Herman Melville's goal as an author was to become one of the "thought-divers that have been diving and coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world began." The source of this rather melodramatic approach to the art and craft of writing was a life that encompassed the whaling era and the Civil War and included time spent in Polynesia, where he was flogged, fled from cannibals, joined a mutiny, and frolicked with naked islanders. The result was a body of work that ranged from popular fiction (Typee) to the dreadful gothic romance (Pierre) to the classic Moby Dick. Working with 500 family letters found in 1983, Laurie Robertson-Lorant provides a compelling, multifaceted portrait of one of America's most intriguing literary figures.
From Publishers Weekly
"Though I wrote the Gospels in this century," Herman Melville gloomily predicted in 1851, "I should die in the gutter." Not quite. Yet as he reached 40 in 1859, already the author of MobyDick and a half-dozen other books, success seemed unattainable. Moby Dick, perhaps the greatest American novel, would earn $1260 over the 32 years that remained to Melville, and he was dependent on handouts and inheritances from his wife's family. Intermittently unstable, the ex-seaman found a job in later life as a customs inspector and wrote poetry that, he confessed, was "eminently adapted for unpopularity." When remembered, if at all, it was, erroneously, as a minor travel writer about the South Pacific. In nautical terms, poet and Melville scholar Robertson-Lorant writes that "as long as the values of the marketplace ruled," Melville was "doomed to be a castaway." Only in 1924, a generation after his death, did the publication of his unfinished late masterpiece, Billy Budd, launch his reputation. Analyses since the 1960s have focused upon Melville's psychology, in particular his probable bisexuality, handled well here. Newly discovered Melville family letters, found in a New York barn in 1984, offer fresh perspectives, according to Robertson-Lorant, but these have already been exploited, and "what the women in the family had to say" alters the picture only marginally. As a new biography assimilating recent research, this one will do until the next comes along; however, it is vitiated by irrelevant, often florid absurdities. High on any list of them must be that writing Moby-Dick was "a feat worthy of Shakespeare, Sir Thomas Browne, Lord Byron, and Paul Bunyan combined." Readers will need a mental blue pencil. Photos not seen by PW.
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