A Historical Guide to Herman Melville

A Historical Guide to Herman Melville

A Historical Guide to Herman Melville

A Historical Guide to Herman Melville

Synopsis

This collection gathers together original essays dealing with Melville's relations with his historical era, with class, with the marketplace, with ethnic otherness, and with religion. These essays are framed by a new, short biography by Robert Milder, an introduction by Giles Gunn, anillustrated chronology, and a bibliographical essay. Taken together, these pieces afford a fresh and searching set of perspectives on Melville's connections both with his own age and also with our own. This book makes the case, as does no other collection of criticism of its size, for Melville'scommanding centrality to nineteenth-century American writing.

Excerpt

Among American writers, Herman Melville remains a kind of colossus; there is no other word for him. Though in sheer number of pages he was outwritten by other American artists of the nineteenth century, such as Mark Twain, Henry James, and the still more prolific E. D. E. N. Southworth, he nonetheless managed to pen some of the century's most massive and, even more, ambitious narratives both in prose and in poetry. Mardi: and a Voyage Thither (1849), a romantic quest narrative that turns into an allegorical search for the ideal life; the much better known Moby-Dick (1851), his great sea epic named after the whale that is chased around the world by Captain Ahab; and the masterwork of his later years, an 18,000-line poem devoted to exploring the spiritual crisis of modern civilization, Clarel: a Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876)—all take their place among the ranks of those mammoth literary productions that the nineteenth century seemed almost obsessed with creating and consuming, as though history had presented it with perhaps the last opportunity to try to say absolutely everything in art. For Melville, there was in this ambition—as there was for such fellow artists as Victor Hugo at the beginning of the century, George Eliot in the middle, and Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy toward the end—something like a semireligious conviction that . . .

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