I Would Prefer Not To . . .

In these biographically minded days, Professor Delbanco has not called his work a biography of Melville—his subtitle does not say “His Life and Work.”  I think this distinction is not without significance, particularly because his book takes the form, if not the substance, of a literary biography: It follows the course of an author’s life and production in chronological order.  Of course, in this case, we have to say, “Some life!  Some production!”  Odious comparisons force us to conclude that Herman Melville had the most spectacular career in the history of American letters, when we consider his ascent, his fall, his years of withdrawal, and his resurrection in the 20th century.  Even so, the blanks in Melville’s life are chasms which must daunt any biographer, while requiring extensive passages of speculation and of cultural criticism.  And so it is here.

The thing is brilliantly done.  Andrew Delbanco’s writing is so resourceful and flexible that I was a bit embarrassed to realize that, ground down by too much exposure, I had begun to expect or even to wish for a plonking level of mediocrity when it comes to the academic treatment of such a set topic.  Though the professor is fortified by extensive scholarly knowledge, he is not weighed down by it, and his book has a quality of imaginative flight and a bracing ease that is remarkable...

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