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Melville’s Second Act

NYRB Review: Hershel Parker’s Melville: The Making of the Poet and Robert Milder’s Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine

Both Hershel Parker and Robert Milder have written in-depth studies of the last three decades of Melville’s life when he concentrated on writing and publishing poetry. Parker does so in the second volume of his Herman Melville: A Biography as well as in his recent Melville: The Making of the Poet. Milder has written of the second half of Melville’s career in various works, most notably for his anthology, Billy Budd, Sailor and Selected Tales, and, more recently, in several of his essays collected in Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine. Generally speaking Parker and Milder take different critical approaches in their studies of the older Melville, his poetry, and the 30 years during which it occupied most of his creative energy and time. But read together Parker and Milder complement one another and give us a comprehensive appreciation and understanding of not only Melville the poet but of his poems as well.

In the June 26, 2008 issue of the New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey, Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke, reviews both Hershel Parker’s Melville: The Making of the Poet and Robert Milder’s Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine. The opening of Benfey’s review, “Melville’s Second Act,” excerpted on the NYRB website, shows us Melville on a voyage in the summer of 1860, the summer he unsuccessfully attempted to publish his first volume of poetry:

On August 1, 1860, Herman Melville’s forty-first birthday, he was aboard the clipper ship Meteor, captained by his younger brother Thomas, as it made the hazardous passage around Cape Horn bound for San Francisco. A gale arose that day and lasted, as Melville noted in his diary, for three brutal days of ‘snow, rain, hail, sleet, mist, fog, squalls, head-winds, refractory stove, smoky cabin, drunken ship &c &c &c.’ A week later, as strong winds continued unabated, a young sailor from Nantucket was blown from the rigging to the deck and was killed instantly. After the funeral service, presided over by Tom, the body was tipped into the ocean and the blood washed from the deck. ‘All goes on as usual,’ Melville reported, ‘as if nothing had happened—as if I did not know that death is indeed the King of Terrors.’

If you can not find the June 26, 2008 NYRB Review at your bookstore or library, you can click here to read an online version.

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