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With Moby-Dick Herman Melville set the standard for the Great American Novel, and with “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Benito Cereno, and Billy Budd he completed perhaps the greatest oeuvre of any of our writers. Now Andrew Delbanco, hailed by Time as “America’s best social critic,” uses unparalleled historical and critical perspective to give us both a commanding biography and a riveting portrait of the young nation.
The grandson of Revolutionary War heroes, Melville was born into a family that in the fledgling republic had lost both money and status. Half New Yorker, half New Englander, and toughened at sea as a young man, he returned home to chronicle the deepest crises of his era, from the increasingly shrill debates over slavery through the bloodbath of the Civil War to the intellectual and spiritual revolution wrought by Darwin. Meanwhile, the New York of his youth, where letters were delivered by horseback messengers, became in his lifetime a city recognizably our own, where the Brooklyn Bridge carried traffic and electric lights lit the streets.
Delbanco charts Melville’s growth from the bawdy storytelling of Typee—the “labial melody” of his “indulgent captivity” among the Polynesians—through the spiritual preoccupations building up to Moby-Dick and such later works as Pierre, or the Ambiguities and The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade. And he creates a vivid narrative of a life that left little evidence in its wake: Melville’s peculiar marriage, the tragic loss of two sons, his powerful friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne and scores of literary cronies, bouts of feverish writing, relentless financial pressure both in the Berkshires and in New York, declining critical and popular esteem, and ultimately a customs job bedeviled by corruption. Delbanco uncovers autobiographical traces throughout Melville’s work, even as he illuminates the stunning achievements of a career that, despite being consigned to obscurity long before its author’s death, ultimately shaped our literature. Finally we understand why the recognition of Melville’s genius—led by D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster, and posthumous by some forty years—still feels triumphant; why he, more than any other American writer, has captured the imaginative, social, and political concerns of successive generations; and why Ahab and the White Whale, after more than a century and a half, have become durably resounding symbols not only here but around the world.
“A brilliant tribute to the genius of Herman Melville and a vivid contribution to the challenges of literary biography.” —Elizabeth Hardwick
“An acute critical biography . . . offers a rich account of Melville’s relation to his times . [Delbanco] writes throughout with grace and wit, his lucid contextual readings synthesize a generation of scholarship. Melville: His World and Work is tight and accessible, and its deep learning floats as lightly as silk in the breeze. In all that it is unlike its subject, to whom it stands as the best contemporary introduction.” —Michael Gorra, The New York Times Book Review
“Andrew Delbanco places the enigmatic Herman Melville in a light that is remarkably sustained and often brilliant. His acute sense of the man, his wide-angled literary insight, and the range and strength of his grasp of Melville’s world enable Delbanco to deliver full-scale the strangest of our literary giants. He also has placed himself in the company of Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin and Richard Chase as a trustee of our literature who writes as well as he reads.” —Ted Solotaroff
“Delbanco’s new biography of Melville is a wonderful book. It’s especially satisfying to have the information he gives us about the time Melville was writing in, particularly the political and social scene, during the period Melville was at work on his all-consuming masterpiece. This is a scholarly book, of course; but in fact it is the opposite of stiff and pedantic—it reads with the force and vividness of a novel. All readers of American Literature will want to read it.” —Kent Haruf
“Delbanco’s stunningly readable and fresh look at Melville’s genius will keep readers riveted. This is sure to elicit new appreciation for Melville’s work and could well be the best one-volume biography for some time to come. Highly recommended.” —Ron Ratliff, Library Journal
“A graceful, sympathetic portrait . . . lively and endlessly informative . . . of a writer all but forgotten in his day, but now seen as central to understanding the American character . . . Delbanco reads Melville’s prose work against the backdrop of American history, remarking that though Melville was born in a world whose rhythms were medieval, he died in one ‘that had become recognizably our own,’ and linking Melville’s themes of quest and conquest, always on morally unstable ground, with the ambiguities of America in its dawning age of Manifest Destiny. [His] smart readings of Melville’s works, major and minor alike, do much to explain why literature remembers him more generously now.” —Kirkus
“Delbanco’s Melville is a reward, a brilliant and nourishing narrative that reaches beyond literary biography to an exuberant cultural history. His voice is strong—at times personal in his fresh reading of Melville’s life and work.” —Maureen Howard
"The finest biography ever written of this essential American . . . At long last, Melville is poised to emerge as a flesh-and-blood figure . . . Mr. Delbanco tells the life, straight, [and] shows us a Melville who never quite gives up, who still haunts used bookstores, goes for endless walks around the city, and continues to write, secretly, brilliantly, right up to the end . . . For its wealth of information, its lyrical writing and its unsparing judgment, Mr. Delbanco's book will define Melville for both specialists and general readers well into the next generation. It goes unstintingly into his tragedy, and yet--true to form--it makes precious room for hope and laughter. Not all ambitious quests into the heart of darkness end in failure. Herman Melville proved it with Moby-Dick. Andrew Delbanco has proved it with Melville." —Ted Widmer, New York Observer
"Delbanco concentrates on on the intellectual and social context out of which Melville's work grew, [and] his subjects come alive, as artists of their era--and ours." —Glenn C. Altschuler, Boston Globe
"A story that Andrew Delbanco tells surpassingly well . . . with exceptional clarity and wit [as] he periodically underscores the continued relevance of Melville's complex themes--man's ambiguous relationship to Nature, the persistence of social and racial inequities, America's imperialistic sense of manifest destiny, the shiftiness if sexuality . . . In short, it would be hard to imagine a more inviting overview of Melville for our time . . . In the end, perhaps the most important use of literary biography is to send us back to a writer's books with increased understanding and renewed excitement. This Andrew Delbanco certainly does for Herman Melville. We are his beneficiaries." —Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World