The Passages of Herman Melville by Jay Parini - review by Jonathan Beckman

Jonathan Beckman

‘Thar She Blows’

The Passages of Herman Melville


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Herman Melville tried to do everything possible to become a great writer. He travelled the world, assiduously keeping a notebook; though not university-educated, he read widely and eclectically; he devoted himself single-mindedly to writing, cultivated literary contacts and became friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne, the most respected author of his generation; he wrote popular apprentice works, based on his experiences as a seaman. Yet his masterpiece Moby-Dick (the greatest attempt ever to write a novel in the form of an encyclopaedia article) was derided by the critics. Even his friend Evert Duyckinck called the book in his review an 'intellectual chowder'. The book sold poorly, as did subsequent works such as Pierre and The Confidence-Man. Clarel, an 18,000-line poem of romance and religious doubt set in the Holy Land, which Melville had worked on for ten years, was largely ignored when published in 1876. He never received the literary acclaim he craved.

The critical reassessment of Melville began thirty years after his death in 1891. The cacophonous disjunctions of Moby-Dick appealed to Modernist sensibilities. The taming of the wild, the grinding up of lives in the search for profit, the determination and delusional grandiosity (of both Ahab and Ishmael's prose

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