"I bought Moby-Dick today for 6d. That's more like the real stuff. White whales & natural piety."
-Samuel Beckett, in a letter of Aug. 4, 1932
Andrew Delbanco is definitely in the spirit of the thing: he begins his biography of Herman Melville with "EXTRACTS (supplied by a Sub-Sub-Sub-Librarian)." The quote from Samuel Beckett above is one of the extracts, but there's also Conrad, Updike, Roth, Ken Kesey, and Ray Bradbury all commenting on Melville or his works. There's also a transcript of a Sopranos episode. (A.J. Soprano is reading Billy Budd in high school.)
I thought it was a very good biography. Large stretches of Melville's life are poorly documented; he didn't keep letters written to him, though some letters he wrote still exist. Delbanco is judicious on the question of Melville's homosexuality, by which I mean, he says neither yes nor no, and doubts the term is even very applicable in the 19th century.
Some interesting facts I learned:
I knew about Melville's use of the account of the whaling ship the Essex, but I'd never heard this: "In May 1839, just before nineteen-year-old Herman Melville sailed for Liverpool, J. R. Reynolds had published in the Knickerbocker Magazine an account of 'an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength' that, like the 'Ethiopian albino...was white as wool,' and became the object of a vengeful hunt. Named after the island of Mocha just off the Chilean coast where he was first sighted, Mocha Dick was freakish not only in appearance but also in that he had repeatedly turned to attack his human pursuers." Mocha Dick!
'Total earnings from the American sales of Moby-Dick would ultimately come to $556.37, considerably less than Melville had realized from any previous book."
Though in general Delbanco doesn't want to say too much about Melville's politics, he does think that Ahab is strongly reminiscent of John C. Calhoun, both in look and demeanor.
Melville was always a heavy drinker, it seems, but after the failure of Moby-Dick and subsequently Pierre, he may have really overdone it. Again Delbanco doesn't have enough evidence to be certain, but Melville may very well have become by modern standards alcoholic. There were also signs of strain in the marriage brought on by the failure of his career as a writer, relative poverty, and the suicide of their oldest son, all of which were likely exacerbated by his heavy drinking. There were also concerns for his sanity. This in the 1860s and 1870s. He and his wife never permanently separated, though, and seem to have been reconciled by the end of his life.
Anyway an interesting and enjoyable read.
As for Moby-Dick itself, I was ahead for a while, but now I'm behind again. Onward!
i read somewhere about Mocha Dick, but certainly not that he drank... but it does make sense in some way; Melville could be accused of erraticism, i guess... about the opposite sort of person from Joshua Slocum, say...ReplyDelete
He certainly seemed given to enthusiasms, and worked hard but in fits. I had to look up Slocum, but yes, I can't imagine Melville sailing around the world single-handed. He'd have stopped off in Tahiti and changed his mind about the process.Delete
Good for you! I keep intending to read biographies of the authors I like to read, but I rarely have the time.ReplyDelete
Me too! I was ahead in Moby Dick and now I'm behind. I'd better get reading!
I'm not usually very good about reading author biographies either, but I'm not really sure why. I've liked the few I have read.Delete
Have you read any other Melville other than your current read of MD? I rarely read author biographies...in fact the only one I've ever read is one about Dickens. But your review of this book makes me want to read it even if I never get around to actually reading Melville.ReplyDelete
I've read Moby Dick before plus Billy Budd and Bartleby the Scrivener. But I usually don't try an author biography until I've read more of the author than I have in this case.Delete
But do read Melville! He's pretty whacked out, but can definitely be great. Bartleby might actually be a better one to start with if you haven't read anything.
I've been planning on reading a bio about Melville, but have only managed extracts so far...I could probably compile my own extracts a la Melville about Melville with what I've gleaned so far :-)ReplyDelete
I have come across the Mocha Dick story but hadn't read anything about alcoholism before. It's probably not too surprising though, given the incredible highs and lows that seemed to punctuate his life.
I was tipped off to the Delbanco by the Philbrick, about which I found out from you.Delete
Happy New Year!