The real comparison is with Arvin's great biography, published in 1950, which won the National Book Award and remains in print. Delbanco doesn't quite match Arvin's psychological penetration, but he offers a richer account of Melville's relation to his times, opening up period debates on slavery and drawing connections between the New York of the 1840's and the city we know today. He writes throughout with grace and wit, his lucid contextual readings synthesize a generation of scholarship, and the wonderfully chosen illustrations even include some pornographic scrimshaw. Melville: His World and Work is tight and accessible, and its deep learning floats as lightly as silk in the breeze. In all that it is unlike its subject, to whom it stands as the best contemporary introduction.
The New York Times
In the end, perhaps the most important use of literary biography is to send us back to a writer's books with increased understanding and renewed excitement. This Andrew Delbanco certainly does for Herman Melville. We are his beneficiaries.
The Washington Post
As Melville said of Bartleby the Scrivener, "no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man." So, notes Columbia humanities professor Delbanco (The Death of Satan), a similarly incomplete record exists for Melville. Nevertheless, in this accessible account, Delbanco both places the great novelist assuredly in his time and delves into his works' continuing significance. While Melville's career at sea initially defined his literary reputation, Delbanco also notes that an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to go west and his later return to New York City were essential to Melville's sense of the fresh, and fragile, American republic. Delbanco also traces a Romantic thread in Melville's work (he had a fascination with Frankenstein) and the impact of abolitionism, drawing a parallel between the fugitive slave cases judged by Melville's father-in-law and his portrayal of the Pequod's African-American cabin boy, Pip. Melville's gradual withdrawal from public life after Moby-Dick's failed reception added to the dearth of biographic data, but Delbanco saves most of his theorizing for Melville's work-expansively open as it is to Freudian, environmental, postcolonial and endless other interpretations. Even now, Delbanco observes, Melville's uniquely American myth of Ahab and the white whale has been recognized in President Bush's pursuit of Osama bin Laden. 57 b&w illus. (Sept. 23) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Delbanco (Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities & director, American studies, Columbia Univ.), the author of acclaimed books on America (The Real American Dream; The Death of Satan) and literature (Required Reading), now turns his attention to the life and works of Herman Melville. The grandson of Revolutionary War heroes, Melville spent time at sea that would result in some of the greatest works of American literature (Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, Omoo, Typee). Delbanco traces Melville's rise and eventual decline in both critical and popular reception against the backdrop of a rapidly evolving 19th-century America. Despite periods of great success, Melville struggled with financial pressures, a tragic personal life, and loss of popularity until, at his death, he and his work were all but forgotten. Not until years later would his books be rediscovered and critically received by the likes of D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster. Delbanco's stunningly readable and fresh look at Melville's genius will keep readers riveted. This is sure to elicit new appreciation for Melville's work and could well be the best one-volume biography for some time to come. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/05.]-Ron Ratliff, Kansas State Univ. Lib., Manhattan Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
A graceful, sympathetic portrait of a writer all but forgotten in his day, but now seen as central to understanding the American character. Delbanco (American Studies/Columbia Univ.; The Real American Dream, 1999, etc.) observes at the outset that Herman Melville left behind little documentary material about his life, even experiences as central as the suicide of his firstborn son; given the classic status accorded to works such as Moby-Dick and The Confidence Man, we tend to forget that he wrote fiction only for a period of about 15 years, turning after the age of 40 to poetry. Delbanco reads Melville's prose work against the backdrop of American history, remarking that though Melville was born in a world whose rhythms were medieval, he died in one "that had become recognizably our own," and linking Melville's themes of quest and conquest, always on morally unstable ground, with the ambiguities of America in its dawning age of Manifest Destiny. In this regard, one of the first acts of American expansionism, Delbanco memorably notes, took place on a Pacific island Melville visited as one of the last practitioners of the preindustrial whaling trade; that work may have been wild, he adds in a luminous detail, but Melville's shipmates included poets and readers, one of whom counseled, "That's the way to publish . . . fire it right into 'em; every canto a twenty-four-pound shot; hull the blockheads, whether they will or no." Melville took the advice, but the blockheads always blocked his way, so that, after the Civil War, he abandoned trying to write for a living and went to work for the Customs Department. Delbanco's smart readings of Melville's works, major and minor alike, do much toexplain why literature remembers him more generously now. Lively and endlessly informative: a welcome addition to literary history, of a piece with Louis Menand's Metaphysical Club and David Reynolds's Walt Whitman's America.
“Masterful. . . Delbanco is a fine historian as well as a fine critic”–The New Republic
“An eclectic, humane, historically grounded tribute to Melville’s best achievements and a moving account of the troubles that closed in on him. . . . Among recent lives of Melville, this one has no peer for grace of style, vividness of historical evocation, and sympathy for a subject whose flaws and prejudices are nevertheless kept in view.”
–The New York Review of Books
"In Andrew Delbanco, Melville has found the perfect combination of biographer and critic [skilled] at re-creating the circumstances — the historical moment, the physical setting, the emotional state, the spiritual frenzy, that attended Melville's art.” –The Wall Street Journal
"Andrew Delbanco places the enigmatic Herman Melville in a light that is remarkably sustained and often brilliant. His acute sense of the man, his wide-angled literary insight, and the range and strength of his grasp of Melville's world enable Delbanco to deliver full-scale the strangest of our literary giants. He also has placed himself in the company of Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin and Richard Chase as a trustee of our literature who writes as well as he reads." -Ted Solotaroff“
Delbanco’s Melville is a reward, a brilliant and nourishing narrative that reaches beyond literary biography to an exuberant cultural history. His voice is strong–at times personal in his fresh reading of Melville’s life and work.” –Maureen Howard