American novelist, short story writer, and poet, Herman Melville (1819-1891) is best known for his masterpiece Moby-Dick and his shorter works Typee, “Bartleby,” “Benito Cereno,” and “Billy Budd.”
John Bryant is a leading Herman Melville scholar and Professor Emeritus of English at Hofstra University. He is the founder of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, and of the Melville Electronic Library. He received the Distinguished Editor Award from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals in 2015. His latest book is Herman Melville: A Half Known Life (2020).
Simply Charly: It is very clear from the opening pages of your Melville biography that you have taken some care in thinking about the nature of biography and what a biography of an author can contribute to an understanding of his work. What sorts of books about biography have you consulted?
John Bryant: For me, your question encompasses other questions about theory, practice, and experience. I suppose my first response would be that, over the years and like anyone else, I first read biographies (of artists, writers, scientists, and historical figures) starting with Plutarch and Strachey on up to Atlas, Caro, Isaacson, and Rollyson, but when I got serious about writing a literary biography on Melville, I started looking for books about biography, thinking I would find (with some dread) theoretical works. I am not at all theory-phobic and think theorizing is vital to critical thinking, in so far as multiple theories can give us clearer understandings of how trauma, family, sexuality, economy, language, symbol, writing, and revision work. Theories should help us explain the accidents and contingencies in a life, and biographies that ride a single theory are notoriously blind to the full fabric of a creative life. But I didn’t find much on the theory of biography. Most books about biography tend to be about the “art of biography”—praxis, not theory—and collections of essays on research, evidence, ethics have been extremely helpful in giving me more gumption in my own practice of the art. I have also found good grounding (or inspiration) in how to write a biography in unexpected places, such as Clifford Geertz’s anthropological thoughts on Balinese dancing when he tells us that the focus of our attention should not be on the dance (ritual) or the dancer (person) but the dancer dancing. I think biography should aspire to reveal the dancer dancing. Finally, I’d say that what I don’t find are books on why we need biography in literary criticism, and in some sense, I see my biography as one pathway in how to combine life events and imaginative events in the making of a “Life” and to model in some sense reliable new ways of reading imaginative works historically and biographically.
SC: As a Melville scholar, you are deeply aware of both the critical and biographical work about your subject. Where do you place your own book in what might be called the tradition of Melville biography?
JB: I’m not sure there is a tradition in Melville biography beyond the fact that, since the 1920s, Melville biographies have pretty much emulated trends in literary biography in general. Early biographies tended toward the hagiography of a neglected hero of the democratic imagination thwarted by an unappreciative materialistic culture. In the 1940s and early 1950s, scholars aimed to correct factual errors derived from Melville’s (shall we say) inventive massaging of his adventures abroad and at sea. At the same time, that era’s New Criticism seemed ill-disposed and ill-equipped to reckon aesthetically with the intensely personal, autobiographical nature of Melville’s writings. Only Newton Arvin’s short biography hinted at our need to find new ways to read Melville’s works as life writings, not (failed) well-wrought urns. Edwin H. Miller’s psychological biography and Michael Paul Rogin’s family study take us deeper into Melville’s sexuality and creativity but suffer by nailing Melville to Procrustean themes, Freudian and biblical, respectively. Lori Robertson-Lorant’s and Andrew Delbanco’s turn of the millennium biographies admirably engage Melville’s politics and racial consciousnesses more fully, whereas Hershel Parker’s overwhelming chronological narrative sacrifices deeper penetrations for superficial family digressions. In writing my biography of Melville, I want to buck some traditions and embrace others while providing insights from new research and critical thinking on Melville’s creativity in recent decades. One unifying perspective I take is on Melville’s “fluid texts,” that is, his revisions in manuscript and in print. He was always changing his mind and I look for concrete places in his writings that show him revising words, and himself. He was himself a fluid text—an evolving identity—as is American culture.
SC: Explain what you mean by your subtitle: “A Half-Known Life.”
JB: The phrasing comes from Chapter 58 (“Brit”) in Moby-Dick: “in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life.” Basically, Melville is saying there’s a bright side of life we think we know because we can see it, but most of life is in the darkness underneath the surface, and we can only “half know” it. This condition of “half knowing” also speaks to what I call the “impossibility” of biography because biographers have trouble knowing themselves, much less some other writer, long dead, whom they have never met, except through documents and imaginative writings. As a fiction writer, Melville was himself something of a biographer, explicitly so in his early autobiographical books and in later works like “Bartleby” and Israel Potter. In The Confidence-Man, Melville writes that writing biography is like recounting the events of a ship lost at sea with no survivors. (By the way, there’s no hyphen in “Half Known Life,” and I wanted to preserve the hyphenlessness of the Melville original, but that took a lot of persistent explaining to my editors, who would invariably and inadvertently put that hyphen in there anyway.)
SC: You spend a good deal of time focusing not only on Melville but also on members of his family. Why?
