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After Melville

The great author is eternally pursued and rediscovered
An oil painting of waves on the open sea.

Everyone finds the Melville they want.

Writing in 2005, Andrew Delbanco observed, in his critical biography Melville: His World and Work, that the author of Moby-Dick “seems to renew himself for each new generation.” Since the mid-twentieth century, Delbanco notes, “there has been a steady stream of new Melvilles, all of whom seem somehow able to keep up with the preoccupations of the moment.” He lists a few:

myth-and-symbol Melville
countercultural Melville
anti-war Melville
environmentalist Melville
gay or bisexual Melville
multicultural Melville
global Melville

And then there’s his deathless creation, Ahab, the man who, per Elizabeth Hardwick, “has no ancestor in literature other than all of literature.” Inspired in part, Delbanco speculates, by former vice president and staunch slavery defender John C. Calhoun, the Pequod’s monomaniacal commander has been likened to everyone from Hitler to the nuclear scientists responsible for the atomic bomb to, inevitably, Donald Trump. (Unless, in a reading popular in right-wing media, Trump is actually the white whale and the Democrats who impeached him are Ahab.) This imperious commander who speaks in Shakespearean monologues, this New England fallen Quaker who masterfully manipulates his global, multiracial crew into sacrificing their lives for his doomed quest, who heroically (or anti-heroically) refuses to accept the meaningless of the world, is everything to everyone. That includes critics who never tire of probing his depths as well as hot-take newspaper columnists looking for an easy hook.

But it wasn’t always that way. When Herman Melville died in 1891, Moby-Dick had been out of print for decades. The process of rediscovery was a slow march that began in earnest just after World War I. Remembered primarily as a travel writer when he was remembered at all, Melville was soon recast as a proto-modernist, anticipating the literary developments soon to be undertaken by writers like James Joyce. The shifting, collage-like nature of Moby-Dick, alternating tragic monologues with low-rent sailor ditties, realistic descriptions of whaling with semi-parodic disquisitions on cetology, spoke to the moment aesthetically while the book’s depiction of a doomed, hyperviolent enterprise reflected the world-historical one.

Still, most of the early critics, such as English novelist Viola Meynell and American critic Raymond Weaver, were more concerned with Melville’s aesthetic breakthroughs than the political implications of his works. Weaver, in particular, was an important figure in the so-called Melville revival, which began in earnest during Melville’s centennial year of 1919. In addition to publishing the first biography of the author in 1921, he helped arrange for the posthumous publication of Melville’s late novella Billy Budd. This renewed interest in the author led to the reissue of most of Melville’s major novels in the early 1920s. (In the United States, though, his final novel, The Confidence-Man was not republished. This thrilling, perpetually slippery book of rhetorical dead-ends would await a later, postmodern audience to receive its full due.)

A renewed interest in the author led to the reissue of most of Melville’s major novels in the early 1920s. 

For all its historical importance, Weaver’s biography only covered the first few years of Melville’s career in any kind of detail, essentially ending its discussion after the career-killing publication of Melville’s 1852 novel and Moby-Dick follow-up, Pierre. Eight years later, though, Lewis Mumford would come out with a comprehensive volume. According to Aaron Sachs, author of Up from the Depths, a dual study of Melville and Mumford, the 1929 biography instantly supplanted Weaver’s efforts and remained the standard source for Melville studies for the next two decades. In addition to devoting full attention to the later stages of Melville’s career, Mumford emphasized the social context of his subject’s work. As he wrote, explaining his approach, “A society lives in a man: a man is a creature in society; the inner world is less private and the outer world less exclusively public than people habitually and carelessly think.” As such, Mumford presented a Melville who was shaped by the conflicts of his time, particularly the modernization of a rapidly industrializing America and the crises leading up to the Civil War, and whose work reflected these concerns.

Mumford’s approach continued to influence the course of Melville studies, which fully exploded after the Moby-Dick centennial in 1951. In the aftermath of World War II and its attendant atrocities, and at the dawn of the nuclear age, critics looked to Melville to address these newly relevant issues convulsing the world. From there, critical approaches proliferated, as did the sheer volume of material, a trend that continues unabated to the present day. In the years since the Melville revival, several more biographies have appeared, with Hershel Parker’s two-volume epic standing as the most exhaustive. Critical studies focusing on everything from Melville’s attitude toward the Civil War, to his theology, to his possible homosexuality have continued to crop up, and virtually every major American critic, from F.O. Matthiessen to Elizabeth Hardwick, has weighed in on his life and work.

