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BOOKS IN BRIEF

Short Reviews of New
and Noteworthy Books on
History and Historians’
Picks

Sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute
of American History, this section is
designed to provide readers with brief,
informative, and timely reviews of the best
recent books in American history.

Click here to download this chapter as a PDF

 

MARITIME BOOKS

Andrew Delbanco
Melville: His World and Work

Alfred A. Knopf, 2005; 388 pages.

With lyrical prose in Melville: His World and Work, Andrew Delbanco places Herman Melville’s life and his writing in the context of the time in which he lived. More than other biographers, Delbanco places Melville in the socio-economic context of his New York life and frames his literary career in relation to the burgeoning New York literary scene. He is popularly associated with New England, because he wrote his masterpiece Moby-Dick on his farm outside Pittsfield, Massachusetts, but Melville was born in New York in 1819, spent much of his life in the city, and died there in 1891. Delbanco states: “There has never been . . . an American writer more deeply affected, indeed infected, by the tone and rhythm of the city.” Melville’s ultimate sense of failure as a popular author is set within the rapidly changing socio-economic conditions of New York City.
     Delbanco does not believe it necessary to critique earlier Melville biographers. He writes of Hershel Parker’s mammoth twovolume biography: “Like all students of Melville, I am keenly aware of, and especially grateful for, the prodigious scholarship of Hershel Parker.” His generous acknowledgement of earlier scholarship is a credit to him.
     Along with the facts of Melville’s life, Delbanco includes close readings of almost all his works, from his first book, Typee, and the iconic Moby-Dick, to less well-known works such as Redburn and Israel Potter. For example, Delbanco calls “Bartleby,” Melville’s short story set in New York City, “among the great achievements of world literature.” He exposes the discomfort caused by “Bartleby,” but he also reads the lawyer-narrator—“a good man trying to become a better man in the face of another man’s suffering”—more sympathetically than other critics.
     Melville: His World and Work is joyful reading and well worth its 322 pages of text and 66 pages of notes.

Mary K. Bercaw Edwards,
University of Connecticut