JB: A couple of reasons. One is to buck the “Genius! Tradition” in Melville biography which assumes Melville was born brilliant and grew into his talent without formal education or family support and influence. A second reason is that a huge cache of family correspondence emerged in 1983, and scholars have had only minimal access to those letters. (We just got them online two years ago.) So I wanted to know more about Melville’s grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins; his boyhood schooling in Manhattan; his learning to write as an adolescent, in upstate New York, along with his closer siblings, his older brother Gansevoort and two equally vibrant intellectual and creative sisters, Helen and Augusta. I show how Melville the boy grew into his erudite, oratorical, cosmopolitan style midst this coterie of siblings, who were also growing into their own. Melville had much more creative support in the family than other biographies have been willing to admit. It seems obvious to say it, but no one comes from nowhere, and we can see traces of Melville’s sense of humor, irony, spirituality, and grandeur in the writings and lives of his (generally maligned) mother and father. The more I looked into the family, the more I saw connections to the writings. So I found myself time traveling as biographers do: following the chronology of relationships but traveling ahead into imaginative recollections of those life events. It’s a dance beginning in the past, leaping to the future, returning to the past. I was vigilant in writing (and rewriting) these passages in the biography to make sure readers don’t get lost in space.
SC: Readers will be interested in what you call Melville’s “black consciousness.” Could you elaborate on that?
JB: I’m glad you asked because “Blackness” and “blackness” take us to root contradictions in American culture. My goal in the biography is to examine many strands of consciousness—political, spiritual, aesthetic, and more—and to locate when and where the first glimmers of each strand emerge in the life. Almost from the beginning of his career and especially in the twentieth century, Melville’s writing caught the attention of African American readers and critics, and there’s no surprise: of all white writers of the American nineteenth century, none so successfully escapes Black stereotypes as Melville. Melville exposes contemporary white readers to the fallacy of racism. His insistence upon the “brilliancy” (as he put it) of the blackness of Black people stems from his empathy for dispossessed peoples generally, so I use (lower case) “black consciousness” to indicate that his general empathy embraces all races and ethnicities, though it was sparked by his empathy for Black people, free and enslaved. (A crucial fact here is that Melville was born in the slave state of New York and relatives on his mother’s side owned slaves before New York’s 1827 emancipation.) Basically, I wanted to find out when and where Melville—in his Manhattan boyhood, upstate adolescence, and young manhood at sea—came upon this empathy and how he let it grow in his writings. In particular, I look at the origins of the Black cabin boy Pip, who is so crucial in the development of Ahab in Moby-Dick.
JB: I might be better able to answer this question after I finish the last volume of the biography! For now, I might seem to be ducking the question by saying that Melville’s unity of purpose was always to grow. Like most of us, he did not know where he was going in life either when he went to sea or when he started writing himself out in his adventure books (Typee, Omoo, Redburn, White-Jacket), or when he ventured into myth and tragedy (Mardi, Moby-Dick) or into autobiography (Pierre), or when he experimented with narrative technique (“Benito Cereno,” The Confidence-Man) or reinvented himself as a poet (Battle-Pieces, Clarel). I think what makes Melville the writer’s writer that most writers take him to be is that he never suffered writer’s block and was always on to his next and different book. Consider his last fiction, the novella Billy Budd; it started out as a poem; if he hadn’t died, he might have revised it further into a novel, or cut it back to a short story. Can “growth” be a “unity”?
SC: How do you see Melville developing over time?
JB: Melville wrote his first book Typee because friends and relatives urged him to write up his experiences of Polynesian life, which he had been rehearsing as anecdotes for his shipmates at sea. But in doing so, he began (in his words) to “unfold” himself, and writing became a form of self-awareness and explorations into the lives of others (including cannibals and the dispossessed, and then into the consciousness of “beings other than man” (including whales). But he also thought of himself as a poet at heart, and once the fiction writing business no longer paid enough to compensate for the trauma of having to produce routinely for the publishing marketplace, and once he returned from a tour of Europe and the Middle East, and once he tried two years of lecturing, he dropped all that and started writing poetry. Then the country fell apart in Civil War; then his war poems in Battle-Pieces were roundly rejected; then his wife threatened to leave him; then his first son committed suicide; then he took a job in customs, and died twenty years later, but kept on writing poetry. Is that a “development”? It reads more like the arc of many accidents. I think the marvel is how he survived for 72 years, and I hope to find out how by continuing this biography.
SC: Melville seems ahead of his time in his attitude toward aboriginal peoples. Where did he come by this attitude?
