Friday, December 16, 2011

The Revival

The Melville Revival has become an iconic event in American literary history, and I won't even try to discuss all the debates over it that I have read (or, at the very least, perused). Suffice it to say that Melville went from being a minor mention (how minor to be debated) in America's literary history to a grand central figure of the 19th century by the mid-1920s, and that this revival of interest in him began slowly and surreptitiously somewhere in, depending on who you talk to, the parlors of Paris, academies by rivers, or the hotel lounges and walk-ups of New York in the teens. The telling and retelling and examining and rexamining and debunking and rebunking of the elements of the story is an important part of today's Melville industry. But the immediate impact of the revival, besides the development of more contemporary forms of torment for young students to replace the dwindling interest in beating them repeatedly with Latin copies of the Aeneid, was a raft of fairly interesting books. Let's look at a few.

Raymond Weaver is always mentioned first. His 1921 biography of Melville, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, is still in print, and still reads well. Even if most of the biographical details are subject to debate and questioning, the book has held up well. Much of Weaver's detail can be glossed or expanded or the basis of the his opinions and biases questioned, but he generally did his work well and the core narrative remains fluent, interesting and useful. Weaver was also responsible for the first publication of Billy Budd in 1924 as part of an edition of the Complete Works of Herman Melville put out by the London publisher Constable. Weaver, however much he desired to do a complete biography and collect the complete works, was completely entralled by Moby Dick and less overwhelmed by Melville's other work; indeed, his narration of Melville's tragic decline has been persistent, and we are still reviving Melville's later works.

Another work that helped secure the broader reputation of Melville and Moby Dick was D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature, also still in print and likely to be Lawrence's most lasting and significant contribution to literature. Lawrence is quite animated in the book, and includes an interesting chapter on Typee and Omoo as well as one on Moby Dick. Lawrence begins another grand tradition: that of Melville as inspiration for critical works with no small literary virtue of their own, a tradition that reaches its height in Charles Olson's eclectic Call Me Ishmael, where Olson's critical discussion spontaneously bursts out in verse in several places. It is worth a little quote from Lawrence to see how Melville inspires him:

But it is a great book, a very great book, the greatest book of the sea ever written. It moves awe in the soul.

The terrible fatality.



Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America. Doom!

Doom of what?

Doom of our white day. We are doomed, doomed. And the doom is in America. The doom of our white day.

Ah, well, if my day is doomed, and I am doomed with my day, it is something greater than I which dooms me, so I accept my doom as a sign of the greatness which is more than I am.

Melville knew. He knew his race was doomed. His white soul, doomed. His great white epoch doomed. Himself, doomed. The idealist, doomed: The spirit, doomed.

The reversion. 'Not so much bound to any haven ahead, as rushing from all havens astern.'

That great horror of ours! It is our civilization rushing from all havens astern.

The last ghastly hunt. The White Whale.

What then is Moby Dick? He is the deepest blood-being of the white race; he is our deepest blood-nature.

Such Marvelous, Beautiful, Strange Bombast! Lawrence outdoes himself, and part of the fun of a good Whale obsession is seeing some of the literary figures and critics who go virtually mad with glee at this odd book.

Two other books from the 1920s revival worthy of mention are Carl Van Doren's The American Novel early in the decade and Lewis Mumford's Herman Melville: A Study of His Life and Vision late in the decade.

The revival continued to gather steam, slowly extending to Melville's other works; in 1945 Robert Penn Warren somewhat carefully and reluctantly recognized a kernal of genius in Melville's poetry in his essay "Melville the Poet", still available in his New and Selected Essays; Elizabeth Foster rescued The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade in the late forties and early fifties, ultimately coming out with a new edition in 1954 from Hendricks House as part of a broader Melville publishing project; and Bruce Franklin elevated Mardi to a central place in the Melville pantheon in his 1963 The Wake of the Gods. Beginning in the 1960s, the Northwestern-Newberry complete scholarly edition begins coming out at a laconic pace, providing the foundations for the vibrant Melville industry of today. Indeed, fetishizing Melville's more obscure work has become so fashionable that Harold Bloom even added Clarel to his The Western Canon.

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