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Biography of Melville

Melville, A Half-Known Life. Volume 1 by John Bryant 


The first time I heard Karen Wilson sing we were both in our thirties, and I had gone over to her apartment to play parchisi with her.  She put on the record player and launched into an aria.  I was so overcome I thought I might lose consciousness --  that I could know a person who could produce that sound! Now here again, I have read the first volume of an enormous three volume biography of Herman Melville by my friend John Bryant and  again I am awestruck  -- that I know the author of such an ambitious and beautifully realized project.  


But not speechless.  Bryant refers to the child/adolescent/young adult of this volume as Herman, reserving “Melville”  for the great writer that this young person eventually became.  In this volume Herman is coming to consciousness and establishing his identity amid his family, his social and economic milieu, and having experiences which one day he will find useful in his chosen profession.  


The leisurely exploration of the character, interests, and temperaments of his parents and siblings pulls us into young Herman’s most formative relationships.  Particularly crucial were the death of his father when he was 12,  the competition with his older brother Gansevoort, and the apron strings of his mother, which had to somehow be severed.  But what characterizes and permeates the book is the back and forth between Melville’s books, which are mined for autobiographical material, and the life experiences of young Herman which later seeped into the great works, providing them with detail and depth.  


Here is a hint of  how Bryant works. Chapter 29 is called Uncle Thomas.  At nearly 16, Herman goes to help on his uncle’s farm.  We learn of Uncle Thomas’s life, quite colorful in itself, and how versions of him appeared in works.  This is tight (and enlightening) scholarship.  But then we get an analysis that veers into the creative process itself, how memories are sifted and stored and of how Melville translated images from the land into images of the sea.  Bryant shows how In Moby Dick whales feeding off of crowds of tiny crustaceans are seen to mimic land harvest and how Herman’s stint as a farmer provided the source.    


I’m looking forward to the next volume.

Here are some comments now that I have read Volume 2.

Volume 2 covers Melville's young adulthood, from age 21 to 27, during which he travelled and sailed, experiencing adventures and encountering colorful characters, all of which provided stockpile of material for the novels that followed.

Young Melville has a restless need to explore the world. He first travels west and then back to New York, and out on the oceans, first the Atlantic and then the Pacific, where he encounters barely known cultures and native populations, whose customs he approaches with a mixture of fear and curiosity. With the success of his first novel, Typee, it becomes clear to him and to his family (to whom he eventually returns after his travels) that he is a writer.

What I loved about this volume was the great sweeps, in close to the very penmanship of Melville and out far to the huge social issues festering in America in the lead up to the Civil War. Bryant's research is meticulous, and he is certainly willing to go into the weeds. But he also sees big pictures and enlightens us on Melville in the real unfolding nineteenth century. I also loved the literary analysis and the author's willingness to engage in informed speculation, connecting dots for us as only a scholar steeped in the life and work of Melville could. Because of the thoroughness of the research we are treated to fascinating facts. Who else would be able to tell us that Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville were both in the same place at the same time? It really is a thrill to imagine those two luminaries of their century passing by each other like ships in the night.


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