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Bookmarks Issue: 
20-Jan-Feb-2006
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His World and Work

A-MelvilleIt’s disheartening to know that literary celebrity hasn’t changed much over the last 150 years. After achieving fame for his subtly salacious tales of Polynesia, Typee and Omoo, Melville’s audience shrank and critics tired of his seaborne stories. Luckily for American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne encouraged the author to complete that little novel about "Whale Fishery." Moby-Dick (1851) was no financial windfall; Melville worked his remaining years as an anonymous customs inspector in New York and his obituary was filed under the name "Henry." With a long historical approach, Delbanco looks at the author in the context of these unhappy times to understand his lasting preeminence in American literature.
Knopf. 416 pages. $30. ISBN: 0375403140

Providence Journal 4.5 of 5 Stars
"In his elegant, evocative, and deeply perceptive prose, he prowls through the writer’s soul and consciousness, plumbing psychological depths but also linking him to the wider world of his times, wrestling with slavery, the collapse of the Union, the whaling industry, his own years at sea, middle-class morality and decorum, sexual subterfuge and hypocrisy, reformist zealotry, and the splintering of Calvinist rigor, slowly supplanted by Darwinian forces." Sam Coale

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"He periodically underscores the continued relevance of Melville’s complex themes— man’s ambiguous relationship to Nature, the persistence of social and racial inequities, America’s imperialistic sense of manifest destiny, the shiftiness of sexuality—and yet he doesn’t belabor the obvious or thump any tubs." Michael Dirda

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"For those whose commitment to Melville is less overwhelming, whose interest is somewhat more general, Andrew Delbanco’s fine and highly readable new study provides a thoughtful overview of his life, his times and his significant works. That fine thing, an accessible critical biography, it feels faintly old-fashioned, presuming as it does a general literary readership." Clare Messud

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Delbanco functions here as star lecturer—learned but lively, empathetic toward his subject, shrewdly analytical and unfailingly engrossing. … It’s as though your alma mater’s winner of its Outstanding Teacher award were personally escorting you through the Melville maze." Dan Cryer

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Delbanco’s engaging, comprehensive, and well-written biography focuses primarily on Melville’s work, asserting its undeniable presence in our literary consciousness as well as our popular culture. He provides much necessary and useful background about Melville’s family and working life, about which relatively little is known." Robert Faggen

Houston Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"Though Delbanco knows Melville and his works well, his cultural critical soundings yield only intermittently perceptive readings of the deep-water-dwelling Melville. … Melville cannot be caught in the shallows of cultural criticism." Jim Barloon

Critical Summary

There’s little new to say about an author as studied and lionized as Herman Melville. What notes he left have been scoured clean for insight into his thoughts on subjects from sexuality to slavery. Delbanco, Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and author of The Death of Satan, takes on the role of the great collator. With an eye toward creating a biography for the general reader, he borrows liberally from the work of others, tying the whole together with his own readings and literary style. Though "definitive" rings hollow in the halls of Melville scholarship, the polish and comprehension of Delbanco’s work will guarantee a satisfied readership.