Herman Melville (Penguin Lives Series)

Herman Melville (Penguin Lives Series)

by Elizabeth Hardwick


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780670891580
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/28/2000
Series: Penguin Lives Series
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.78(h) x 0.75(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


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, lashedto 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 Camoëns, 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.

Table of Contents

New York7
Omoo, Mardi53
Family, Pierre, "Benito Cereno," "Bartleby, the Scrivener"98
Marriage, The Confidence-Man111
Billy, Budd142

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Herman Melville 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.