Perhaps most interesting, Melville’s aesthetic form-busting and restless metaphysical questing have inspired a series of generically slippery fiction that reflects the famed disorderly order of the Moby-Dick author’s methods. This group of nominal novels—a mini-canon that properly begins with French writer Jean Giono’s 1941 biographical fantasy Melville: A Novel and which reaches its apotheosis with Melville’s great-grandson Paul Metcalf’s 1965 book Genoa—are works of hybridity, grounding critical analysis of Melville’s work in a fictional narrative, often embracing a cut-up approach while occasionally giving in to fevered flights of fancy. These books are one of the more thrilling phenomena in the long Melville afterlife. The latest entry in the genre, Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel’s Dayswork, represents a more than worthy extension of the growing canon.

A largely plotless novel consisting of a long series of short lines separated by white space, Dayswork is, like its predecessors, a reckoning with the legacy of Melville and what he means in the present day. It is also a novel about a marriage, a study of minor obsession, a quest for meaning, and, in a somewhat surprising turn, an agon with Melville super biographer, Hershel Parker. (Parker is mentioned by name just once; the rest of the time he is referred to derisively as “the Biographer.”)

Dayswork takes place over a few months in 2020 and 2021. The unnamed narrator who, in this work of autofiction, seems to be a version of Jennifer Habel, endures the Covid-19 lockdown in her Ohio home that she shares with her husband Chris (presumably a version of Chris Bachelder) and her two daughters. While her husband, also a writer, teaches Zoom classes and tinkers with his carpentry projects in the basement and her daughters attend their own Zoom classes, the narrator pours herself obsessively into her amateur Melville studies. Feeling adrift even as she is forced into physical immobility, she scours the internet for information about Melville while reading deeply in her many overdue interlibrary loan books about the writer. The novel, narrated in a largely uninflected, gently declamatory tone, records both her interactions with her family and the bits of Melville-ana she spends her days compiling. Although she is not given to definitive pronouncements, there is rarely any doubt about what she thinks about a given aspect of Melville’s life or a given commentator on that life—and it’s Hershel Parker for whom she saves the most venom.

Parker, who claims he “loves” Melville in the truest sense of the word, and who is concerned throughout his work with painting his subject in the best possible light, remains among the world’s premiere Melvilleans. He published the first volume of his biography in 1996; it was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He brought out the second in 2002. Since then, he has also published a companion volume about the writing of the biography and he maintains a blog, much frequented by Dayswork’s narrator, in which he aims to “rebut falsehoods, correct errors, and defend his scholarship,” as the narrator puts it.

For the narrator, Parker is not only an imperious, inflexible figure, one who is too quick to excuse the less savory aspects of Melville’s life, but he is indicative of the larger issues facing Melville research and gendered life in general. His arrogance and sense of ownership over his subject—as in a passage where, debating the deciphering of a largely illegible word in a handwritten manuscript of Melville’s, he insists that his reading is definitive, that “it is what Melville intended it to be,” and mocks those who think otherwise—render him both an off-putting figure and, in his inflexibility, perhaps a less than trusted authority.

When Melville returns from a youthful voyage and has free days in Boston, Parker has him paying romantic court to his future wife, while he was just as likely to have been engaged in several days of debauchery.

Parker also, per the narrator, betrays his trust by constantly whitewashing Melville’s actions. When Melville returns from a youthful voyage and has five free days in Boston, Parker has him paying romantic court to his future wife, while he was just as likely to have been engaged in several days of debauchery. When a much older Melville wakes his daughter up at 2 a.m. to listen to him read from his epic poem Clarel, Parker wonders what the fuss is all about. “If Melville’s daughter was tired,” the narrator paraphrases the Biographer writing, “could she not . . . take a nap during the day?”

If Parker won’t delve into the more disagreeable aspects of his subject’s life, though, the narrator is more than prepared to do so. Her quest is not to assassinate Melville’s character—she is clearly fascinated by both his life and his writing—but she is willing to follow it into its darker corners. These unsavory aspects begin early in his career, when, shutting himself up in his Berkshire study to write, he is attended to—essentially kept alive—by the women in his house. Shacked up with his wife, his mother, and his three sisters, along with two Irish servants, he was compared somewhat ominously by a friend to a “Blue-Beard who has hidden away five agreeable ladies in an icy glen.” These woman would feed him, clean his study when he was on break, and transcribe his nearly illegible manuscripts into clean copies. Melville’s reliance on the women in his life may not have been atypical for writers of his time, but the arrangement took on darker tones when an older Melville, erratic in his behavior, became emotionally and likely physically abusive toward his wife. (The Biographer is quick to dismiss this latter claim.)

