cover image Herman Melville

Herman Melville

Elizabeth Hardwick. Viking Books, $19.95 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-670-89158-0

The Penguin Lives series is a good one (see review of Rosa Parks, above): casual but serious, artfully rendered criticism that is not hell-bent on footnotes and references,; the slender volumes are produced by critical writers who are also impressive creative minds in their own right. Melville, whose life story is aptly told by literary critic and novelist Hardwick (Bartleby in Manhattan), is not the most accessible of subjects for a short format like this. Though he was an immensely prolific creator of novels, short fiction, poetry, letters and journals, and though he was one of the most important American writers, his life was barely public enough for any biographer to nail him down. His career is also too complicated to fit into any simple ""rise"" and ""decline"" paradigm--his genius is unevenly distributed across his works. Nonetheless, ""there is a rueful dignity in his life and personal manner,"" Hardwick writes. His family responded to him with a ""puzzled sympathy."" Hardwick gives a frank depiction of a depressive, often bitter man who weathered a constant struggle over income (""Dollars damn me,"" he wrote), the suicide of a son and, possibly, according to Hardwick, doubts about his own heterosexuality; Melville never seemed to forgive the world for refusing to recognize Moby-Dick as a masterpiece during his lifetime. Through 12 brief chapters, many centered on fresh readings of Melville's works and others thematic (""Whaling,"" ""Elizabeth,"" ""Hawthorne""), Hardwick's own talent for metaphor and no-nonsense interpretation makes this an especially engaging critical account. Perhaps most importantly, Hardwick is able to convey both the complexity of the man as well as the inherent impossibility of the biographer's task to fully elucidate the life of a multifarious individual. ""He is a mystery,"" she writes, ""no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man."" Still, this work is a delight to read. (June)