Herman Melville

IT HAS been unfortunate for Melville’s reputation, in one respect, that his writings were not limited to his lovable sea-reminiscences and his majestic Moby Dick; for even many serious readers have hesitated to become acquainted with an author about whom so much has been said of gloom, torment, and failure. Yet Melville’s writings as a whole, considered wisely and tolerantly, are a treasure-trove for critics of psychological or philosophical interests.
Mr. Sedgwick’s book, posthumously published, is a successful, convincing biography of Melville’s mind, written with a fine appreciation of the curve of its philosophical struggles and development. Practically all biographical material of an external nature is omitted, and oifly occasionally does Mr. Sedgwick indulge in artistic criticism. Such elimination helps the reader keep the path, and it also tends to de-personalize the story and to give to Melville’s own mental experiences that element of universality which is Mr. Sedgwick’s basic aim. Taji, Whitejacket, Ahab, Pierre, and Captain Vere are all Melville at different stages of his development, but they are also man in those intellectual moods that try’ to lift him above, or try to fit him into, the world of every day.
The universal element in Mr. Sedgwick’s book, suggested in his subtitle. The Tragedy of Mind, makes it a philosophical treatise in its own right. This element concerns the natural idealistic yearning of the human mind to solve the eternal riddle of the universe, to carry all analysis to that cold, logical finality where no axiom, no element of faith, remains. There is “terror” in the thought of a mind desperately facing what the ages have demonstrated to be certain disaster, and there is “pity” in the thought of the fruitless nobility and the loneliness involved.
Melville’s own quest, as Mr. Sedgwick relates it, has a dramatic rise and fall. After the tentative efforts in the earlier books, Moby Dick appears as the bold triumph, with Ahab as the gloriously defiant failure. Then comes the period of Pierre and The Confidence Man — a period in which bitterness has weakened the grasp. Then the “slow process of recuperation and rehabilitation.” Here Mr. Sedgwick is at his best; he warms up to what is undoubtedly the most difficult period in Melville’s life to understand, and his writing becomes felicitous and enthusiastic. He attaches great importance to the littleknown poem of Clarel, and his analysis of it is most illuminating. He stresses Melville’s effort to reorient himself, to externalize himself. And — still with that idea of universality to the forefront — he leads us to the philosophy of acceptance in Billy Budd, in which Melville, nowin the role of Captain Vere, lets his loyalty to human affairs and interests dominate over higher though less practical truth.
Mr. Sedgwick has made an outstanding contribution to the appreciation of our literary heritage. Harvard University Press, $2.75.