Subscriptions to Literary Review
Full refund within 30 days if you're not completely satisfied.
page:
contents page
previous next
zoom out zoom in
thumbnails double page single page large double page
fit width
clip to blog
click to zoom in click to zoom in
page:
contents page
previous next
zoom out zoom in
thumbnails double page single page large double page
fit width
clip to blog

BIOGRAPHY

eroded. From freedom of speech to habeas corpus, from unwarranted arrests to imprisonment without trial, the issues Wilkes fought over are the ones that concern us

today, and it is good to be reminded. John Wilkes, thou shouldst be living at this hour. To order this book at £16, see order form on page 78

R ICHARD G RAY

A FABULOUS SHADOW

M ELVILLE : H IS W ORLDAND W ORK

★By Andrew Delbanco (Picador 415pp £25)

W HEN H ERMAN M ELVILLE died in New York City in 1891, few people noticed and even fewer cared. One of the handful of obituaries to appear observed that, such was the obscurity of his later years, most had thought him already dead. Melville enjoyed a brief moment of fame following the publication of his first two novels, Typee(1846) and Omoo(1847), romantic accounts of his seafaring adventures in the South Seas. But his major work, Moby-Dick(1851), met with a lukewarm, confused reception; the first edition never came close to selling out. Later novels then met not so much with incomprehension as with derision. One reviewer called Pierre(1852) ‘the craziest fiction extant’; another dismissed The Confidence-Man(1857) as ‘decidedly the worst of Melville’s books’. A fellow writer, William Gilmore Simms, even saw fit to announce that Melville had ‘gone “clean daft”’, adding, ‘the sooner this author is put in the ward the better’. By 1857, Melville’s career as a writer of prose fiction that actually got published was over. So was his fame. A British admirer who came to visit Melville in the 1880s complained that in New York ‘no one seemed to know anything about him’, while, looking back on the 1880s from the 1930s, Melville’s literary New York neighbour Edith Wharton confessed that, as a girl, she ‘never heard his name mentioned, or saw one of his books’. All this changed in the 1920s. Melville was resurrected, and his literary reputation rehabilitated, so that gradually he became, in the words of Andrew Delbanco, ‘an American icon’. His masterwork, Moby-Dick, assumed a unique status as (to quote one critic) ‘the unavoidable centrepiece of the American tradition’. And its central character, the monomaniacal Captain Ahab, was transformed into a cultural touchstone – and a handy tool for anyone seeking to explain or criticise America. Immediately after 9/11, for instance, Edward Said

Melville: whale of a time

commented in The Observer, ‘collective passions are being funnelled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick’. Eighteen months later, with preparations under way for the invasion of Iraq, Ariel Dorfman echoed that comparison – one also made during this period by commentators otherwise as different as Senator Gary Hart and the film star Richard Gere – by wondering if President George W Bush ‘might in fact be an Ahab whose search for the monster in the oceans of sand and oil could end up with the ruins, not of the monster, but of those … bent on its extinction’. The business of biography is always difficult; it is especially so when its subject has become, like Melville, both a mystery and a legend. ‘No material exists for a full biography of this man,’ Melville observes of one of his protagonists, Bartleby the Scrivener. The same could be said of Bartleby’s creator: not least because only about three hundred of Melville’s letters survive (as opposed to, say, the twelve thousand of Henry James), most of the manuscripts have disappeared, and Melville himself was in the ‘vile habit’ (as he put it) of burning his papers and correspondence when they were no longer needed. Biographers have had to fall back on speculation, and Melville: His World and Work is nothing if not speculative. ‘The “black years” of Melville’s later life’, Delbanco says, ‘have proven impenetrable to even the most determined scholar.’ But he says much the same of the rest of his life. ‘There survives only a single scrap actually written’ during Melville’s four years at sea, we are told. Of his marriage to Elizabeth Shaw, ‘there is little on which to draw for an inner history of the life they shared for more than forty years’. As for Melville’s close but gradually cooling friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, ‘we do not know’, we learn, ‘and are never likely to find out’ the truth. Confronted with an enigma, Delbanco tries a number of manoeuvres. One is to analyse some of the larger issues raised by Melville’s enigmatic status. So, the changing views on the author’s possibly homosexual inclinations are discussed in relation to developing attitudes on homosexuality. ‘The quest for the private Melville’, in this as in other areas, ‘has usually led to a dead end,’ Delbanco admits, but at least we can see how critics have moved from ignoring this subject to referring to it in covert, elliptical fashion, and thence to

