Melville and Faulkner Biographies Explore Two Mysterious Writers

Article excerpt

ONE of the paradoxes of biography is that the better-known someone becomes, the harder he or she is to know. The problem is compounded when the figure under scrutiny lived in the last century, a time when records were scarcer, photographs cruder, and descriptions couched in an English now foreign to our ears.

Even family members may be left in the dark. Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Melville's granddaughter, wrote that "the core of the man remains incommunicable: suggestion of his quality is all that is possible." It takes time as well as tireless archive-delving to make figures as mysterious as Herman Melville and William Faulkner come fully alive, as they do in these two new biographies.

Melville was notoriously inscrutable. Following a brief period of contentious celebrity, he appears in the opening pages of "The Civil War World of Herman Melville" as one who had lost his direction. "Except for his poetry," notes Stanton Garner, "he was drifting, just as his country was drifting." He had achieved fame with his early, fact-based writing, startled the literary world with "Moby-Dick," and then followed that masterpiece with the highly idiosyncratic "Pierre," a book so strange that one newspaper ran the headline "Herman Melville Crazy."

Then came the war. The conflict that either stilled the pen of other writers or turned them toward oratory and cheerleading gave Melville a subject on which he could exercise his new-found love of poetry. The result was "Battle-Pieces," which, to its author's dismay, was met with the same public shrug that all his later books received.

As Garner promises in his introduction, the Melville one encounters here is "somewhat different from the received picture of the author ... one who is earthier and more concerned with everyday events than previous portrayals would suggest...."

This is never more true than in the section of the book that describes the days Melville spent with a scouting party that actually engaged with Colonel John Singleton Mosby's daring Partisan Rangers, a cavalry troop wreaking havoc in Union-occupied Virginia. Melville was the only major author to get this close to the action, and the experience brought him alive again as a writer.

The poems that resulted are another matter. Paul Fussell once wrote that "Battle-Pieces" occasions "the shock one always experiences upon seeing how badly a great writer can write." Perhaps the best that can be said of the poems is that they are like everything else Melville wrote: eccentric, even goofy at times, yet uncompromising in their insistence on seeing all sides of an issue. …