JB: After spending 18 months on his first whaling ship, Melville deserted on the Marquesan island of Nuku Hiva in the South Pacific. He intended to hide out in the hills but got lost and ended up spending the better part of a month living with Taipi islanders, reputed to be cannibals, in the remote valley of Taipivai. Typee is his rendering of that experience, which includes some remarkably concrete depictions of island life and people. While some of Typee aspires to the ethnographic, it is not a study of aboriginals, per se, but an account of tribal people who become characters in a narrative. At one point, Melville’s narrator Tommo says he looked into the eyes of the Taipi chief and could not read his mind, though he felt that the chief could read him. It’s this kind of unbalanced reciprocation of consciousnesses—I call it the Melville gaze—that Melville extends beyond the exoticism of Typee and into the empathy for all dispossessed people we find throughout his works. Here, too, the Melville gaze is a colonial gaze. That is, Melville (the person) found himself in Nuku Hiva at the very moment French gunboats had moored in the bay to intimidate the locals into ceding power, as part of their larger colonizing of Polynesia. Melville saw this unfolding. So the gazing Taipi chief who hosted his visit in remote Taipivai was politically aware but already being dispossessed. Melville’s evolving colonial consciousness is entwined with his evolving “black consciousness.”
SC: Sometimes you include your own experiences and your effort to inhabit Melville’s world. Can you say more about your attempts to identify with your subject?
JB: A major anxiety in biographical writing is not falling into the trap of turning a Melville biography into a Bryant autobiography. The “trap” is really more of an unavoidable dilemma in the condition of the biographer: On the one hand, because all lives are at best “half known,” you cannot help projecting your own experiences and feelings onto the subject if only to get some familiar handle on what is essentially ungraspable. On the other hand, the biographer is obliged to focus on concrete data, not personal subjectivities. But any form of literary criticism—and I see biography as inherently critical—is likely to be “stained” by the subjectivities of the critic. For me, the best way to address the dilemma is to know when and how deep into your own subjectivity you are falling, as you are writing, and then to decide whether to resist and rewrite, or continue your own self-exploration, see where it takes you, and re-write some more. But at the end of the day, if the self-projection stays, you need to alert the reader you are autobiographizing self-consciously. One way to do this is to invite readers to exercise their own self-awareness into their reading of the life, if only to gauge the distance between ourselves and the person we want to know. Also, there are different kinds of personal experiences. I went on a two-day sailing voyage on the sister ship of Melville’s first whaler. I learned a lot about crew behavior, procedures, spaces during my time onboard the ship. I also interviewed crew members about their fears. I incorporate this information in one of my chapters on Melville’s whaling experience, but narrate it as I experienced it, so my own personal fears are added to the mix. I like what I wrote and don’t regret it, but readers will sense a switch in this chapter from standard biographical prose. Another example of personal experience is more invasive. In a chapter describing a scene from White-Jacket in which a character removes his shirt below decks while tending to a dying shipmate, I look at the intimacy of the two men during the death scene, and suddenly mention my own failure to be by my father’s side when he died. Since Melville at age twelve lost his father, I can (and do) justify this self-projection, but I still wonder if I should have cut it out in proofs.
SC: You have one more volume to publish. What can we expect in this last phase of Melville’s life and work?
JB: The short answer is “see above” in my response to Question 7. In reality, I don’t know what to expect until I start writing. The importance of an established fact can take new meaning in the context of re-reading imaginative works in the context of life facts. The “old” familiar fact becomes new and fresh, and the new perspective illuminates other familiar facts, and suddenly you are seeing things you had not seen before. I have a plan for the last volume, a three-part outline if you will. But experience tells me I am just as likely to throw out the plan or add to it. My work on identifying the sibling coterie mentioned in my response to Question 4 came about this way. Augusta’s school compositions had been hiding out in plain sight at the New York Public Library since the 1940s but certain misogynies prevented critics of the day (and even our day) from “seeing” their critical importance on Melville’s growth as a sibling and as a writer. Evidence of Augusta’s older brother Gansevoort’s editing of her compositions correspond to Gansevoort’s editing of Melville’s Typee manuscript. Reading each other was a pattern of family life. When I realized this dynamic, the biography grew beyond my earlier, more conventional plan to treat the siblings.
My next volume will focus on new kinds of growth: how did the writer of Typee evolve into the writer of Moby-Dick, into the writer of “Benito Cereno” and The Confidence-Man, and into a writer of poetry as different as Battle-Pieces, the epic Clarel, the truncated sonnet “Art,” and the haiku-like “Pebbles”? I will be tracking Melville’s 1857 European tour and have already written up his experiences in Rome, based on my own time there touring the city following Melville’s daily journal. I figured out how he got lost one day in search of Rome’s Protestant Cemetery. For the past ten years, I have been digitally transcribing and editing Melville’s 1891 manuscript of Billy Budd, which is loaded with revealing revisions. These are some particulars I am eager to write about. The broader response to what I want to do going forward has to do with what I think should be a mission of literary biography. Not only should biography give us new facts and new ways to see old facts, but it should also sharpen our critical thinking about the interpenetration of life and art. Biography should offer us new ways of reading.