33

LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2005 / Jan 2006 BIOGRAPHY

discussing it openly and with candour. Another tactic of the author’s is not so much to read the work in relation to the life as to discover the life in the work. Early on in this biography, Delbanco wonders ‘if we can apply to Herman the musings’ of one of his protagonists and then, in effect, answers his own question by doing as much. The fiction and poetry of Melville are treated like an archaeological site, from which the bare bones of their creator’s life can be disinterred and given flesh; biography becomes inextricable from close, creative reading. This is a potentially dangerous ploy; the surprise is that it works so well. Delbanco is a keen social critic and a tactful analyst. Each of Melville’s works is situated in the feverish cultural debates of its day, each is then read in such a way as to prise open its secrets – what it discloses about Melville, his family and friends and his understanding of his world. The private life is unearthed from the public text, thanks to Delbanco’s passionate curiosity. In the process, we witness Melville’s journey from the young man of boundless energy, who told a friend he really needed ‘fifty fast-writing youths’ to write down the thoughts racing through his mind more quickly than he could record them, to the old man complaining of ‘lassitude’ and ‘a disinclination for doing anything except the indispensable’. Delbanco captures perfectly Melville’s involvement in his times. During Melville’s childhood, as he points out, ‘the rhythm of American life was closer to medieval than modern’; during his last years, ‘he was living in a world that had become recognizably our own’. The work, as Delbanco shows, takes the measure of that transformation. It is also extraordinarily prophetic.

A LLAN M ASSIE Accomplished, Witty & Dandyish

A RTHUR H UGH C LOUGH : A P OET ’ S L IFE

★By Anthony Kenny (Continuum 298pp £20)

Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive Officiously to keep alive: Do not adultery commit; Advantage rarely comes of it… Arthur Hugh Clough’s inversion of the Ten Commandments seemed agreeably witty and up to date when I first came on it, aged fourteen or so, in Lord Wavell’s anthology, Other Men’s Flowers. Next I knew of him as the subject of Matthew Arnold’s beautiful, if

Moby-Dick, as Delbanco demonstrates at length, foreshadows the ruthless fanaticism and demagoguery that cast its blight over the twentieth century and, arguably, continues into our own times. And it also anticipates the inventions of modernism: a dedication to a kind of writing that captures the ebb and flow of consciousness, as erratic and self-surprising as the human mind. Melville’s great contemporary, Walt Whitman, observed of his own work, ‘Who touches this book, touches a man.’ And that notion seems always to be at the back of what Delbanco is doing, as he discovers Melville and his world through his work, showing how each book is brimming with hitherto undisclosed biography. ‘Any conventional biography of Melville is a business bound to fail,’ Delbanco suggests at the outset. His biography succeeds because it defies convention. Melville: His World and Workis as aberrant, as alert to the mysteries of life, and as adventurous in its speculations as its subject was – and just as inclined to mix an encyclopedic grasp of apparently extraneous material with sudden, glancing insights into the heart of things. The poet Hart Crane called Melville a ‘fabulous shadow’. Delbanco does not quite succeed in liberating his subject from the shadowy margins he has tended to occupy as a consequence of the anonymity into which he sank in his later years, his own secretiveness, and the myths that have gathered around him. But he does manage to dispel some of the clouds, thanks to a mixture of scholarly patience and inspired guesswork. Now and then, the shadow of Herman Melville comes into focus here; and that is no mean achievement. To order this book at £20, see order form on page 78

swoony, elegy ‘Thyrsis’, which, according to Anthony Kenny, was dismissed by Dr Jowett, the Master of Balliol, as ‘a most inadequate tribute’. Then, in my last year at school, I read Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, where one encounters a feeble Clough who ‘had passed his life in a condition of uneasiness, which was increased rather than diminished by the practice of poetry’, this sad state of mind having been ‘occasioned by his loss of faith at the time of the Oxford Movement’. A post at last being found in some government department, ‘he immediately fell under the influence of Miss Nightingale’, who found a use for him. ‘For instance, when Miss Nightingale was travelling, there were the railway tickets to be taken; and there were proof-sheets to be corrected; and then there were parcels to be done up in brown paper, and carried to the post.’ How they smiled in Bloomsbury to find the earnest Victorians being held so amusingly to ridicule. How – I confess with a certain shame now – I likewise smiled on coming across the passage. Moreover, for someone in his last year at a public school which from the day of its

LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2005 / Jan 2006

34