The narrator’s in-depth study of Melville roams widely, touching on such topics as his relationship with Hawthorne and his vexed publication history. It also opens up into tangential considerations such as Melville biographer Elizabeth Hardwick’s troubled marriage to Robert Lowell and would-be Melville biographer Henry Murray’s long-term affair with visionary artist and psychoanalyst Christiana Morgan. The narrator’s study is, yes, a search for meaning, an attempt to answer the question of what “justifies” a life. (The critic James Wood wrote that Moby-Dick “justifies” Melville’s life, an assertion that clearly irks the narrator. She wonders why a sketch Melville made of his two daughters walking up a hill can’t just as easily serve as life-justification.) But the book wears this quest lightly. It is more about the narrator accumulating as much information as she can to help give her direction, to make her feel less adrift, than it is providing her with anything approaching definitive, or even tentative, conclusions.

The narrator’s presentation of Melville as a troubling figure, widely feared by his family, is not merely a call to look at the author in a different light, though, it’s a way of framing the narrator’s own family situation. Her husband Chris is no tyrant, but their marriage is marked by a certain tension and, for all their outwardly friendly interactions, a certain distance between the two spouses. The narrator alludes several times to the fact that, when they moved to their current city, it was largely the husband’s decision and that her opinion wasn’t fully taken into account. Although the narrator doesn’t overemphasize this fact, it has clearly stuck with her and led to a measure of resentment toward her husband.

The couple’s interactions are presented matter-of-factly, with only occasional commentary, but the authors shrewdly imply that there is always more being communicated than is being said. The couple’s conversation largely consists of sharing information, with the narrator filling her husband in on what she has learned in her Melville studies, and the husband contributing his own tidbits. The interactions are occasionally humorous, particularly in the narrator’s deadpan descriptions of her husband’s responses. (Bachelder’s previous novel, The Throwback Special, was a comic study of middle-aged masculinity and some of that same sensibility rubs off on this very different book.)

This running tension, which is continually echoed in the narrator’s deep dive into Melville’s family life, reaches its clearest expression in a masterfully enacted scene where the couple spits facts at each other, in the form of largely rhetorical questions. The narrator had been studying the life of Christiana Morgan, while her husband had recently read a biography of her lover Henry Murray. In later years, Murray had taken up with a younger woman, and when Murray and Morgan went on one final vacation together, Morgan ended up drowning in a lagoon, possibly a suicide, while Murray snoozed on the beach.

Before bed one night, the narrator asks her husband if the biography he read mentions a certain damning fact about Murray’s actions. He says “no” then asks her if her biography of Morgan mentions an exonerating fact in Murray’s favor. She says “no” and the pattern repeats, the narrator’s accusations and her husband’s exculpating explanations giving voice to their own unspoken complaints. This exchange allows the couple to hash out their tensions without addressing them directly, just as by an expert act of misdirection, Bachelder and Habel weave a deft, subtle family drama out of one woman’s obsessive immersion in the wonderful and frightening world of Herman Melville.

Bachelder and Habel’s collage technique unfolds with an expert touch, the writers skillfully picking up phrases and thoughts from earlier in the book and continually recasting them in new contexts. This technique is, of course, also very much of its time, with fragments, quotation, and white space among the chief features of a certain strain of largely American writing that came to prominence during the last decade or so, with authors like David Shields, Jenny Offill, and Kate Zambreno (whose idiosyncratic critical study, Heroines, seems a likely influence on Dayswork) making strong use of this aesthetic. The most obvious predecessor for Bachelder and Habel’s novel, though, is a much earlier book, Paul Metcalf’s Genoa, which, while also making ample use of quotation and collage, employs these techniques in a considerably different manner.

Metcalf was Melville’s great-grandson, an infant at the time his mother entrusted the manuscript of Billy Budd to Raymond Weaver. In Genoa, he treats the texts of Melville’s work as an ancestral legacy, a body of work to be drawn on, quoted, thought over, in order to make sense of a given life. The Melville student and seeker in Genoa is Michael Mills, a non-practicing doctor who lives with his wife and children in his ancestral home in Indianapolis. He alternates line shifts with his wife at the local General Motors plant, and while she works the night shift, he repairs to his attic where he pores over Melville texts as well as the writings of Christopher Columbus, an anatomy textbook, and several other sources.

Although Mills is not, like his author, a descendant, Melville is also part of his familial legacy. When they were kids, Michael and his brother, Carl, discovered a copy of Melville’s debut novel while playing in a haunted house and spent the rest of the day reading the book. From there, their reading deepened, even as the two went their separate ways. Carl, who lived a life of adventure, was captured during World War II in China and subjected to a brutal regimen of torture in a POW camp. He later moved to St. Louis, where he set up shop as a barber but could not escape his brutal past. Completing the cycle of violence begun in World War II, Carl and his girlfriend kidnap and kill a young boy, ultimately resulting in their death by gas chamber in the Missouri state penitentiary.

