HERMAN MELVILLE: A Biography, Volume 2, 1851–1891

Hershel Parker, Author . Johns Hopkins Univ. $45 (1056p) ISBN 978-0-8018-6892-4

Parker concluded the first volume of his definitive biography, and opens the second, with the publication of Moby-Dick in 1851—"Take it all in all, this was the happiest day of Melville's life." From here, he has the thankless task of pursuing Melville through his disappointed later years, as the public demoted him from the "first American literary sex symbol" and wildly popular, swashbuckling adventurer to a literary pariah. One by one, Moby-Dick, Pierre, The Confidence-Man and other writings were felled by cool reviews, tepid sales and charges of immorality. Melville, dogged by debts, took a job at the Customs-House to support his family, and slowly slipped into obscurity. Biographers often revel in the denouements of literary icons, framing them as epic tragedies or redemption narratives. But the facts of Melville's life support no such interpretation, and Parker is obliged to continue the same heavy lifting—deep psychologizing, ponderous insights, avalanches of minute detail—he undertook in Volume 1 through a long, downward trajectory. Such perseverance and painstaking historical detail surely make this biography the last word on Melville, at least for now. Still, Parker's shaggy, barnacled prose (which bears a passing resemblance to Melville's own long-winded rhythms) is not for the fainthearted. For those who can't get enough of Melville—and they are a sizeable minority—this truly monumental achievement is the perfect book. It will also appease those who enjoy the sensation of traveling through an author's life in something close to real time. 63 b&w illus. (May)

Reviewed on: 03/18/2002
Release date: 05/01/2002
Paperback - 997 pages - 978-0-8018-8186-2
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