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Melville: His World and Workby Andrew Delbanco
Synopses & Reviews
With Moby-Dick Herman Melville set the standard for the Great American Novel, and with Bartleby, the Scrivener, Benito Cereno, and Billy Budd he completed perhaps the greatest oeuvre of any of our writers. Now Andrew Delbanco, hailed by Time as "America's best social critic," uses unparalleled historical and critical perspective to give us both a commanding biography and a riveting portrait of the young nation.
The grandson of Revolutionary War heroes, Melville was born into a family that in the fledgling republic had lost both money and status. Half New Yorker, half New Englander, and toughened at sea as a young man, he returned home to chronicle the deepest crises of his era, from the increasingly shrill debates over slavery through the bloodbath of the Civil War to the intellectual and spiritual revolution wrought by Darwin. Meanwhile, the New York of his youth, where letters were delivered by horseback messengers, became in his lifetime a city recognizably our own, where the Brooklyn Bridge carried traffic and electric lights lit the streets.
Delbanco charts Melville's growth from the bawdy storytelling of Typee — the labial melody of his indulgent captivity among the Polynesians — through the spiritual preoccupations building up to Moby-Dick and such later works as Pierre, or the Ambiguities and The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade. And he creates a vivid narrative of a life that left little evidence in its wake: Melville's peculiar marriage, the tragic loss of two sons, his powerful friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne and scores of literary cronies, bouts of feverish writing, relentless financial pressure both in the Berkshires and in New York, declining critical and popular esteem, and ultimately a customs job bedeviled by corruption. Delbanco uncovers autobiographical traces throughout Melville's work, even as he illuminates the stunning achievements of a career that, despite being consigned to obscurity long before its author's death, ultimately shaped our literature. Finally we understand why the recognition of Melville's genius — led by D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster, and posthumous by some forty years — still feels triumphant; why he, more than any other American writer, has captured the imaginative, social, and political concerns of successive generations; and why Ahab and the White Whale, after more than a century and a half, have become durably resounding symbols not only here but around the world.
"As Melville said of Bartleby the Scrivener, 'no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man.' So, notes Columbia humanities professor Delbanco (The Death of Satan), a similarly incomplete record exists for Melville. Nevertheless, in this accessible account, Delbanco both places the great novelist assuredly in his time and delves into his works' continuing significance. While Melville's career at sea initially defined his literary reputation, Delbanco also notes that an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to go west and his later return to New York City were essential to Melville's sense of the fresh, and fragile, American republic. Delbanco also traces a Romantic thread in Melville's work (he had a fascination with Frankenstein) and the impact of abolitionism, drawing a parallel between the fugitive slave cases judged by Melville's father-in-law and his portrayal of the Pequod's African-American cabin boy, Pip. Melville's gradual withdrawal from public life after Moby-Dick's failed reception added to the dearth of biographic data, but Delbanco saves most of his theorizing for Melville's work — expansively open as it is to Freudian, environmental, postcolonial and endless other interpretations. Even now, Delbanco observes, Melville's uniquely American myth of Ahab and the white whale has been recognized in President Bush's pursuit of Osama bin Laden. 57 b&w illus. (Sept. 23)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A valuable cross-disciplinary work." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Delbanco's stunningly readable and fresh look at Melville's genius will keep readers riveted....[S]ure to elicit new appreciation for Melville's work and could well be the best one-volume biography for some time to come. Highly recommended..." Library Journal
"A graceful, sympathetic portrait....Lively and endlessly informative: a welcome addition to literary history..." Kirkus Reviews
"Delbanco's interpretations of the works are persuasive and refreshingly resistant to trendy postmodernist views. But what makes the book especially valuable as the best introduction to Melville for the general reader is his attention to context." San Francisco Chronicle
"Melville: His World and Work is tight and accessible, and its deep learning floats as lightly as silk in the breeze. In all that it is unlike its subject, to whom it stands as the best contemporary introduction." New York Times
"In short, it would be hard to imagine a more inviting overview of Melville for our time..." Washington Post
"Andrew Delbanco places the enigmatic Herman Melville in a light that is remarkably sustained and often brilliant. His acute sense of the man, his wide-angled literary insight, and the range and strength of his grasp of Melville's world enable Delbanco to deliver full-scale the strangest of our literary giants. He also has placed himself in the company of Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin and Richard Chase as a trustee of our literature who writes as well as he reads." Ted Solotaroff
"Delbanco's Melville is a reward, a brilliant and nourishing narrative that reaches beyond literary biography to an exuberant cultural history. His voice is strong — at times personal in his fresh reading of Melville?s life and work." Maureen Howard
Book News Annotation:
Delbanco (humanities and American studies, Columbia U.) carefully traces Melville's work in the context of the space and time in which his fortunes rose and fell, largely along with those of his country and class, as he came to be a friend of those who were also great writers but too soon retired from their midst as his audience fell away, and as he struggled to somehow cope with a complex family life often struck by tragedy. Delbanco manages to accomplish this by looking into the many shadows that obscure Melville rather than passing them by, finding startling and illuminating connections amongst Melville's life, mind and work.
Annotation ©2006 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Book News Annotation:
Delbanco (humanities and American studies, Columbia U.) carefully traces Melville's work in the context of the space and time in which his fortunes rose and fell, largely along with those of his country and class, as he came to be a friend of those who were also great writers but too soon retired from their midst as his audience fell away, and as he struggled to somehow cope with a complex family life often struck by tragedy. Delbanco manages to accomplish this by looking into the many shadows that obscure Melville rather than passing them by, finding startling and illuminating connections amongst Melville's life, mind and work. Annotation Â©2006 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Delbanco traces Melville's growth from bawdy storyteller through the spiritual preoccupations building up to Moby-Dick, and the profound disillusionment of later works as he charts a life that left little evidence in its wake.
About the Author
Andrew Delbanco is the author of The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil, Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now, and The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, all of which were New York Times Notable Books. The Puritan Ordeal won the Lionel Trilling Award from Columbia University. He has edited Writing New England, The Portable Abraham Lincoln, volume two of The Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson (with Teresa Toulouse), and, with Alan Heimert, The Puritans in America. His essays appear regularly in the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review, Raritan, and other journals.
In 2001 Delbanco was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 2003 was named New York State Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities. He is a trustee of the National Humanities Center and the Library of America and has served as vice president of PEN American Center. Since 1995 he has been the Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Portraits of Herman Melville
Melville: From His Time to Ours
1. Childhood and Youth
2. Going Native
3. Becoming a Writer
4. Escape to New York
5. Hunting the Whale
6. Captain America
7. "Herman Melville Crazy"
8. Seeing Too Much
9. The Magazinist
11. Season of Death
12. The Quiet End
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