The Passages of Herman Melville

In the "Cetology" chapter of Moby-Dick, Ishmael explains: "I promise nothing complete; because any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be faulty." In his new novel, The Passages of Herman Melville, Jay Parini has taken on the experiment of writing a biographical novel imagining Melville's life, a life that was wide-ranging in every sense but left surprisingly little documentary evidence behind it. This has long presented biographers with a challenge: it is tempting, and nonetheless a fallacy, to try to extract Melville's life from his novels; they give us a window into his complex mind, but not necessarily into his complex life.

A professor of literature and the author of literary biographies of William Faulkner, Rob­ert Frost and John Steinbeck, as well as a novel about Tolstoy's last months, The Last Station, Parini understands the ambiguous relationship between a great writer's work and his life. That makes all the more surprising some of the decisions he takes in telling Melville's story.

What we know of Melville's life does not make for a cheery read. The story opens in 1867, long after Moby-Dick has been published to general incomprehension and disregard. Depressive, moody, occasionally raging, Melville has taken a job as a customs officer and spends his days tramping around Manhattan in an abortive expression of his wanderlust. His long-suffering wife, Lizzie Shaw Melville, who thought she was marrying another Dickens but found herself with an unrecognised genius, struggles to cope with the financial difficulties caused by her husband's literary failure. Withdrawn and isolated, "H M" takes refuge in the world of his writing.

Parini alternates the story between Lizzie's perspective, written in the first person, and a third-person omniscient narration of Melville's early seafaring adventures, his later friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, his long years of literary decline and frustration, and the final flowering of his genius in Billy Budd, the masterpiece he left unfinished when he died in 1891, at the age of 72. As Parini writes candidly at the end of his book, "Very little is known about Lizzie Melville, so I made her up."

However, he follows current conjecture in speculating that Melville may have been violent, Lizzie realising that she has "married a volcano, my very own Vesuvius". Interwoven with Lizzie's recollections is an ostensibly more objective account of Melville's early years as a sailor aboard whaling and merchant ships, and the adventures in the South Pacific that inspired his successful early novels: Typee, Omoo and White-Jacket are treated more or less as memoirs of his experiences among the natives, as he encounters an erotic paradise of unashamed sexuality that was a transformative experience for a young man born into an aristocratic, if impoverished, New York family in the early 19th century.

Between the all-male world of whaling ships and the unfettered sensuality of people in the South Pacific, Parini shows Melville gradually realising that his main emotional attachments are to other men, though his desire is never reciprocated and thus never fully expressed.

If Parini thinks that Melville's problem was, in a word, sex, this is also a problem with The Passages of Herman Melville. Melville's books are unquestionably charged with homoerotic energies, but those energies are just as likely to find expression in the sense of comradely fellowship that defines, for example, Ishmael and Queequeg's friendship in Moby-Dick. When they must share a bed (as working-class men often did in the 19th century), Ishmael's panic is not merely sexual: it is also racial, an expression of xenophobia as much as homophobia, to put it in modern terms. Ishmael's overcoming of his panic is part of the novel's bold modernity, and one of the reasons it failed miserably in the 19th century; if ever there was a book ahead of its time, it is Moby-Dick. But Melville's open-mindedness wasn't exclusively sexual - it was profoundly political and philosophical. And it is that political imagination and engagement that is most lacking here, replaced by a surprisingly literal-minded, anachronistic and somewhat reductive interpretation of his "problem" as repressed homosexuality.

Thus Melville's close literary friendship with Hawthorne becomes an unreciprocated romance that begins with the improbable spectacle of the puritanical Hawthorne skinny-dipping with Melville. Parini even takes the liberty of ascribing the death of Melville's elder son, Malcolm, who died in 1867 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in un­explained circumstances, to Malcolm's own repressed homosexuality.

This literal-mindedness extends to Parini's decision to plant many of Melville's most familiar lines and conceits into his adventures. Thus, a dying sailor suddenly announces, "I prefer not to," giving Melville the idea for Bartleby's declaration of independence; and he introduces himself to Lizzie by saying, "Call me Herman," a considerably less remarkable offer than Ishmael's celebrated opening line. The intent seems to be something rather like the amusing games Tom Stoppard played in Shakespeare in Love, but such frivolity sits oddly with a writer who was nothing if not serious. Melville in Love could well have been this novel's subtitle. And it is not necessarily a felicitous comparison.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency