The Passages of Herman Melville, by Jay Parini
The line which best sums up Jay Parini’s excellent book, surprisingly, can be found in the little read acknowledgements. His own words, ‘this is a novel, not a literary biography.’ Readers eager to see Herman Melville’s creative mind prised open will be largely disappointed with The Passages of Herman Melville. At best, the author’s work informs Jay Parini’s narrative with a scattering of details and imagery, dropped like breadcrumbs for the curious. Aside from a brisk involvement with the creation of Moby Dick, Herman Melville as writer, is largely ignored.
Without the necessary constraints of biography, Parini cheerfully jumps timeframes. Repeatedly. There is a simple stylishness to his narrative. Told in first person from the perspective of his wife, Lizzie. Third person when following Melville himself. Parini avoids playing fast and loose with the reality of his subject, but, by playing out Melville’s undoubtedly complex life as novel, rather than straight up biography, he gets to cherry pick the most promising incidents.
So, the book opens with a drunken, and bitter Herman as failed and impoverished author. Customs officer for New York City, far removed from his posthumous status as one of the great American novelists. Shortly the book doubles back on itself, locating a younger, impressionable Herman serving aboard several whalers. Throughout his seafaring journey’s Herman records his prolific impressions in a journal, storing them for later use, but reciting stories to his fellow crew, similarly as practise for later. Alongside him are men Herman comes to befriend, and view as more than ocean borne companions. There is not so much an implicit hint of bisexuality, rather an earnest and passionate love letter to those repressed urges.
The other major figure of the novel, Elizabeth Shaw Melville, can often be described as having the patience of a saint. Again, as Jay Parini puts it, ‘very little is known about Lizzie Melville, so I made her up.’ For her part, Lizzie attempts sympathy, is always supportive, but nevertheless is excluded from her husband’s life. So, again, the book opens also with a tormented wife, plotting escape. And again, shortly the book doubles back on itself, to show the increasingly strained domestic relationship.
Seaman and adventurer, author and poet, husband and father are the threads Parini skilfully highlights to define Herman’s story. The Herman of these pages is an interesting, melancholic man, incapacitated socially by his wanderlust and histrionic mood swings. His restless nature is aided by his awful luck in crewing for either dangerous, delusional or drunken captains, leading to him frequently jumping ship. His Pacific adventures make for the first of many disillusions Herman must face through the course of the book. Happily they make for entertaining reading.
If Parini is an experienced enough author to stick only with Lizzie and Herman, he’s convincing with the glimpses of the broader nineteenth century world he does allow. His knowledge and respect for both period, and leading character is irrepressible. In particular, readers might find a delight in his wider view of the literary culture at that time. Charles Dickens, the titan of the day, has a cameo appearance. And Nathaniel Hawthorne, a real life friend of Herman, guest stars late in the novel. Hawthorne in particular brings his own gravity to both reader and Herman alike. He’s a man written admirably by Parini, possibly even next for the literary write up.
Still, this is Herman’s story, and The Passages of Herman Melville does justice to the famous author, regardless of the veracity of the man presented here. There’s a lot left unsaid, but the intention isn’t to list a catalogue of biographical information. There’s no setting of the varied frustrations and literary failure’s in context. Neither Herman, nor Lizzie, and certainly not nineteenth century society, yet had the hindsight to appreciate Herman’s work, so Parini doesn’t write in an easy and gratifying but false success story. Jay Parini’s accomplishment with this book is in realising, there’s no need. Its all in the title.