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Stand By Your Whale!

Jay Parini hit the jackpot last year when a film based on his novel The Last Station, starring Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren as the Tolstoys, received two Academy Award nominations for its leading actors. An all-around man of letters of considerable virtuosity, Parini writes poetry, well-regarded biographies (of Frost, Faulkner, and Steinbeck), and criticism. He has also published three compelling and idiosyncratic novels on major literary figures: Walter Benjamin, Tolstoy, and now, most ambitiously, Herman Melville. We may begin to see what kinds of things interest him as a novelist, and how he differs from other writers of the genre—now ubiquitous—of what might be called biographical fiction. Parini’s books also prompt the hard question of why novels devoted to the private lives of writers of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are currently so popular.  

Parini is certainly fearless in his choice of subjects. Benjamin’s suicide in the Pyrenees, when he mistakenly thought that he was about to be arrested by Nazi authorities, has an undeniable drama, but the main excitement of his life occurred in libraries. Parini’s decision to frame much of the novel in the voice of Benjamin’s close friend Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, would seem even less auspicious. And yet Benjamin’s Crossing (which I confess I dreaded reading) turned out to be surprisingly engaging, with Benjamin’s lovers and other female companions treated with particular sensitivity. A kindred sympathy for women living with impossible men also enlivens The Last Station. Parini’s down-to-earth Sonya Tolstoy is a particularly robust creation, wrestling with her shaggy bear—or hedgehog—of a husband in his wayward quest for sanctity.   

And now we have the Melvilles. Just as Parini’s previous novels focused on their doomed subjects in moments of flight, The Passages of H. M. is concerned with Melville’s obsessive travels. “He had traversed the globe, in reality and within his imagination, gone inside and out,” Parini writes late in the novel. “He was a voyager, and he believed old men should continue their quest, find fresh passages.” The punning title, along with the apparent echo of T. S. Eliot’s “Old men ought to be explorers,” alludes both to Melville’s literal voyages—on a whaling ship, a naval vessel, his brother’s clipper, a steamer to the Holy Land, and so on—and to the extraordinary literary “passages” that he wrote about them.

Parini’s Melville—or “H. M.,” as he was known in his family—is torn between the dangerous allure of travel, with its promise of crude male companionship (“Claw me, and I shall claw thee,” a randy sailor proposes), and the counterbalancing security of home, with its conventional wives and mothers. Parini resists the temptation to impersonate Melville, whose ambivalence is conveyed instead in the documented form of letters or journals. The book alternates between chapters told in Elizabeth Melville’s voice, at a time when her tumultuous marriage to a failed and monumentally depressed writer had begun to alarm her family, and retrospective chapters about Melville’s often idyllic voyages, told in the voice of a third-person narrator, whose point of view hews closely to Melville’s own.  

“Very little is known about Lizzie Melville,” Parini remarks in his candid acknowledgments, “so I made her up.” She was the daughter of the powerful and wealthy Judge Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. Judge Shaw admired Melville’s forebears, who had served with distinction in the Revolutionary War, and he liked the literary prospects of young Herman. As for Lizzie:

For better or worse, I found H. M. appealing, even irresistible. I had heard of his exploits and adventures from his older sister, Helen, a dear friend. He had sailed around the globe, gone whaling, lived among cannibals in the South Seas, and walked the streets of Liverpool and London. In New York City, he dined frequently in the best literary company. He had huge ambitions for himself, although his temper made his life (as well as ours) difficult.

Parini offers a touching and believable account of their first nights as husband and wife: “What focused my attention were his buttocks, larger and rounder than I had expected but muscular, well shaped, shining in the lamplight.” Though her own tastes in literature are not adventurous, Lizzie winningly urges her husband, in the face of damning reviews of the sprawling Moby-Dick, to “stand by your whale!”

By 1867, when the novel opens, Melville’s “huge ambitions” are dashed, with no subsequent novel selling at anything like the rate of Typee, his lightly disguised autobiographical account of life and sex among the cannibals of the South Seas. In the humiliating job of customs clerk that he has taken after the abject failure of his novels, he patrols the docks of New York in dark glasses and a wool seaman’s cap, staring restlessly out to sea. “The sea was always otherwhere for him.” Meanwhile, his caged temper periodically explodes in harrowing episodes of domestic violence.

