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Herman Melville ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Herman Melville ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Herman Melville, by brainy Melville scholar Elizabeth Hardwick, is a short (158 pages) biography in the “Penguin Lives” series. It is an overview of Melville’s life and a dissection of each of his major works, beginning with Redburn, Omoo, Mardi, Typee, and on to Moby Dick and later works such as the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” and the short novel Billy Budd.    

In a nineteenth century American novel class in college, they had us read Herman Melville’s massive and difficult novel Moby Dick. We had a week to read it, study it, and uncover its secrets. The next week we were to move on to Henry James’ The Ambassadors, which is also a very difficult novel to read. (What is wrong with these people?)

While Moby Dick is notoriously difficult to read, most people in the know agree that it is the greatest American novel ever written. Its central character, Captain Ahab, is a driven megalomaniac. In an earlier encounter with the monster white whale, Captain Ahab lost a leg. Now, spurred onward by vengeance, he will risk his ship, The Pequod, and all the men on it for another chance to bring down the whale that has come to be known as Moby Dick. The whale is a symbol for something. Just what it is a symbol for has never quite been established. Of course, the question has sparked endless speculation.

By all accounts, Herman Melville (1819- 1891) did not have a happy life. When he was young, he worked on a whaling ship, abandoning ship once in Liverpool. This shipboard experience gave him the experience he needed for his books. He lived with his family in New York in shabby gentility. He always had money worries and was frequently on the verge of bankruptcy. He met the by-then established writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was fifteen years older than Melville; the two of them became acquaintances, if not the best of friends. He was unhappily married, while his sexual interests seemed to lie elsewhere. (His writing is full of “homoerotic yearnings.”) He was the prolific (and fast) writer of many books, but he was never commercially successful during his lifetime. Of his four children (two boys and two girls), one of his sons committed suicide at age eighteen and the other died in faraway California at age thirty-five. Of his two daughters, one was debilitated by rheumatoid arthritis.

When Herman Melville died at age seventy-two, he was mostly forgotten, spending the last nineteen or so years of his life working as a clerk for a meager salary. It wasn’t until the 1920s that there was a great revival of interest in him and his work, particularly the novel Moby Dick and two shorter works, “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Billy Budd.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

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