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Melville: A Biography Hardcover – May 14, 1996

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Editorial Reviews Review

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.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 736 pages
  • Publisher: Clarkson Potter; First Edition edition (May 14, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0517593149
  • ISBN-13: 978-0517593141
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #326,103 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Walter O. Koenig on April 8, 2001
Format: Paperback
This is the best Melville Biography currently available. It is not only well researched and presented, but also and this is very important especially in literary biographies, quite readable and accessible, especially when compared to the ponderous effort by Hershel Parker. The biography is also well-balanced presenting informative chapters from throughout Melville's life. This must have been quite difficult to do, especially for Melville's later years, as there are few primary sources available. The information about Meville's often eccentric and tragic family and family life is also most interesting adding breadth. While other Melville biographers have concentrated too much on the interpretation of "Moby-Dick", often offering nothing new, Robertson-Lorant gives the reader relevant information on all of Melvile's work, including his for many readers little known poetry. When interpretations are given, for "Moby-Dick" for example, they are on the mark. Here she makes an intertesting comparison between the three mates (Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask) and the three harpooners (Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo) in which the three "savages" become more "noble" than their white ships' officers. The biography concludes with an interesting analysis of Melville's sexuality. On the down side, there are some errors. For example, on the Civil War the contentions that Lee was surrounded at Gettysburg, or that one third of the participants on both sides were killed, (p.453) are just plain wrong. Luckily other errors are not so common as to detract the reader. In conclusion, I recommend this biography highly. It is accessible to both leisurly readers and persons knowledgable about Melville and his works. It is also reasonably priced.
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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful By R. B. Bernstein on July 2, 1998
Format: Hardcover
With extraordinary skill, brilliance, and sensitivity, Laurie Robertson-Lorant gives us the one-volume life of Herman Melville we've always needed. She ably mixes extensive research in the primary sources (including the recently discovered Gansevoort-Lansing family papers now held by The New York Public Library) with close and attentive reading of Melville's works and the contemporary reactions to them. In addition, nearly always steering clear of the clanky jargon of modern literary criticism, she nonetheless draws on cutting-edge work in that field, in particular the insights of feminist literary criticism, to illuminate our understanding of this remarkable figure who was arguably America's finest writer. Readers should devote special attention to Robertson-Lorant's superb appendix on Melville's sexuality, which is a model of how a modern biographer should address such controversial and frequently-trivialized issues.
If I have one complaint, it is that Robertson-Lorant is shaky on legal contexts, both of Melville's father-in-law, the noted Massachusets jurist Lemuel Shaw, and of the writer's final work, BILLY BUDD, SAILOR. I wish in particular that Robertson-Lorant had used some of the cutting-edge scholarship in the field of Law & Literature, in particular Richard Weisberg's fine book THE FAILURE OF THE WORD: THE LAWYER AS PROTAGONIST IN MODERN FICTION (Yale University Press, rev. ed. 1989). BILLY BUDD, SAILOR is a central work for this field, and arguments over Melville's intentions continue to rage on -- but they appear only fleetingly and tangentially in Robertson-Lorant's pages.
But these quibbles are comparatively minor. Laurie Robertson-Lorant's biography should be *the* biography of choice for anyone interested in Herman Melville's life and work.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Lynn Michelsohn on March 16, 2011
Format: Paperback
I never thought any biography this long could be so fascinating!

Laurie Robertson-Lorant includes extensive detail about Melville's life (although no where near as much as Hershel Parker does in his two volume set) while creating a very human, emotionally intense picture of this Nineteenth Century figure: a son, husband, brother, father, friend, and much-beleaguered writer.

In keeping with her Ph.D. in literature, Robertson-Lorant provides analysis of each of Melville's major and minor works, as well as describing the circumstances under which each was written. She also speculates extensively about Melville's personality dynamics and sexuality, based on factual information and the content of his novels. Most of her biography is well grounded in primary sources however.

This is my favorite of the various (and numerous) biographies of Melville. Enjoy it while you learn!

- Lynn Michelsohn, co-author of "In the Galapagos Islands with Herman Melville"
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Lola G. on September 11, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Melville is one of the more fascinating writers this country has produced. He was born at a time when all the little mini-biographies of Davy Crockett and other heroes of "wild" America were published; he must have cut his teeth on them. I think that they were an attempt by the settlers of the U.S. to provide some folk legends for the country. Yet Melville himself, after writing a few torrid adventure novels, wrote what stands among the best novels this country has ever produced. I got many insights into the man and the author, which is what I was looking for. (But don't get me wrong. There is something for everyone. There are a couple of minor historical errors about the Civil War, so that unpublished authors can sneer about the book.) I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone who loves physical or cerebral adventure. And to people who are curious about the process of turning yet another Typee or Omoo into something as thought-provoking as a Moby Dick. The dying in obscurity and depression are not the ending I would have written but . . .
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