Saturday, June 08, 2013

Andrew Delbanco's Melville

There are two major challenges facing any biographer of Melville, as Delbanco frankly admits. The first is the paucity of surviving documentation such as correspondence and notebooks. Delbanco overcomes this deficit to some extent by sketching in the historical picture, with some nice descriptions of New York City in the 19th century, for instance, and by delineating the debate over slavery in the lead-up to civil war.

The other challenge stems directly from Melville's own writing. After the popular success of Typee and Omoo, Melville wrote his masterpiece Moby Dick in his mid-thirties. Thereafter, his writing went into a steep decline, as beset by financial worries and resenftful of the lukewarm critical reception, he turned out inconsistent puzzling books and magazine hackwork. With the exception of a few short stories like "Bartleby the Scrivener,""Benito Cereno" and "The Encantadas" and the final spurt of inspiration that gave him "Billy Budd" near the end of his life, Melville wrote nothing else that came close to the genius of Moby Dick.

Since he lived, or rather, survived, to the age of 72, the decline lasted some thirty years. Delbanco's biography, accordingly, lost interest for me in the later chapters. It was agonizing to see the creator of Ahab losing his way, as if the writer went down with his creation after the white whale struck.

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