Biography of Melville Is Another Dip in Bumpy Waves of History

Article excerpt

MELVILLE

A Biography

By Laurie Robertson-Lorant

620 pages, Crown, $40

HERMAN MELVILLE'S reputation, like his life, was subjected to violent ups and downs.

The young Melville became an instant minor celebrity (insofar as one can use that term for America in the 1840s) in his mid-20s as a writer of a couple of autobiographical accounts (or were they novels?) about his remarkable experiences in Polynesia, Typee and Omoo.

These books established Melville's reputation as a storyteller, but he wanted to be recognized as a genuine literary artist. His efforts to secure that distinction, most notably his whaling novel, "Moby Dick," were reasonably well-received, but did not gain him either the fame or the income that his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne earned.

Melville drifted into middle age, living on money provided by his fa ther-in-law, the noted jurist Lemuel Shaw, and on the fame of his first books. Melville's later works were increasingly bitter, strikingly convoluted and often esoteric. Far too esoteric, indeed, for the prosaic American public of the nineteenth century. Melville fell into the status of an unrecognized has-been, toiling at a dull government job, and when he died in the 1890s, most people were surprised to learn that he had been alive in the post-Civil War years. His works were almost completely ignored.

Then a marvelous transformation took place, the re-evaluation that myriads of artists fantasize. His genius was rediscovered in the 1920s as a part of the vindication of earlier American culture; Melville's sinuous complexity was now found valuable. …