"For someone who wants to read about the lives of novelists, in this case, one of our greatest, there's Andrew Delbanco's new biography of Herman Melville," notes book critic Alan Cheuse in his annual holiday roundup of titles. "[Melville's] story is one of the most instructive and saddest we'll ever know."
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Excerpt: Introduction, Part Three
In writing Melville's life, it is tempting to regard everything in his early years as leading up to Moby-Dick, and everything afterwards as falling away from it. This view is not exactly wrong, but it is a distortion, and it may be helpful to bring out of the shadow of Moby-Dick a number of works that today seem utterly fresh and urgent: Pierre, with its themes of sexual confusion and transgression; Benito Cereno, with its account of the multiple horrors of race hatred; "Bartleby," about the loneliness of modern urban life; and Billy Budd, with its perennially and, today, particularly salient theme of conflict between individual rights and the safety of the state.
At least since the 1920s, when the failure of Melville's contemporaries to recognize his genius began to be redressed, every generation has felt a need to come to terms with him in its own way. This continually renewed presentness is the mark of a great writer. For some readers today, the Melville who counts is the corrosive critic of America, the writer who represents the United States in Moby-Dick as a bloodthirsty killing machine with the teeth of killed whales inserted in her bulwarks — a "cannibal of a craft," a "thing of trophies" decked out in "the chased bones of her enemies." With fires burning to melt whale blubber into marketable oil, the Pequod is a "red hell," and her criminally cruel captain beyond appeal from a passing ship whose captain begs for help in finding a man — his own son — lost overboard.
But if Melville warned against America's violence and hubris, he also wrote with delirious passion about America's promise. A decade after John L. O'Sullivan coined the now notorious term "Manifest Destiny," Melville wrote in White-Jacket about — and with — the missionary zeal of the United States:
We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. . . .God has given to us, for a future inheritance, the broad domains of the political pagans, that shall yet come and lie down under the shade of our ark, without bloody hands being lifted. God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. . . .Long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed, the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings. And let us always remember, that with ourselves — almost for the first time in the history of earth — national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we cannot do a good to America but we give alms to the world.
This passage has properly become one of the touchstone passages of our literature. When Melville wrote it, it expressed the ideals of a nation that saw itself as the last best hope of earth in the wake of the failure of the European democratic revolutions of 1848. By the turn of the twentieth century, it seemed to anticipate the jingoism with which the United States seized, in the name of liberty, Spanish imperial possessions from Cuba to the Philippines. A century after it was written, when our literature was being deployed in the 1950s as a weapon on the cultural front of the Cold War, it seemed an expression of self-serving generosity in the spirit of the Marshall Plan. By the Vietnam era, it was widely cited as an exhibit of national arrogance — a sort of naive companion text to Norman Mailer's novel Why Are We in Vietnam? — in which one could see America in all its fatal pride. Today, amid images of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, it has again become a passage of great power and unsettling ambiguity.
Herman Melville was one of those writers whom Lionel Trilling described as "repositories of the dialectics of their times" in the sense that they contain "both the yes and no of their culture." In coming to terms with him, we are free to choose the prose-poet of our national destiny who imagines a world of grateful converts to the American Way, or the writer who saw the ship of state sailing toward disaster under lunatic leadership as it tries to conquer the world. In this respect he was — and is — as vast and contradictory as America itself.
Excerpted from Melville by Andrew Delbanco, copyright © 2005 by Andrew Delbanco. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.