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The Passages of H. M.: A Novel of Herman Melville Hardcover – November 2, 2010


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Read an excerpt from The Passages of H.M. by Jay Parini. [PDF]

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; First American Edition edition (November 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385522770
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385522779
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,469,969 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Novelist, poet, and biographer Parini (The Last Station) drops in on Herman Melville via Melville's wife, Lizzie, in this solid if sometimes slow nod to one of literature's greats. Twenty years into their marriage, Lizzie's faith in H.M.'s writing career has dimmed, and she has become a "captive" to her unpredictable husband, whose "improbable highs and lows" rock their marriage and family. Intertwined with Lizzie's heartfelt recollections is a straightforward third-person narration recounting H.M.'s adventures as a merchant seaman, his time on whaling vessels and schooners, and the daring jumping of ship to commune with cannibals in Tahiti. H.M.'s rise to literary greatness and subsequent disillusionment (notably the poor critical reception Moby Dick garnered) are leavened with cameos by Charles Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Parini's creative reanimation of Melville injects humanity into a tormented soul whose bright, promising early days peaked dramatically before curdling into a morass of dejection. Melville's adventures make for good reading, and even if Lizzie's passages aren't the most dynamic, Parini manages a generous and appreciative assessment.
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From Bookmarks Magazine

Herman Melville’s tormented soul comes to life through the prose of his wife, Lizzie, about whom very little is known in real life but who comes across as “a marvelous creation, a smoldering prisoner of bitterness and devotion, resentment and affection” (Washington Post). Any fictionalized biography of an elusive writer such as Herman Melville is certain to generate some controversy. Some critics found Parini’s version of Melville’s inner musings to be too much guesswork, although this may amount to a criticism of the genre as a whole. Most reviewers agreed, however, that Parini remains faithful to what facts we know of Melville and that Melville’s life told through his wife’s eyes renders the writer human and accessible, if sometimes robbed of drama. While some readers may prefer to intuit Melville’s mind from the writer’s own inspired works of fiction, others will find The Passages of H.M. to be a fine, insightful work of historical biography.

More About the Author

Jay Parini is Axinn Professor of English at Middlebury College, Vermont. His six novels also include Benjamins Crossing and The Apprentice Lover. His volumes of poetry include The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems. In addition to biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost and William Faulkner, he has written a volume of essays on literature and politics, as well as The Art of Teaching. He edited the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature and writes regularly for the Guardian and other publications.

Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
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And this poetic attention to detail suffuses his prose.
Pauls Toutonghi
The writing of Passages was excellent and gave a thorough biography of both Melville and Hawthorne.
Mary Mcmahom
Yet, he does dream of it being recognized as the ultimate work that it is...someday.
Jane F. Pedler

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By danieldyer44 on November 20, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I just finished reading this wonderful novel about Melville. The Lizzie character (Melville's wife) was a tremendous idea, and Parini draws her with compassion, warmth, and rough honesty. To me, she was a revelation--a character who in some ways represents the great ambivalence we continue to feel for her famous husband: we love him; we struggle with him; he amazes us, exasperates us. I loved the occasional playfulness, too--the easy familiarity with Melville's world ... the story about Whitman's using for a blurb for LEAVES OF GRASS a quotation from a private letter Emerson had sent him ... the mention of the amazing Charles Russell Lowell ... the alluring "boys" who pop up throughout the tale to illuminate Melville's sexual imagination ... the poignancy of his relationship with Hawthorne ... the awkward meeting with Whitman ... the sly presentation of possible sources for Bartleby, for Billy Budd. Most people acknowledge Melville's primacy in our literary pantheon--but no one has explored Melville's heart and imagination so thoroughly as Parini.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Sandra L. Cooper on December 15, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition
Jay Parini's latest novel, The Passages of H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville, is an enthralling portrait of an enigmatic figure in American literature. Passages alternates between a third-person perspective of Melville, his early life and travels, and a first-person account of domestic life from Melville's wife, Lizzie. While a fictionalized account, Parini knows his subject and fills the novel with historical details from journals of Melville and Hawthorne as well as material from Melville's novels. The result humanizes a literary giant.

As a professor who teaches literature, I enjoyed the character of Melville, but I am personally affected by Lizzie Melville. As the wife of a dedicated artist of literary fiction, I connect to a kindred spirit in Lizzie and appreciate Parini's nuanced, sympathetic representation. Lizzie supports Melville when the bad reviews of Moby Dick appear, yet she (very humanly) wishes he might consider a more commercial subject. The sacrifices that Lizzie continually makes in her domestic life to support the troubled Melville are clear. Lizzie bears financial burdens, supports her husband's emotional instability, deals with his overbearing mother, and endures his long absences. In quiet servitude, Lizzie is the handmaid who, without being allowed to choose, trades life for art.

I highly recommend this engaging novel.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Pauls Toutonghi on November 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Right now I'm reading Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain," and I took breaks to read Jay Parini's new novel. I have to say: It's a great book.

Last Station was such a wonderful novel, truly luminous and imaginative -- and Benjamin's Crossing was a strange combination of philosophically dense and dramatically riveting -- but in Melville, Parini seems to have found his perfect subject. This novel makes sense when you place it beside the other works that Parini has written: The biographies of Steinbeck, Frost, and Faulkner, the novels. It's part of a decades-long project that grapples with some of the greatest writers in American history. And yet, fundamentally, Parini is a poet. And this poetic attention to detail suffuses his prose. We're lucky to have such an energetic American writer -- and hopefully with this book, he'll take his rightful place among the best writers emerging from the late 20th and early 21st century.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By James McGrath Morris on January 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover
As a professional biographer, I was reluctant to read "The Passages of H.M." The idea of commingling literary imagination with the real life story of one of America's most imaginative writers seemed a dangerous course. Jay Parini pulls it off in such a successful manner that readers and writers will be studying this text for years to come. He brings Melville to life with empathic care, creates a mesmerizing interior live, and leaves the reader spellbound. Maybe Parini's invented Melville was right when, while discussing the nature of writing with a friend, he said, "Only novels tell the unadorned truth."

James McGrath Morris, author of "Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power"
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By M. H. Bayliss on January 7, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Sure, this title could just as easily refer to Herman Melville's great novel Moby Dick, but I prefer to think of it as an apt moniker for Jay Parini's new genre defying "novel" about Melville's life, not his whale's. Parini could just as easily have written a straightforward biography - among his prodigious output of poetry, criticism and prose are his classic biographies of Robert Frost, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Theodore Roethke. Why then does he choose to write a "novel" of Melville's life rather than a true biography? Perhaps after his last book, a novel about Leo Tolstoy, he realized that all biographers to some extent have to take creative liberties with source material. This format allows Parini to explore, imagine and attempt to recreate key moments from Melville's life that enrich our understanding of what drove him. Parini is the ultimate "fly on the wall," taking us inside Melville's mind until we feel that we know what it was like to be Melville, and that's an accomplishment.

Parini's title, The Passages of H.M. reflects not only Melville's voyages to the South Seas, the Cape of Good Hope, Turkey and points beyond, but also his progress from a starry eyed sailor to the gray lord of Pittsfield, MA and New York City. As Parini points out, it is not always a pretty passage.
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