A host of Melvilles have been invented for our times, yet the historical Melville remains opaque.
When he reviewed Hershel Parker's thousand-page Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 1, 1819-1851for the New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco cautioned other would-be biographers: "It is worth keeping in mind an apposite comment by Melville's contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson. 'Geniuses,' Emerson remarked in 1850, 'have the shortest biographies' because their inner lives are led out of sight and earshot; and, in the end, 'their cousins can tell you nothing about them.'"
Delbanco should have heeded his own advice. The Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University has focused his powers of criticism on a wide range of subjects in such books as The Puritan Ordeal (1989) and The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (1995). But in turning his attention to Melville, Delbanco chose a singularly unpromising subject for a biography. Many of the facts of Melville's life—to say nothing of his inner life—simply
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