Jill Lepore’s lovely New Yorker piece on the “domestic” Melville reminds me of Lewis Mumford’s path-breaking biography, published in 1929, before he turned from literary history to the history of, well, everything else, from technology to architecture and cities, from Technics and Civilization (1934), perhaps his most important book, on toward The City in History (1962).
But then I grew up on Mumford, so almost all intellectual occasions point me back to the days in my 20s when I was first bedazzled by The Golden Day (1926), the brilliant study of American culture that completed the rediscovery and rehabilitation of American literature, by positing the authors of the 1850s—Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Thoreau, Dickinson—as the pinnacle of American literary achievement.
Just as F. O. Matthiessen would follow Mumford’s lead in proclaiming an American Renaissance in the 1850s, so young Lewis was following the lead of Van Wyck Brooks, whose Letters and Leadership (1917) and America’s Coming of Age (1918 ) had unearthed a potential canon in the literary upheaval of the pre-Civil War decade. But both Brooks and Mumford were consciously recapitulating and complicating the itinerary of D. H. Lawrence, whose Studies in Classic American Literature (1912?) had made the case for serious attention to the gothic extremities of these romance-besotted writers.
Mumford’s biography of Melville is remarkable for the same reasons Lepore’s essay is. First, they try to fit the fiction to the facts of the man’s life, domestic and otherwise, and vice versa. It’s not reductionism, it’s something way more subtle and satisfying, as if an old friend or a good shrink were explaining why you said something stupid (or brilliant) the night before—how in the context of your inebriation or exhilaration it makes sense the day after.
Both Mumford and Lepore fasten on the incestuous sexuality of Pierre (1852), the novel that Melville wrote in the shadow of the damning reviews of Moby-Dick (1851), and both think in terms of a blocked sexuality that might be explained by young Herman’s South Pacific experience. As a penniless deserter who jumped ship and spent months in the company of irrepressible islanders, he couldn’t thereafter get used to western civilization. “Benito Cereno” was the epitaph he wrote for it.
Second, both Mumford and Lepore are more interested in the close-at-hand details of the man’s domestic life than in the large political conflicts, particularly anti-slavery, that roiled his time. Mumford’s chapters on Elizabeth Melville, on the close quarters of the family, and on what they meant for the writer, are the first of their kind, to my knowledge, at least with respect to an American author. The 1850s were the turning point in writing as such (ask Dickens or Whitman)—that tribe of “scribbling women,” as Hawthorne designated it, had created a new public, a new market, a new set of readers, but the concerns of writers and readers alike, male or female, were domestic, familial, local at least. Not even Thoreau would flee this confinement, although he did notice the train whistle as it passed Walden Pond.
Third, both Mumford and Lepore collapse the difference between their time and his, by abstracting from those large political conflicts. Young Lewis says “I have omitted quotation marks,” saying, in effect, please mistake me for old Herman. Young Jill says, “Holy smokes!” when confronted with the idiocies of 21st cenuury literary criticism or the platitudes of 19thcentury reviews, admitting, in effect, that she has no answer to the problem that is Pierre, the novel, not the man, whoever he is. The difference between the centuries again disappears.
These three rhetorical devices are magically compelling, because they make us feel that Melville is our contemporary—we don’t have to “go back” to him, we’re just catching up to him, as Mumford put it in his (auto)biography. Still, Herman himself was more interested in the wide, wide world—the title of the first best-selling novel, ca. 1851—than Lepore or Mumford would allow. He thought he was changing the way we can think about it by writing fiction. Imagine that.