The Passages of H. M.

It's tempting to seek the roots of literary mystique, the real-life analogues and harbingers of unforgettable images, characters, and scenes. The lives of some authors, like Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, are so enigmatic that the wellsprings of genius remain haunting and elusive, while others offer life stories so fraught and colorful that we're inclined to hang their every inventive figure and detail on one biographical snag or another. In The Passages of H. M., novelist and critic Jay Parini tackles the glorious jungle of Herman Melville's life—where he finds the roots and shoots of invention springing forth from every nook and cranny.


Like contemporaries Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne—indeed, like many culturally-inclined Americans of their generation—Melville bore the burden of a glamorous past. Emerson's grandfather, William Sr., was a chaplain in the Continental Army and a leader in the fight at Lexington and Concord; Hawthorne's great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, famously served as a judge at the Salem witch trials. Like many of their contemporaries, these authors struggled beneath the weight of such glamorous, ambiguous legacies. Melville was the scion of one of the most gnarled and many-branched of American families: his grandfather, Thomas Melvill, a participant in the Boston Tea Party, strutted around the streets of post-Revolutionary Boston in the garb of the Colonial era, making him perhaps the city's first historical reenactor; Melville's mother's family, the Gansevoorts, were of prominent Hudson-Valley Dutch stock. In fleeing the fetters of expectation, Melville would sow the seeds of his greatness, although he would not live to see the fruit ripen to fullness. The grafts, prunings, and scars of his tortured habit are the stuff of literary legend: the youthful sea voyages, most notably on the New Bedford whaler the Acushnet; stupendous early success with his sea thrillers Typee, Omoo, and White-Jacket; thrilling, influential friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne; the mystified reaction of readers to his magnum opus, Moby-Dick, the disappointment of which served as prelude to a career lost in psychotic rages, marital unhappiness, and abandonment to the uncertain pursuit of epic poetry.


Parini dramatizes Melville's genius at work in chapters that alternate between a third-person narrative of scenes from Herman's life with the first-person account of his long-suffering wife Elizabeth Shaw, called Lizzie, as she reflects on her unhappy marriage and the seemingly utter failure of her saturnine, violent drunkard of a husband. It's the work of Passages of H. M. to bring these two vectors together as Herman's early enthusiasms and victories give way to disappointment and breakdown. Lizzie's accounts of her life with Melville are heartbreaking and fluidly written—almost too fluidly. At once lucid and lukewarm, they have the the sound-bitten, confessional quality of testimonial interviews from an episode of Frontline or 48 Hours.


Parini is a gifted cultural observer, however, catching the strands of Melville's critique of modernity, a perspective that we're only now beginning fully to absorb. In the early phase of an inter-connected world, in which a far-flung shipping custom prefigured the interlaced networks of products and ideas with which we're familiar, Melville recognized the ways in which a globally-distributed economy diluted collective responsibility for suffering and exploitation. Parini captures the source of this bright and brittle strand of Moby-Dick in young Melville's musings while laboring in the try-works of the Acushnet:

The alchemy that transmogrified a whale into oil took three or four days per whale, depending on its size. It was a sight to witness: the pots bubbling and steaming, the oil drained into pans, transferred to cisterns and barrels. The hold filled with its valuable store.... [Herman] understood in a visceral way now that the work of whaling, this murder at sea, led directly to the light that glowed in countless parlors and bedrooms, that illumined the flickering pages of thousands of books. In the dark process that involved him so intimately on the Acushnet, death itself seems necessary to produce light, even the life of the mind.

Too often, however, the experiences and observations of Parini's H. M. seem more crudely rooted in the fertile loam of the original's fiction. The Acushnet's glowering, tyrannical captain; the handsome beloveds who prefigure the doomed eponym of Billy Budd; the uncomfortable meeting with a louche and queenie old Walt Whitman—Parini's watershed of literary wellsprings seems to gush from the undergraduate syllabus and the latest edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. It's a workmanlike telling of Melville's troubled life, but it lacks the grand estrangements of a work like Paul Metcalf's Genoa, which tangles together fiction-twisted strands from the lives of Melville and Columbus with essayistic weavings of history and paleontology. A shamefully neglected writer, Metcalf was a great-grandson of Melville, shouldering a measure of the same legacy that helped to break the author of Moby-Dick. Unlike the H. M. depicted in Parini's novel, Metcalf showed that such a legacy could be both honored and lightly held. One of his favorite images of the creative act, learned from Ezra Pound, was that of the "rose in the steel dust"—the patterns and prodigies that emerge from the chaos of elements held in tense suspension. Perhaps Metcalf's image is a fit figure for the limning of a literary life as well.

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