A journey to find what drove Herman Melville

Novel follows man who ‘walked the edges of life’

By Anna Mundow
December 2, 2010

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It is tempting but risky for a novelist to re-create the experiences that may have inspired a great writer’s work. Too often the result is mechanical and weirdly disjointed, like a film run backward, or downright silly with characters saying such things as “Look at all those daffodils, Mr. Wordsworth.’’ In his new novel, “The Passages of H.M.,’’ Jay Parini takes this risk with one of literature’s most daunting literary figures, Herman Melville whose life and work Parini, a poet and literary scholar, clearly knows intimately.

The novel’s opening sentence takes us inside the Melville marriage. “I had become, in middle age in the midst of marriage to Herman Melville, a captive,’’ declares Elizabeth Shaw, who married Melville in 1847 and whom we now meet two decades later. “He walked the edges of life,’’ Lizzie goes on to observe of her husband, “peering into the abyss, taking his readers with him.’’ It is through Lizzie’s eyes that we first see this Melville: the narcissistic, moody, occasionally cruel failure who drinks too much, ignores his children, hits his wife, and relies on his in-laws for handouts. Confronted with these shabby revelations, the reader, like Ishmael, begins to yearn for an imminent sea voyage.

Parini vividly depicts many such voyages as the novel shifts back and forth in time, with Lizzie as an intermittent narrator. A fuller picture of Melville gradually materializes, one with which we are clearly intended to sympathize. There is the dark side and, equally significant in Parini’s view, the homosexual side. “Never would he forget the love that had been his, however briefly, in this paradise of his youth, on those succulent, savage islands,’’ he writes of Melville’s unrequited passion for John Troy, a fellow mariner. It is in homoerotic longing that the true heart of Parini’s Melville is revealed. Whether the writer is admiring a svelte boy or aching for his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, his romantic anguish is repeatedly and rhapsodically described, so much so that it gradually loses much of its dramatic force. The encounter, for example, between Melville and the teenage waiter that allegedly inspired the novel “Billy Budd’’ seems more predictable than illuminating when it arrives late in the novel.

By then Parini has dutifully covered a great deal of land and sea in an admirable attempt to map not only the wild sojourns but also the turbulent mind of his subject. Melville’s early whaling voyage on the Acushnet, his adventures among the Typee people, his sensual Tahitian idyll, the legendary high jinks with Hawthorne and other literary figures on Pittsfield’s Monument Mountain, are faithfully, if not always thrillingly, rendered. Sea and sail, appropriately, inspire Parini’s finest descriptive flourishes. “The sleek ship cut through the waves easily,’’ he writes of the Acushnet, “parsing them slantwise — like a sled going downhill easily.’’ Later, “[o]ne heard the cry emerging from a cloud of sails: ‘Thar she blows!’ ’’

To capture the writer’s outlook, to convey the spark of his fiction and poetry, and reveal the collective consciousness of his time is a trickier task. It is one that Brian Hall, for example, in his superb 2008 novel “Fall of Frost,’’ accomplished with astonishing grace when he seemed to inhabit the life of Robert Frost and that Michael Winter achieved with equal subtlety in “The Big Why,’’ his 2004 novel depicting the artist Rockwell Kent. “The Passages of H.M.’’ provides a more cramped intimacy perhaps because description often takes the place of revelation. The fabled events of Melville’s life are faithfully but perhaps too ecstatically depicted in Parini’s adoring re-creation.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a contributor to the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at


A Novel of Herman Melville

By Jay Parini

Doubleday, 454 pp., $26.95