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Herman Melville: The Biography of a Half-Known Life

Herman Melville: The Biography of a Half-Known Life

John Bryant

ISBN: 978-1-119-10600-5

Apr 2020, Wiley-Blackwell

400 pages

Select type: E-Book


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Herman Melville occupies the highest of places in the American literary pantheon, and his reputation remains equally high in world literature as well. Even so, his life is not widely comprehended – apparently he wrote a book about a whale and little else – and his writing (especially that book about a whale) is often deemed a challenge rather than a good read. Bryant wants to write a book that offers readers a relatively brief but thorough study of the life and works, one that places Melville’s accomplishment in the context of his nineteenth-century world and our modern world as well, and one that provides some guidelines for reading the man, his time, his writing. His hope is that it will be accessible, inviting, and above all readable, and stimulating to student and scholar alike. Bryant is not proposing to write an inventory of facts (such as overwhelm Hershel Parker's massive two-volume biography) but to provide a rounded portrait of Melville in the full context of his writings, beyond Moby- Dick, with key concluding chapters concerning his reception. The contents provided here show in considerable detail how Bryant means to proceed.

The sub-title of the proposed book derives from a comment in Moby-Dick concerning the fact that whales are virtually unknowable because they spend most of their lives submerged and out of our sight. The same might be said of Melville for a couple of reasons. To begin with, as biographers often complain, there is a paucity of biographical information about the man. He did not save letters; he did not keep a diary or notebooks but only a few sketchy journals of trips taken, and after 1866 the record becomes even spottier. But even if we had an abundance of information, there is no guarantee that it would provide entré to Melville’s inner life. Such a life is at best “half known,” indeed unknowable. And this is an abiding theme throughout Melville’s work: our identity is mutable; Being itself is a mystery; the self is an “ungraspable phantom.” As Melville put it in his review essay on Hawthorne, such interior truth is like a “scared white doe of the woodlands.” We know it only through brief “glances.”

At present, critics tend to focus largely on Moby-Dick and the other antebellum works of fiction, thus neglecting Melville’s life long commitment to poetry which came to full fruition in the years after the Civil War. In addition, scholars have done little to explore Melville’s creative process. But recent work on Melville’s manuscripts, and his works as “fluid texts,” have opened up a new way of accessing Melville’s “half-known” life, which also spans the entire career from Typee to the poetry to Billy Budd. Thus, Bryant plans to use manuscript materials in order to tie together early and late phases of Melville’s career, which have so far been neglected.