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Hardcover Herman Melville Book

ISBN: 0670891584

ISBN13: 9780670891580

Herman Melville

(Part of the Penguin Lives Series)

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Format: Hardcover

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Book Overview

Ernest Hemingway famously declared Huckleberry Finn to be the true font of American prose--and in the case of his own stripped-down stories, he was right. But there's another, more rococo strain in... This description may be from another edition of this product.

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

Good reading but not what I bought the book for

The Penguin Lives series has been very good to me. It understands that I don't want to burn all the minutes left in my reading life on dry, styleless steamer trunk sized biographies that beleaguer with minutiae when I want to get acquainted with a historically or artistically significant figure. It also understands that I value good style and original thinking, to avoid a "Cliff's Notes" version of a life. To date it has not disappointed. That said, I found Elizabeth Hardwick's entry on Herman Melville to not be quite like the others in the series I've read, and it comes down to this: she is really using the occasion to do a critical essay on Melville, not so much a life. In fact, at some point she says, if you want life detail you can get it from reading the exhaustive biographies on him. That she skimps on his life's events can be frustrating when you realize that her treatment is far shorter than most of the Penguin Lives. She could have added 20 - 30 pages and still have been in the series' pagination comfort zone. That said, I enjoyed the rereading of my favorite Melville books and the introduction to those I'd not read--though be warned: she spoils all the plots. Her rationale for spending far more time on his output than his life is conceptually warranted: here is a man who very much lived in the creation of his books all the while toiling in a small, stressed household filled with extended family. In other words, she is saying the life he led was the books, so that's where she went looking for him. She spends considerable time on the late 20th century theme of his possible homosexuality, the only clues in what is now viewed by some as the employment of homoerotic imagery. However, she refuses to judge and leaves that as a mystery. Ultimately, she says, so much of Melville is "perhaps." I wish she had spent more time on his life as well as more time on the revival of Melville's reputation in the 1920's and its persistence. I'm not sorry I read this book at all--it is very well written in a fluent, vervy voice--but it wasn't what I'd hoped it to be.

"...and the sailor home from the sea"

This is one of several volumes in the Penguin Lives Series, each of which written by a distinguished author in her or his own right. Each provides a concise but remarkably comprehensive biography of its subject in combination with a penetrating analysis of the significance of that subject's life and career. I think this is a brilliant concept. Those who wish to learn more about the given subject are directed to other sources.When preparing to review various volumes in this series, I have struggled with determining what would be of greatest interest and assistance to those who read my reviews. Finally I decided that a few brief excerpts and then some concluding remarks would be appropriate.Those who write reviews such as this one have other writers whom they especially admire. Mine are George Orwell, E.B. White, and Elizabeth Hardwick. You can thus understand my eagerness to read her biography of Melville. Early on, she observes that "....the sea was to give him his art, his occupation, but the actual romance of landscape, the sun on the waves, the stars at night, are nearly always mixed with with the brutality of life on board. And the art that saved him, the discovery of his genius, was a sort of Grub Street, a book a year, sometimes two." As Hardwick carefully explains, there was throughout Melville's life "a forlorn accent shadowing the great energy of his thought and imagination. There is a rueful dignity in his life and personal manner, and sometimes a startling abandonment of propriety on the pages."On Elizabeth Shaw: "The marriage was more prudent for Melville than for his wife. He might long form male companionship, even for love, but marriage changed him from an unanchored wanderer into an obsessive writer, almost if there, in a house, in a neighborhood, there was nothing else for this man to do except to use the capital he had found in himself with the writing of Typee and Omoo [two of his earliest works]." (page 51)On friendship with Hawthorne, to whom Moby Dick was dedicated: "Hawthorne and Melville met in the Berkshires, and a friendship developed unique in Melville's life, unique in inspiration and disappointment....Melville had found in Hawthorne the lone intellectual and creative friendship of his life, had found another struck by the terror and dark indifference of the universe...He would share the fate of being a writer in America, share his ragged banner: Failure is the test of greatness. But there was a disjunction of temperament, an inequality of fervor." (Page 66)On Ishmael: "[He], the young man from Manhattan, is the moral center of [Moby Dick], a work tantalizingly subversive and yet somehow if not affirming at least forgiving of the blind destructiveness of human nature and of nature itself." (Page 84)On Melville's death: "He died at home in his own house with a wife to care for him in his great distress and need. It appears he came to be grateful for her long years as Mrs. Melville, a calling certainly unexpected in her

Penetrating literary insight

I became interested in this book on the basis of two other works: Edna O'Brien's great Penguin Life of James Joyce, my favorite author; and Hardwick's excellent introduction to the Modern Library edition of Moby-Dick. It certainly lived up to the promise of the second, if not fully the first. As nearly every other reviewer has noted, it's not very thorough as a biography, focusing instead on the highlights of which any Melville fan is probably already aware; but then again the Penguin Lives series doesn't pretend to be extremely in-depth. As literary criticism, though, this book is great stuff. Here Hardwick decidedly avoids a formulaic or predictable approach, coming up with novel observations on Melville's work and turning as perceptive an eye on lesser works like Redburn and Typee as on the masterpiece -- indeed, it was this book which inspired me to read Redburn, which I've come to admire as a great entry in the Melvillean canon. Add to this Hardwick's voice, sometimes beautifully evocative, sometimes obscure, but always greater than your average nonfiction author's, and you've got a book definitely worth reading.

Taking the plunge

Reading this book is like plunging into the ocean on a hot day. Facts eddy and swirl around you like seaweed, you feel the currents of Melville's finest works, and you leave refreshed.Hardwick, best known as an essayist, has a dense style (somewhat reminiscent of Melville's) leavened with rhapsodic passages that define a nugget of truth as froth defines a wave.I finished this book with an urge to plunge into several of Melville's lesser known works.

A writer of a whale, and vice versa

Next year I'm taking a trip to a famaliar yet vaguely forbidding American landmark. In other words, I'm planning to re-read "Moby Dick". To prepare myself for this metaphysical adventure, I wanted to read something that would refresh my memory regarding this novel and its author; and Viking Press offers Elizabeth Hardwick's "Herman Melville", published last summer as part of that house's Penquin Lives Series. It's an eclectic series, the subjects ranging from Joan of Arc to Elvis Presley. Ms Hardwick's contribution is not a biography per se (there are no plates and there is no index) but rather a set of essays combining Melville's personal experiences with the art he created. In fact, many of the chapter headings are titles of Melville's stories -- e.g., "Redburn" or "Billy Budd". Reading these chapters inspires one to take up the Meville the reader may have put aside "till later". The two longest chapters are devoted to "Moby Dick" and to Hawthorne, to whom the masterpiece is dedicated. Despite its brevity, (161 pages), Ms Hardwick's book follows Melville's life closely, from his voyages as a young man to his forty-four-year long marriage (which Ms Hardwick compares to Tolstoy's) and ending with his nineteen-year servitude at the New York Custom House. Heavy his marriage was (one of his sons committed suicide, the other became adrifter)...Ms Hardwick's succinct yet complex narrative is smoothlywritten, and she has a way with words (she calls "Moby Dick"a "gorgeous phantasmagoria".) But for a reader who just needs an outrigger against the mammoth "Moby Dick", Ms Hardwick's slim but strong volume offers appropriate support.
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