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Herman Melville Audio, Cassette – Unabridged, November, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

Ernest Hemingway famously declared Huckleberry Finn to be the true font of American prose--and in the case of his own stripped-down stories, he was right. But there's another, more rococo strain in our literature, of which fish fancier Herman Melville would be the undisputed king. So who better to chronicle his life in brief than Elizabeth Hardwick? This deliciously acerbic critic and novelist hasn't, of course, attempted to mimic Melville's language, which often sounds like the sort of thing Shakespeare would have written if he'd been an ichthyologist. But she, too, is the possessor of an eccentric, sometimes shaggy style, and has already written about Melville with rare penetration. Even her opening salvo has an appropriately over-the-top ring to it:
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.
In a study of this length (160 pages), Hardwick doesn't even pretend to compete with such broad-canvas predecessors as Hershel Parker or Laurie Robertson-Lorant. But she hits all the high points (and the numerous low ones) in this all-American life, from Melville's earliest seagoing expeditions to his running aground in middle age. "The cabin boy became a family man," she notes, "or at least a man with a family, one always at home, but hardly the man of the house, with his scullery routine of writing at frightening speed, as if driven by a tyrannical overseer." There was, alas, worse to come: trapped in a dead-end job as a New York customs inspector, Melville retreated into desperate silence. But Hardwick burrows in to disclose new singularities, new complications, and to acknowledge that her subject's life is hardly less ambiguous than his art. "So much about Melville," we are told, "is seems to be, may have been and perhaps." What's certain, however, is that we could hardly find a better narrator than Hardwick herself. --Bob Brandeis --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The Penguin Lives series is a good one (see review of Rosa Parks, above): casual but serious, artfully rendered criticism that is not hell-bent on footnotes and references,; the slender volumes are produced by critical writers who are also impressive creative minds in their own right. Melville, whose life story is aptly told by literary critic and novelist Hardwick (Bartleby in Manhattan), is not the most accessible of subjects for a short format like this. Though he was an immensely prolific creator of novels, short fiction, poetry, letters and journals, and though he was one of the most important American writers, his life was barely public enough for any biographer to nail him down. His career is also too complicated to fit into any simple "rise" and "decline" paradigmAhis genius is unevenly distributed across his works. Nonetheless, "there is a rueful dignity in his life and personal manner," Hardwick writes. His family responded to him with a "puzzled sympathy." Hardwick gives a frank depiction of a depressive, often bitter man who weathered a constant struggle over income ("Dollars damn me," he wrote), the suicide of a son and, possibly, according to Hardwick, doubts about his own heterosexuality; Melville never seemed to forgive the world for refusing to recognize Moby-Dick as a masterpiece during his lifetime. Through 12 brief chapters, many centered on fresh readings of Melville's works and others thematic ("Whaling," "Elizabeth," "Hawthorne"), Hardwick's own talent for metaphor and no-nonsense interpretation makes this an especially engaging critical account. Perhaps most importantly, Hardwick is able to convey both the complexity of the man as well as the inherent impossibility of the biographer's task to fully elucidate the life of a multifarious individual. "He is a mystery," she writes, "no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man." Still, this work is a delight to read. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Audio Cassette
  • Publisher: Books on Tape; Unabridged edition (November 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0736656898
  • ISBN-13: 978-0736656894
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #13,161,395 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Edward on October 31, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Next year I'm taking a trip to a famaliar yet vaguely forbidding American landmark. In other words, I'm planning to re-read "Moby Dick". To prepare myself for this metaphysical adventure, I wanted to read something that would refresh my memory regarding this novel and its author; and Viking Press offers Elizabeth Hardwick's "Herman Melville", published last summer as part of that house's Penquin Lives Series. It's an eclectic series, the subjects ranging from Joan of Arc to Elvis Presley. Ms Hardwick's contribution is not a biography per se (there are no plates and there is no index) but rather a set of essays combining Melville's personal experiences with the art he created. In fact, many of the chapter headings are titles of Melville's stories -- e.g., "Redburn" or "Billy Budd". Reading these chapters inspires one to take up the Meville the reader may have put aside "till later". The two longest chapters are devoted to "Moby Dick" and to Hawthorne, to whom the masterpiece is dedicated. Despite its brevity, (161 pages), Ms Hardwick's book follows Melville's life closely, from his voyages as a young man to his forty-four-year long marriage (which Ms Hardwick compares to Tolstoy's) and ending with his nineteen-year servitude at the New York Custom House. Heavy his marriage was (one of his sons committed suicide, the other became adrifter)...Ms Hardwick's succinct yet complex narrative is smoothlywritten, and she has a way with words (she calls "Moby Dick"a "gorgeous phantasmagoria".) But for a reader who just needs an outrigger against the mammoth "Moby Dick", Ms Hardwick's slim but strong volume offers appropriate support.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Henry Ehrman on July 10, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I became interested in this book on the basis of two other works: Edna O'Brien's great Penguin Life of James Joyce, my favorite author; and Hardwick's excellent introduction to the Modern Library edition of Moby-Dick. It certainly lived up to the promise of the second, if not fully the first. As nearly every other reviewer has noted, it's not very thorough as a biography, focusing instead on the highlights of which any Melville fan is probably already aware; but then again the Penguin Lives series doesn't pretend to be extremely in-depth. As literary criticism, though, this book is great stuff. Here Hardwick decidedly avoids a formulaic or predictable approach, coming up with novel observations on Melville's work and turning as perceptive an eye on lesser works like Redburn and Typee as on the masterpiece -- indeed, it was this book which inspired me to read Redburn, which I've come to admire as a great entry in the Melvillean canon. Add to this Hardwick's voice, sometimes beautifully evocative, sometimes obscure, but always greater than your average nonfiction author's, and you've got a book definitely worth reading.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Robert Morris HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 25, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is one of several volumes in the Penguin Lives Series, each of which written by a distinguished author in her or his own right. Each provides a concise but remarkably comprehensive biography of its subject in combination with a penetrating analysis of the significance of that subject's life and career. I think this is a brilliant concept. Those who wish to learn more about the given subject are directed to other sources.
When preparing to review various volumes in this series, I have struggled with determining what would be of greatest interest and assistance to those who read my reviews. Finally I decided that a few brief excerpts and then some concluding remarks would be appropriate.
Those who write reviews such as this one have other writers whom they especially admire. Mine are George Orwell, E.B. White, and Elizabeth Hardwick. You can thus understand my eagerness to read her biography of Melville. Early on, she observes that "....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 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." As Hardwick carefully explains, there was throughout Melville's life "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."
On Elizabeth Shaw: "The marriage was more prudent for Melville than for his wife.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 19, 2003
Format: Hardcover
A terrible introduction to Melville and his work. Overwritten, inconsequent, self-indulgent, this is yet another flop from this mediocre series. As for her readings of the novels, they are nothing but disguised plot summaries. And her bibliography is scandalous--no Olsen, no CLR James, nothing by any of the major academics who have produced a series of readings of Melville in recent years. Truly a waste of time.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Acton Bell on February 14, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This book is appalling.

Consider this: many people find Herman Melville--especially the Melville of "Moby Dick"--to be slow going and difficult to fathom. But in Hardwick's biography, the ONLY passages that are at all lucid are the Melville quoatations. This is, without a doubt, the worst biography I've ever read. Self-indulgent, obscure, boring... it's not really worth my time (or yours) for me to go on.

Read Andrew Delbanco's "Melville" for a much more readable, penetrating insight into the man and his work.
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