvill (the "e" was added later, as it seemed more familiar to American eyes) left his family destitute, thus forcing them upon the frowning mercy of Maria's wealthy relatives in Albany. (My father, always loyal to old friends, also supplied a good deal of money in the form of loans he knew would never be repaid.) "It was a failure of nerve in Allan, and nothing more," my father mused, lighting his pipe with exaggerated slowness behind the burl desk in his study, shifting uneasily in a cracked red leather chair that had belonged to his father. The scales of justice--fitting for a judge--stood on the fireplace mantel behind him, a reminder of the balancing acts he performed daily as chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
"Allan glanced at his noble ancestry, then shrank in fear," my father said, fingering his long white locks, which touched the shoulders of his jacket. His belly ballooned from his starched shirt, nearly popping the buttons. "Greatness was not in the cards, not for him, alas," he continued. "I felt sorry for the boys, especially young Herman, who seemed quite lost."
My dear and wonderfully supportive father died in the spring of 1861, leaving me adrift. My family could do nothing for me. I was a Melville--hardly a Shaw at all--trapped in this sad house in Manhattan. Somehow I had to get away from Herman. I didn't really want to leave him, but there seemed no choice. Sometimes we think by feeling. We go where we must, as the path turns, taking us willy-nilly where it will.
Anyone who actually read his novels--Mardi or Moby-Dick or that repulsive Pierre--could guess at the truth, that my husband was not balanced. He walked the edges of life, peering into the abyss, taking his readers with him. He sought everything or nothing, quarreling with God, accusing Him of indifference, even hatred of the human race. This instability disfigured his novels and stories, which one critic called "the unhappy products of an overheated imagination."
Readers (myself included) much preferred his first books, Typee and Omoo--and for good reason. One could peruse them without strain, although their morality remained in question. (My husband never cared what anyone thought of him--especially a critic! That would have been pandering, and H.M. did not pander.)
Having resettled unhappily in New York in the fall of 1863, Herman grew restive. He realized, I think, that a mere change of scenery could not solve his problems or heal old wounds. Now fits of temper interrupted his more usual silence, especially at meals, when he would shout at me and the children. (Nothing we did seemed to please or comfort him.) After dinner he would sulk in the parlor, consuming large quantities of whiskey while laboring over books of philosophy composed by wordy Germans with names one could neither spell nor pronounce. "My eyes, my poor eyes," he complained, as darkness fell and the lamps flickered. "I shall be blind soon, and you will have to read to me."
He was not modest and often compared himself to the English poet John Milton, who went blind in old age, relying on his wife to read to him, to write down his thunderous interminable lines.
"I will never read to you," I told him.
"You hate my work," he said. "You hate whatever I do."
How could he say such a hurtful thing? Had I not copied and recopied several of his novels while sitting in the cold north parlor at Arrowhead, our farmhouse in the Berkshires, shuddering because he failed to cut and stack enough logs for the fire? Had I not recited countless passages by the light of many candles, reading them aloud in the wee hours of night, making little and large alterations at his request? His handwriting revealed the waywardness of his character, its uncertainty and awkwardness. His inconsistent spelling suggested an inconsistency in his soul. I told him as much one night, sending him into one of those rages where he shattered glasses against the wall and frightened Maria, his mother, and his obsequious sisters. Our children cowered upstairs, terrified by their father's ill temper.
"You must not arouse him so, my dear," said Maria, repeatedly.
"Oh, do you think so?" I would say.
"I do indeed, and you should mend your ways. This will never do. Not for me, not for my son."
Maria had been a not-so-silent partner in this marriage from the beginning, a constant companion, presiding over meals, knitting in the parlor wherever we lived, snoring in the bedroom next door, eavesdropping, offering "gentle" suggestions, defending her son. She glowered at me, as if I could never do the appropriate wifely thing to make her precious Herman comfortable, happy, proud, self-confident, and successful. I could never, in her view, get it right. "My son requires a delicacy of approach," she said one day, in a dark hallway at Arrowhead after I had scolded him about leaving open the barn door, prompting our elderly horse, Waldo, to wander off by himself down Lenox Road.
"He is not so fragile as you think," I explained.
She glared at me as though I were a shrew, then walked away in her usual huff. One could hear doors slamming throughout the echo chamber of that icy house.
I should have listened to Lemuel, who understood from the outset that Herman Melville would make a poor match. "Johnny Harrison is the one for you, Lizzie," he told me. Johnny was Lemuel's best friend, a Harvard man, and a lawyer in Boston. He was nicely dressed, polite, almost decorous in manner.
But I did not like decorous and polite men, not in those days. I had lived my life among the decorous and polite.
For better or worse, I found H.M. appealing, even irresistible. I had heard of his exploits and adventures from his older sister, Helen, a dear friend. He had sailed around the globe, gone whaling, lived among cannibals in the South Seas, and walked the streets of Liverpool and London. In New York City, he dined frequently in the best literary company. He had huge ambitions for himself, although his temper made his life (as well as ours) difficult, frustrating and offending those who might otherwise have championed his cause.
