J A N U A R Y 1 9 9 7
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
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Browse an anthology of Brief Reviews by
by Hershel Parker.
Johns Hopkins, 962 pages, $39.95.
This first volume of Professor Parker's biography of
Melville ends in 1851, when the author presented to his revered friend
Nathaniel Hawthorne an
inscribed pre-publication copy of Moby-Dick. "Take it all in all, this
was the happiest day of Melville's life." Professor Parker occasionally
indulges in such ex cathedra certainties, but take it all in all, he is
a sound, sensible biographer and so thorough that he will probably be accused
of monumentality -- translation: unnecessary detail, such as which cousins
attended whose wedding. The charge is not deserved. The detail matters. Herman
was the second son of Allan Melville and Maria Gansevoort. The Boston-based
Melvilles had tenuous connections with Scottish nobility. The Gansevoorts were
solidly entrenched among the patroon families of old New York. Both of Herman's
grandfathers had served with distinction in the Revolution. These were capable,
prosperous, socially secure people. Allan Melville, however, died relatively
young, leaving his large family with some fine furniture and a pile of
fecklessly incurred debts. The surviving relatives had no intention of paying
those debts if it could possibly be avoided, and to that end kinsmen on one
occasion sued each other. Going to sea was a standard possibility for a young
man with reasonably good health, an inadequate education, and no money.
Melville went a-whaling, jumped ship on a cannibal isle, made his way home, and
wrote Typee. It was a notable, and provocative, success. He continued to
write. The women of the family also wrote. They were industrious and lively
letter writers and habitual letter keepers. Professor Parker has had a vast
amount of material to work with and has made good use of it. His life of
Melville, which hurried readers may find overinclusive, becomes a history of
manners, amusements, business methods, politics, American whaling and
international maneuverings in the South Seas, literary cliques, publishing
practices, copyright law, and the erratic eccentricities of reviewers. When
possible -- and it frequently is -- such information is presented with sly,
humor. Melville emerges from this background as a man living and working in a
real world full of real, amusing, brilliant, and sometimes rascally people.
Well-chosen quotations establish that Melville himself was a charmer, a grand
yarn-spinner, a wild driver, and a man who could describe a winter gale in the
Berkshires as indicating "too much sail on the house" and a need to "go on the
roof & rig in the chimney." He was also, of course, a serious writer,
steadily expanding his range and his thinking, and on the way to becoming the
great writer who deserves all of Professor Parker's admirable work and all of a
The Fallen Man
by Tony Hillerman.
HarperCollins, 294 pages, $24.00.
Acting Lieutenant Jim Chee is not comfortable with the
paperwork required by his promotion, and Joe Leaphorn is bored with his
retirement. A skeleton found by accident brings these edgily allied veterans of
the Navajo Tribal Police into action and provides the reader with another of
Mr. Hillerman's elegantly plotted puzzles. As usual, the tale includes
evocations of splendid scenery and sympathetic respect for the Navajo
by Robert Bateman and Rick Archbold.
Simon & Schuster/Madison Press,192 pages, $60.00.
Mr. Bateman is a superb painter of the animals that he
loves and of the natural world that they inhabit. His affection and
admiration fairly leap out
of his depictions of puffins and polar bears, lions and loons. He fears for the
future of all these fine creatures as human encroachment reduces their habitats
and human chauvinism ignores their rights. He "can't imagine anything more
complex, varied and beautiful than the planet earth -- or anything more worth
saving." His subjects support that position.
Paris in the
by Jules Verne,
translated by Richard Howard.
Random House, 256
The young Jules Verne's vision of a future Paris was
uncannily accurate in many respects -- heavy traffic, crowded housing,
systems, and angular women -- but he neglected to provide an intriguing plot and
his conclusion was pure gloom. His publisher balked, and the text has only now
achieved print. It is interesting for the points on which Verne was right, and
also for those on which he was wrong. He foresaw a France devoid of political
The Language of the Body:
Drawings by Pierre-Paul
by John Elderfield and
Abrams, 221 pages,
Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758-1823) was a painter and
decorator who enjoyed considerable success before withdrawing into
collaboration with Constance Mayer. He did less and less painting of his
own but spent a great deal of time
on what was usually considered student practice -- chalk studies of nudes.
Prud'hon was a masterly draftsman, and the drawings (académies)
reproduced in this generously illustrated book are impressive. They are also a
bit strange. The female nudes are graceful nymphs doing nothing in particular.
The male nudes, in contrast, are usually actively posed and frequently display
girlishly pretty heads incongruously attached to heavily muscled adult bodies.
Mr. Elderfield's text never truly accounts for this sexual disparity, but he
makes a brave attempt at it, and the drawings can easily and happily be enjoyed
for their own sake.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1997; Brief Reviews; Volume 279, No. 1;