Book Review: Critical Lives, ‘Herman Melville’ by Kevin J. Hayes

Kevin J. Hayes, Herman Melville, (Reaktion Books, 2017), £11.99

Herman Melville by Kevin J. Hayes provides a readable, entertaining, and informative account of Melville’s life and esteemed contribution to American letters. Hayes expertly captures many of the major moments of Melville’s life in an exciting, satisfying manner, arguing that Melville’s entire literary career and, indeed, his life, contributed to the making of his 1851 masterwork, Moby-Dick; or, the Whale. Based on this one monumental novel, Melville’s place in the canon of American literature is secured, despite the fact that, as Hayes makes clear, Melville ‘had slipped into obscurity by the start of the twentieth century’.[i]

Given its ground-breaking, inventive nature, Moby-Dick is inextricably linked to the modernist era, the moment in literary history when ‘the experimental quality of Melville’s writing (would) find a truly appreciative audience’ (Hayes, 9). The fact that the novel was highly regarded by the cream of modernist authors bears out Hayes’s claims. Joseph Conrad, for example, despite dismissing the novel as ‘a rather strained rhapsody with whaling as a subject and not a single sincere line in the 3 vols of it’[ii], closely modelled his own masterpiece “Heart of Darkness” (1899) upon Moby-Dick. William Faulkner, arguably America’s greatest modernist, declared the novel as ‘the book which I put down with the unqualified thought “I wish I had written it”’.[iii] Faulkner praised its ‘Greek simplicity’, and was especially drawn to Ahab as ‘a man of forceful character, driven by his sombre nature and his bleak heritage, bent on his own destruction’ (197). For these reasons, as Russ Castronovo writes, ‘Melville has always been our contemporary’.[iv]

            Aside from the novel’s undeniable impact on modernism, Hayes describes how the events of Melville’s life, such as his adventures aboard the Acushnet or his trips to England (including London, where he encountered works such as Sterne’s Tristram Shandy) all fed into the composition of Moby-Dick. In terms of the latter, Hayes astutely observes that ‘[l]ooking at the books he acquired in London, one can almost see Moby-Dick – the ‘Tristram Shandy of the sea’ – taking shape’ (114). Yet, despite the monumental stature that Moby-Dick occupies today and its centrality to the structure of the present volume, the novel was not successful upon its original publication. Indeed, Melville’s own career thereafter was cloaked in failure and anti-climax: ‘He had been counting on Moby-Dick to get him out of debt … and let him write more books of greatness and ambition. It would not’ (Hayes, 138). Hayes provides a compelling, poignant account of the utter joy Melville experienced composing Moby-Dick, and the ‘profound sadness’ that the novel’s lack of success, and the hostility of American reviewers towards it, engendered (137).

            Following the publication of Moby-Dick, Melville lived until 1891. The major failing of Herman Melville is Hayes’s bewildering decision to condense the forty years of Melville’s life and work following Moby-Dick into the book’s final forty pages. In his last two chapters, Hayes delivers a whistle-stop tour through Melville’s composition of Pierre (1852), The Piazza Tales (1856), The Confidence-Man (1857), and Billy Budd (1891, published 1924), before closing with this tantalizing assessment of Melville’s posthumous reputation:

The year after his death, new editions of Typee, Omoo, White-Jacket and Moby-Dick would appear. It’s sad that Melville did not live long enough to see these new editions, but the fan letters from England let him know that new readers were discovering his work. … Until the Melville revival three decades after his death, little knots of Melville readers around the globe kept the flame alive.

The flaws of this volume’s latter half may be attributed to a fundamental weakness with the Critical Lives series as a whole, which is not intended to provide a compendious account of its subject’s life. Nonetheless, one would like to have seen Hayes delve into the final years of Melville’s life in more detail, especially the suicide of his son, Malcolm (who is afforded a brief, unsatisfying three paragraphs [167-169]), and the composition of his final, unfinished work, Billy Budd, which receives a rushed exegesis on ‘the Addisonian clarity that belies the murkiness of its morality’ (181). While Hayes’s work is a valuable study of Melville’s life and times, the frustrations prompted by its final forty pages dampen the overall impact of what is, for the most part, a beautifully expressed, highly engaging account of an American literary master.

[i] Kevin J. Hayes, Herman Melville (London: Reaktion Books, 2017). All further references to this work are incorporated into the text.

[ii] Cited by Jeffrey Meyers in his essay ‘The Fateful Impact: Moby-Dick and “Heart of Darkness”’, Style, Volume 52, Issue 3, 2018: 212-221 (213). Meyers identifies clear parallels between Ishmael and Marlowe, Captain Ahab and Kurtz, and Moby-Dick and the ivory that bring Ahab and Kurtz to their doom, respectively.

[iii] William Faulkner, ‘To the book editor of the Chicago Tribune’, in James B. Meriwether (editor), Essays, Speeches & Public Letters by William Faulkner (London: Chatto & Windus, 1967), 197-198 (197). All further references to this work are incorporated into the text.

[iv] Russ Castronovo, ‘Occupy Bartleby’, J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, Volume 2, Issue 2 (Fall, 2014): 253-272 (255).

About Ahmed Honeini

Ahmed Honeini has recently been awarded his PhD in the Department of English at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he also currently teaches. His thesis is entitled Saying Yes to Death: Mortality in William Faulkner's Fiction. His primary research interests are Faulkner, literary modernism, and American literature and drama, 1900-present.
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