HERMAN MELVILLE By Elizabeth Hardwick Viking
160 pp., $19.95
From the first paragraph of Elizabeth Hardwick's portrait of the
great American novelist Herman Melville, the reader understands that
they're in for an overheated affair. She compares his name to the
"romance of the sea, the vast, mysterious waters for which a
thousand adjectives cannot suffice." She goes on to describe the
mystical vibrations, forbidden seas, and passages to "barbarous
coasts" that "Herman Melville" evokes.
Mind you, she's just getting started, and all of this swooning is
merely for the sound of his name. In this latest short volume of the
Penguin Lives series, Hardwick would seem to be warming up for a
love letter to the 19th-century novelist.
Or, she at least has a lot of empathy for him. Melville is
possibly the least well known in the pantheon of great American
writers. Hardwick, one of America's finest literary critics, seems
resigned to this, and indeed, she turns it to her advantage. Her
flights of theorizing make up some of the best (although maddening)
passages: "He is elusive, the facts of his life, only a frame, as
perhaps they are for the honored, much-studied dead, as well as for
the obscure. This often-unhappy man knew many happy days: or was it
that this more or less settled gentleman had periods of desolation?
All is true, if you like."
As might be imagined, Hardwick doesn't make a point of shining a
spotlight on the existence of Melville. However, she does manage to
put together a laundry list of misery that the great writer had
visited upon him: His son Malcom committed suicide. Another son,
Stanwix died of tuberculosis at 35. Finally, the greatest indignity
of all, the lukewarm reception of what ended up to be arguably the
seminal work of American fiction, "Moby Dick."
Life did not start out this way for Melville. His family had
connections to New England/Revolutionary War aristocracy (Major
Thomas Melville was one of the participants in the Boston Tea
Party). However relatively well born Melville was (and Hardwick
indicates that he was as well born as most Americans of the time),
he was hardly well off at any point in his life. Hardwick mentions
that this was so prevalent in the Melvilles that bankruptcy
constituted a near genetic flaw.
Melville's first and most successful work in his lifetime,
"Typee," was based on his adventures in Polynesia living among