Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic

by Raymond M. Weaver. New York: George H. Doran Company. 1921. 8vo, $3.50.
THIS book is engrossing and irritating. Matters of minor importance, extraneous subjects, are treated at length. Questions that have long been asked are not satisfactorily answered. Did the pride and coldness of Melville’s mother, Maria Gansevoort, embitter his life so that, while she was alive, he wreaked vengeance by portraying her as Mrs. Glendenning in Pierre? There are pages about the Hawthornes as Melville’s neighbors. What did Hawthorne really think of him? The account of Melville’s forbears, entertaining, and not only for passionate genealogists, is of disproportionate length. One would gladly exchange the many quotations from his books for more excerpts from his journals and letters. In them we draw somewhat closer to the man.
Mr. Weaver is addicted to digression. He must have his say about literature, manners, and the conduct of life. His statements of fact and expressions of opinion are pitched in a high, at times a shrieking, key, when his style is as fantastical as that of Melville’s influenced by Sir Thomas Brown and Rabelais. (We are told that Major Thomas Melville ‘aggravated an already ample fortune.’) After all, Melville is not the hero for an orthodox biographer. Old John Aubrey should have known him; Marcel Schwob should have invented him in that fascinating volume, Vies Imaginaires.
Is Melville a man of only one book? Moby Dick is justly praised — hysterically praised today by belated admirers. Are Typee and Omoo to be dismissed as delightful forerunners of recentlypublished descriptions of South Sea Islands? Is White Jacket noteworthy only because it led to the abolition of flogging in the navy? Israel Potter contains certain pages comparable to those in Moby Dick; as the description of the fight between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis. The Piazza Tales alone should assure Melville an honorable position. The French saying. ‘A man has only one book in his belly,’ is old but false.
For years one read Moby Dick as a tale of wild adventure. It is now stated confidently that it is a sinister, hideous allegory; that Ahab is ‘the atheistical captain of the tormented soul’; that Moby Dick himself is a symbol that even Polonius would not recognize as ‘very like a whale.’
Thomas Hardy when abuse was heaped on Jude wrote poetry instead of prose. In his later, obscure years, Melville, a recluse, turned to verse, almost courting unpopularity. Was the outcry against Pierre the cause? Yet Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales and The Confidence Man, which is dismissed by Mr. Weaver in a line, were written after Pierre. One would like to know more about a novel, Billy Bud, which was not published. We are grateful to Mr. Weaver for reminding us that Melville for a time was a lecturer.
Was Melville, who called himself Ishmael, a mystic from birth? Despising the world, seeking something that was not to be found, spiritually desperate, did he find comfort in visions? These questions are not fully answered; perhaps they are unanswerable. In spite of Mr. Weaver’s brave endeavor, in spite of his research, sympathy, enthusiasm, Melville is still a mystery.