I didn't mind the short temper, not at first. I certainly admired the alertness in his eyes, their penetration--he could look through a wall of stone. I also liked his maturity. He was twenty-eight, and he understood the ways of the world. I believed I could tame the beast that lay within his breast, and to a certain extent I did. But it was intricate work, the work of a lifetime.
He had burst into our house one evening after dinner, unannounced, fresh from his adventures at sea. Full of improbable tales, he sat with my father in his study, where they drank sour mash and debated the great issues of the day. Although Herman had no formal education, having been forced to leave school early, he managed to work his way steadily through eons of Greek and Roman history, modern English and American literature, as well as some of the great European philosophers. He later borrowed thick volumes bound in buckram from my father's library, which he proceeded to underline as if they were his own!
"This young man has an inquisitive mind," my father told me, purring with approval. "You needn't worry about him."
But I did nothing but worry for twenty years, and then the situation became impossible for me, or so it seemed. I could not imagine myself living for another two or more decades in the House of Melville. Ways of escape crowded my thoughts.
Each evening he came home from his work as inspector at the New York Custom House covered in grime, his white collar soiled, hands filthy. He carried the smell of the city about him, its reek and plunder, the red dust. He made very little money--the salary was an insult to a man of his station--but that wasn't the problem. The money didn't matter as much as he thought it did--not since we had left the Berkshires and moved back to Manhattan. I had a sizable legacy now from an aunt in New Hampshire, and my father had advanced us plenty of funds over the years, paying off old debts that Herman had incurred behind my back. Father's death had made our economic lives more than a little easier.
But the fluctuating moods of H.M. troubled me. Gloom surrounded him for weeks and months, driving him beyond what was tolerable. I could feel despair coming upon him as we lay in bed, a storm blowing up in his body. Yet he was a survivor, a man who clung to his daily habits as if for dear life.
In New York, he followed a routine that, perhaps, saved him from mental shipwreck. He rose at dawn, reading ponderously at his desk or taking notes, drinking coffee in the front parlor, with hot bacon rolls followed by a fat cigar. He left home promptly at eight, taking with him his badge of office, Number 75. He often jumped a horse car down Broadway, walking slowly westward to the Custom House office at 207 West Street, off Gansevoort--a street named for his illustrious maternal grandfather. After doing paperwork for an hour or two, he set off on his rounds--the part of the job he adored.
God knows where he went in the course of a day. An acquaintance of mine had seen him as far north as Central Park, a landlocked oasis where he would have found no ships to inspect. He often lingered in Battery Park to watch the vessels coming and going. Mainly he trudged along the Hudson, calling on foreign vessels, checking cargoes, absorbing tales of the sea. I often imagined him sitting on a bench, his face to the sky, listening to voices that called from the past, from the wharves themselves, from black openings between red-brick buildings that overhung the docks and the dark passages of his mind. As he said almost nothing about his work, I had to guess what it was like for him, that he strolled the wharves obsessively, visiting ships, checking lists of imported goods. In the late afternoon, he sat alone in one tavern or another and listened intently to stories of sailors long at sea. I dare say, he wished he could, like them, begin another passage. He was always hoping for another passage.
Posted March 9, 2011
An incredibly pereceptive book, Parini has captured Melville and his era with amazing feeling and clarity. The comparisons with Odysseus in the never ending wandering Melville insisted on pursuing were especially insightful. We are given a glimpse into his marriage as well as his relations with the great literary lions of the day; this book is a must for any Melville reader.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 15, 2010
Jay Parini's latest novel, The Passages of H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville, is an enthralling portrait of an enigmatic figure in American literature. Passages alternates between a third-person perspective of Melville, his early life and travels, and a first-person account of domestic life from Melville's wife, Lizzie. While a fictionalized account, Parini knows his subject and fills the novel with historical details from journals of Melville and Hawthorne as well as material from Melville's novels. The result humanizes a literary giant.
As a professor who teaches literature, I enjoyed the character of Melville, but I am personally affected by Lizzie Melville. As the wife of a dedicated artist of literary fiction, I connect to a kindred spirit in Lizzie and appreciate Parini's nuanced, sympathetic representation. Lizzie supports Melville when the bad reviews of Moby Dick appear, yet she (very humanly) wishes he might consider a more commercial subject. The sacrifices that Lizzie continually makes in her domestic life to support the troubled Melville are clear. Lizzie bears financial burdens, supports her husband's emotional instability, deals with his overbearing mother, and endures his long absences. In quiet servitude, Lizzie is the handmaid who, without being allowed to choose, trades life for art.
I highly recommend this engaging novel.
Posted January 31, 2011
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Posted January 15, 2011
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