The Melville student and seeker in Genoa is Michael Mills, a non-practicing doctor who lives with his wife and children in his ancestral home in Indianapolis.

Mills’s quest is twofold, as he puts it, “to understand my brother Carl” and “to discover what it is to heal, and why, as a doctor, I will not.” To do this, he considers endless reams of text. Metcalf intersperses lengthy quotations from Melville and other sources with first-person narration, in which Mills records both his reflections on his brother’s and his own life and his minute, shifting physical sensations. It’s a dense, associative web that Metcalf spins, both dizzying and edifying, and which only abates in the book’s final third, when the narrative settles into a more conventional storytelling mode as Mills relates the saga of Carl’s unfortunate life.

Mills’s connective leaps and critical insights are often impressive, but he also cuts a bit of a ridiculous figure. Echoing the aged Melville’s retreat to his upstairs study where his endless pacing bothered his family below, Mills ignores his children while continually walking the floors of his own attic study, giving vent to the fevered associations and reflections troubling his mind. The absurdity of his position is made clear when his wife returns early from her shift, following a hunch that something is wrong in the household. She arrives to find Mills upstairs in his study, while down below, “every light in the house is burning, the children are in an uproar, the television going,” before concluding that they’ll have to hire a babysitter. If Mills will not practice as a doctor, cannot earn enough at his job to support his family, and cannot even look after that family to the point where they are forced to take on an added expense, then, in the terms set by his world, he can only be considered a failure as a patriarch. Whether, having imbibed familial stories about his great-grandfather throughout his life, Metcalf was commenting specifically on Melville’s capabilities as head-of-household is unclear, but Genoa nonetheless offers an ambivalent view of both the critical project and the vexed question of familial legacy.

Both Michael Mills and the narrator of Dayswork turn to Melville for different reasons, but both prove the author’s body of work to be a nearly inexhaustible resource. Dayswork is a subtle drama of familial tension and sexual politics as well as a quest for meaning. Genoa is also a family drama, both comic/domestic and tragic/fraternal, and a search for self-understanding. But there the books diverge, pointing to two different paths forward for Melville’s continuing legacy.

Dayswork is quite obviously informed by the upheavals of the #MeToo era, reconsidering the life of a prominent male author in the light of his treatment of the women around him. There’s nothing didactic or condemnatory about the book’s approach to its subject’s personal life, but Bachelder and Habel’s Melville is one whose family interactions serve as an example for negotiating both the relationships in our own life and the sexual politics that play out daily in the public sphere.

Genoa, by contrast, is concerned more with the writings than the life of the author and grounds the personal in the world-historical in a way that the more intimately scaled Dayswork does not. Considering both the colonization of the Americas (via Columbus’s voyages) and ongoing American imperialism (via the Pequod’s violent taming of that stand-in frontier, the South Seas), Genoa presents a legacy of conquering violence. This violence infects those who live in that country, those weaned on its historical inheritance, those, like Carl Mills, that the country sets adrift. Like the Pequod, like west-seeking American settlers, Carl is sent hither and thither, first to China during the war, and then returning stateside, to St. Louis, “the very eye and center of centripetal American geography, the land pouring in upon itself.” He tries to lose himself in the middle of the country, but the violent legacy of the past, both his and his country’s, will not allow it. In the end, history is determinate.

One hundred seventy-two years ago, Melville sent his microcosmic ship eastward, “turn[ing] upon himself and Western Man, performing an act as violent as subsequent war and catastrophe,” as Metcalf puts it. Undertaken in quest of both what then seemed an endless supply of oil and the fulfillment of its commander’s homicidal/suicidal vendetta, the doomed voyage played out against the background of an impending racial reckoning that was increasingly on its author’s mind. The Pequod’s unequal labor system, its mission of environmental destruction in the interest of fuel, the treatment of its black characters, all reflected Melville’s increasing understanding of the political state of his country and his growing concern over the impending fate of the American Union. All concerns which were, and continue to be, justified. In the long Melvillean afterlife, the violence of the Pequod, which is the violence of the United States, becomes the violence both visited upon and perpetrated by Carl Mills, the subtler violences of Melville’s own family life and that of just about any domestic relationship, and, with Moby-Dick standing as act of both history and prophecy, the greater violences—military, legislative, environmental—that surely await us in the years to come.