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Thar she blows

Fishing for Herman Melville's later years



Like Captain Ahab, Herman Melville was consumed by Moby Dick. In a very real sense, a Melville biographer's problem is to retrieve from the abysmal darkness of history -- from the belly of the beast -- whatever fragmentary truth might remain of an author whose identity is, perhaps more than any other American writer, so perfectly linked to a single iconic work.
If there exists no precedent for this immodest project, then volume two of Hershel Parker's magnificent Melville study will become the decisive, epochal model. Lucidly narrated and authoritatively documented, it is an astonishing achievement.

Beginning in 1851 with the publication and icy reception of Moby Dick, Parker traces, through the final 40 years of Melville's life, a map of declining literary fortunes -- and quasi-triumphal returns to greatness as a poet -- set against the shifting mosaic of his personal relationships.

Given the immensity of Melville's reputation in the American consciousness, to say nothing of his place in American letters, one is tempted to speak almost exclusively in precis, admitting in short-hand what feels too tragic to spell out: Melville was, like so many visionaries, not only misunderstood, but unjustly dismissed in his own time. The novels Omoo and Typee had made him America's first literary sex symbol. Moby Dick sank the ship. And if, like Ahab, Melville bears some responsibility for the disaster, it is only to the extent that his obsessive commitment to this revolutionary text was naively insensitive to the publishing trade winds.

That Melville spent his last years restoring his credentials through poetry is perhaps the final horror in a life of ironic failings. Those surprising poems -- even the masterful "Clarel" -- are all but forgotten, while Moby Dick, for which he was cruelly repudiated 150 years ago, is today the principal Melville artifact. Even such masterpieces as Billy Budd and "Bartleby the Scrivener" are, by comparison, small fish indeed.

Parker's Ahabesque quest to produce, for our age, an appropriately reverential, but dutifully searching Melville portrait is itself much like Moby Dick: by turns problematic, insightful, now elegant, now odd, but never less than courageous and in its best moments, as powerfully moving as waves on a vast ocean concealing, just below the surface, a world of ineffable mysteries.

Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume II, by Hershel Parker. Johns Hopkins University Press. 997 pages. $45.

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