Herman Melville in Fiction

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Herman Melville in Fiction

It happens more than you think....

Fans of Herman Melville are an interesting group.  To quote playwright Tony Kushner, ''One falls in love with him, and I certainly have, completely, as most of the other Melville freaks have".  Fans include Maurice Sendak, Moby, and the current President of the United States of America.  (He lists Moby Dick as one of his favorite books.  He's read "Bartleby the Scrivener", sure, but the novella Benito Cereno? That's a pretty deep cut. Serious Melville geek points, Mr. President.)

Melvilleans tend to get obsessed and do things like run book reading marathons, write Melville into their novels, and write bizarre lists of those novels.  Enjoy!
The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard
This book explores the relationship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne while they were both living in the Berkshires.  During a 16 month period they had a very intense creative relationship and many feel it is due to Hawthorne’s influence that Melville chose to re-write Moby Dick as a darker, more allegorical novel than the straight-forward sea adventure it originally was. (Moby Dick is also dedicated to Hawthorne.)  Melville’s letters to Hawthorne during this period were especially ardent (it’s hard to read them as anything other than love letters) and the usually reclusive Hawthorne was uncharacteristically warm and hospitable to the younger author.   (In Beauregard’s novel, it is Melville’s (unrequited?) love for Hawthorne that parallels Ahab’s obsessive quest for the unobtainable whale.  It's a good read and a fascinating take on a relationship that scholars have been speculating about for a long time.
The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch
Herman Melville is a side character in this very grim book about a Civil War sharpshooter named William Bartholomew, whose face was maimed in the war.  He meets Melville in 1867 New York City, where Melville worked as customs inspector.  After bonding with Melville over their shared love of books, Bartholomew involves Melville in a daring plot to rescue children still enslaved in Florida after the war.  The book's overall approach to race hasn't aged all that well in the 16 years since it was written.  In addition, its portrayal of Melville's son Malcolm (who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound) as a sort of sociopath is both insensitive and not rooted in any sort of fact.  It does do a good job of setting the scene though, and fans of The Alienist and similar books would probably enjoy it. 

The Handsome Sailor by Larry Duberstein
This one is…fine.  It’s another one about Melville and his alleged affairs.  One is with Sarah Morewood, his neighbor during his time in the Berkshires (a relationship explored more in the recent biography Melville in Love.)  The Whale: A Love Story makes a better (fictional) case, and c’mon, a 19th century literary super couple is way more interesting.   The other affair is with a woman named Cora during his later years.   Duberstein clearly knows his Melville trivia, but he expects his readers to know it too, which is a lot to ask.  The book is divided into sections from Melville's point of view from him time as a civil servant (right before he wrote Billy Budd) and excerpts from Sarah Morewood's (fictional) journal. The journal parts aren't especially compelling, but Duberstein gets points for writing the first novel that tries to get into Melville’s head, and does a pretty convincing job.

The Passages of H.M. by Jay Parini
A recurring theme in most of these books is that Melville was…not that great of a husband and probably shouldn’t have gotten married.   (The thought “Poor Lizzie” comes up a lot while reading these books.) The books on this list contain a lot of conjecture, but his largely unhappy marriage to Elizabeth Shaw is pretty much an historical fact. (Though it should be noted that it is disputed by some.)   Parini gives her a voice, and the novel is split between her narrative of their marriage and a third person account of Melville’s life.  This one gives a voice to both Lizzie’s sadness and Melville’s loneliness and of all the books on this list, this one feels the most accurate.  But that’s just me.  As they used to say on Reading Rainbow, you don’t have to take my word for it.

The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay
And now for something completely different. The Secret of Lost Things centers around The Isle of the Cross, a book Melville may or may not have written.  Which he may or may not have destroyed.  It may or may not have been based on a story he originally pitched to Hawthorne. (Lots of mystery there.) In The Secret of Lost Things, Rosemary, the narrator is an orphan from Tanzania who moves to New York City and gets a job in a used bookstore named the Arcade.  There she becomes involved in a plot with her co-workers to purchase a copy of The Isle of the Cross from a mysterious seller.  A sizable portion of her fellow employees know a ton about Melville (which is unusual, even for bookstore employees) so there are plenty of Melville references even before the manuscript turns up (and it takes a while). It isn't a perfect book (most of the characters aren't especially compelling)  but Rosemary is a likeable narrator and Hay is clearly a talented writer.  Overall The Secret of Lost Things is pretty good novel about literary obsession.  And Melvilleans know a thing or two about that.