In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end… Alexis de Tocqueville


What makes literature – particularly the NOVEL – great? Like everything else it may be measured by standards. There is a protagonist who is put through a series of trials and emerges having done either the correct thing and we have comedy or having done the incorrect thing and we have tragedy – everything else is insubstantial.

We have fabulists like Tolkien who have constructed entire worlds without saying anything of substance, we have the masters of political spin like Vidal who have decimated forests along with history and left us nothing but well typed manuscripts and, we have the ancients, like Hawthorne, Cooper and Melville who have simply lasted – almost through cultural necessity in order to have antecedents to American literature – and are no more worthwhile than Jacqueline Susann or Alex Haley.

The problem with a biography like this is that it seeks to tie the writer to his biography. We don’t even have reliable biographies for Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides, Homer may not have even existed and Shakespeare may not have written any or all of his plays but there is no question that the works they are associated with are literature. Melville’s major work is in the nature of a blasphemy – his Odysseus is not a moral man nor does he come home to Ithaca – and his minor works are just that. But his own life has more than a few blasphemous elements in it and that is apparently why Delbanco can resurrect him and say, See? here he is, warts and all, no better than us and rather than crying Ecce Homo he invites us rather to embrace the leper – and not in a Franciscan sense.

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Melville: his world and work New York: Knopf, c 2005 Andrew Delbanco Literature and society United States History 19th century, Melville, Herman, 1819-1891 Hardcover. 1st. ed. xxiii, 415 p.: ill., maps; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 323-388) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG  

With Moby-Dick Herman Melville set the standard for the Great American Novel, and with “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Benito Cereno, and Billy Budd he completed perhaps the greatest oeuvre of any of our writers. Now Andrew Delbanco, hailed by Time as “America’s best social critic,” uses unparalleled historical and critical perspective to give us both a commanding biography and a riveting portrait of the young nation.

The grandson of Revolutionary War heroes, Melville was born into a family that in the fledgling republic had lost both money and status. Half New Yorker, half New Englander, and toughened at sea as a young man, he returned home to chronicle the deepest crises of his era, from the increasingly shrill debates over slavery through the bloodbath of the Civil War to the intellectual and spiritual revolution wrought by Darwin. Meanwhile, the New York of his youth, where letters were delivered by horseback messengers, became in his lifetime a city recognizably our own, where the Brooklyn Bridge carried traffic and electric lights lit the streets.

Delbanco charts Melville’s growth from the bawdy storytelling of Typee — the story of his “indulgent captivity” among the Polynesians — through the spiritual preoccupations building up to Moby-Dick and such later works as Pierre, or the Ambiguities and The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade. And he creates a vivid narrative of a life that left little evidence in its wake: Melville’s peculiar marriage, the tragic loss of two sons, his powerful friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne and scores of literary cronies, bouts of feverish writing, relentless financial pressure both in the Berkshires and in New York, declining critical and popular esteem, and ultimately a customs job bedeviled by corruption.

Delbanco uncovers autobiographical traces throughout Melville’s work, even as he illuminates the stunning achievements of a career that, despite being consigned to obscurity long before its author’s death, ultimately shaped our literature. Finally we understand why the recognition of Melville’s genius —led by D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster, and posthumous by some forty years —still feels triumphant; why he, more than any other American writer, has captured the imaginative, social, and political concerns of successive generations; and why Ahab and the White Whale, after more than a century and a half, have become durably resounding symbols not only here but around the world.

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