Parini has written elsewhere of the necessary “mythos” of a successful biography, the narrative arc that compels our conviction in the unified meaning of a lived life. For Faulkner, imaginatively rooted in his native Mississippi, Parini adopted the myth of Antaeus, who regained strength from touching the earth. Parini’s novels are even more insistently mythos-bound. His Walter Benjamin, in the mazes of his emotional life, the no-exit nightmare of occupied France, and his own winding sentences, is a Minotaur marooned in his Labyrinth. Parini’s Melville, perhaps inevitably, is Odysseus, whose travels have given him a more capacious sense of what it means to be human than his stay-at-home contemporaries. He imagines Melville reading enviously about Odysseus returning “at last to his wife, Penelope, in old age on Ithaca, and his resumption of his sacred marriage bed of oak, this rooted place…What would he not give to experience the ease of being that suffused Odysseus after all his wanderings.”

“When you set out for Ithaka,” Cavafy wrote in his famous poem, “pray that your road’s a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery.” Melville’s discoveries, as Parini conceives of them, concern the artificiality of conventional boundaries, especially the Puritan strictures of Victorian America. In his weeks among the free-loving Typees, after he and a fellow sailor jump ship in the Marquesas, he encounters a society blissfully lacking clear boundaries in gender—“He could hardly distinguish one from the other, except by their genitalia”—or sexual preference. To the “was-he-or-wasn’t-he?” question of Melville’s likely homosexuality, Parini suggests instead a broad and tolerant bisexuality. Parini adopts a kindred “both-and” approach to Melville’s view of Christianity and paganism (“God is everywhere, in every wind that blows”). 

We are invited to feel that Melville’s literary achievements are similarly beyond genre, with the boundary-blurring creation of Moby-Dick encompassing essay and epic, prose-poem and dream-vision, adventure novel and ecstatic spiritual quest. Parini’s Melville emerges as an unconventional man mired in a conventional age, doomed to be disappointed in his legitimate longing for an emotional partnership with the remote Hawthorne, with Lizzie, with his own doomed sons. Parini’s language, it should be said, is sometimes too conventional, too tame, for such bold imaginings. Can we conceive of Lizzie Melville saying, like some twenty-first-century spouse in marital therapy, that “romantic love was not part of the equation?”

“A novel is a voyage by sea, a setting out into strange waters,” Parini wrote in the afterword to The Last Station, “but I have sailed as close as I could to the shoreline of literal events.” If the Scylla and Charybdis of literary biography are documented fact on the one hand and pure invention on the other, Parini’s novels sail perilously close to the facts. Even his speculative flights—concerning, for example, Melville’s homoerotic love for Hawthorne or his ugly penchant for wife-beating—are based in recent scholarship. Parini could be describing his own operations when he writes of Melville (in Lizzie’s voice) that “he straddled some invisible line between reality and the imagination, never quite certain where exactly a foot fell, on which side of the line.”

At his best, however, Parini hones in on Melville’s oceanic inner life, and the dynamic interplay of his many kinds of voyages:

The habit of writing is not easily lost, and Herman soon found himself making notes, writing in his journals. Vague ideas for stories appeared like strangers beckoning from the edge of a distant wood. He began to wave back at them in prose, and this activity carried him through squalls of feeling that threatened to overwhelm the vessel of his work. Arrowhead itself was a kind of ship, and he was its captain; if he could only keep his eye on the horizon, all would be well, or so he reassured himself. His pen dipped compulsively into the inkwell, and before long he found himself in the middle of The Isle of the Cross, a novel that would never see publication.

Such vivid passages, dipped in that intermediate realm between mundane reality and fresh creation, prompt the question of why the bastard genre of biographical fiction is so stunningly popular at the moment, with distinguished examples such as Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Colm Toíbín’s The Master, along with more recent renderings of Charlotte Brontë, Stephen Crane, and Emily Dickinson. How could Henry James, of all people, who had almost no outward life at all, emerge as a favorite subject for novelists? Could it be that our own inner lives, our inward lives, are precisely what we are now afraid of losing? Do those long-ago lives seem somehow richer, deeper, than our own hectic and increasingly “virtual” pursuits?

Emerson, who appears as a spiritual beacon in The Passages of H. M., identified the disease of retrospective longing almost two hundred years ago, in the opening paragraph of his little book Nature, in 1836, which Melville particularly admired. The questions he posed so insistently are worth asking again:

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe?

And speaking of wardrobes, there is an even more pressing question. Who will play the Melvilles in the movie?

Christopher Benfey, Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke, is completing a family memoir entitled Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay.