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
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. …