Herman Melville

(Orig­i­nally published in Boston Maga­zine, April 1996)

Until now, Herman Melville has been read as the ulti­mate macho writer, with his harpoons and his great white whale. But that view is being chal­lenged by three Boston-area Melville scholars who have published books on the great nine­teenth-century Amer­ican novelist in recent months: Laurie Rober­ston-Lorant, whose Melville: A Biog­raphy re-exam­ines his life in light of 500 newly discov­ered family letters; Wyn Kelley, whose Melville’s City re-defines the great glori­fier of seafaring life as an urban writer; and Sheila Post-Lauria, whose Corre­spon­dent Color­ings places his Moby-Dick and his other books the context of the best-sellers of his era. Her title comes from a poem by Melville:

Whereas great geniuses are parts of the times,
they them­selves are the times,
and possess a corre­spon­dent coloring.

The three authors are good friends — a rarity in the cut-throat publish-or-perish world of acad­emic publishing. We all got together over lunch and talked about the road to Melville.

Wyn Kelley: The men in my family were all into Melville. My father was an English professor, and there was an uncle who painted the sea. They saw him as tragic and isolated — the whole 50’s New Crit­i­cism view. For years I thought there was some­thing wrong with me for liking Melville. Then I met Laurie and Sheila.

Sheila Post-Lauria: I saw Ishmael as this guy who cele­brates multi­cul­tural bonds with people from all over the world: native Amer­i­cans and Africans. Moby Dick is a book against patri­archy and against patri­ar­chal modes of action. It’s full of the sky and the water, images of male and female blending together.

Laurie Rober­ston-Lorant: Women are ready to see in Melville a man who was sensi­tive to mascu­line roles in the nine­teenth century. Women respond to the wounded side of Melville — his expe­ri­ence in the Navy, the flog­gings, the abuse of men by men. Women respond to the femi­nine and almost maternal under­cur­rent in his writing about the sea, in the wonderful language of passion and inclu­sive­ness.

Wyn Kelley: Just call us Women Who Run With The Whales.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.