As narrative, Herschel Parker’s two-volume, eighteen-hundred-page biography of Herman Melville (1996, 2002) is rudderless and without sails in a windless sea. Unlike Richard Holmes in his two volumes devoted to Coleridge, Parker never tries to reanimate his subject, and his prose is drab. Rather, he sucks up data like a dutiful vacuum cleaner, tens of thousands of facts, and arranges them in roughly chronological order. Thanks to detailed indexes, however, we can navigate a course through uncharted seas and scrimshaw our own little dramas. On page 20 of Volume 1, 1819-1851, we learn:
“In 1830, apparently, Allan [the writer’s father] raised a few dollars he could by auctioning off some of his finer books, including The Anatomy of Melancholy, purchased in 1816.”
Four-hundred seventy-nine pages later, in the chapter devoted to Melville writing Mardi, we read:
“On 10 April 1847 [the day Harpers announced publication of Omoo] at Gowan’s antiquarian bookstore Melville picked up a copy of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (not noticing that his father had owned that very copy).”
Another three-hundred fifty-one pages on, in the chapter devoted to the completion of Moby-Dick, Parker tells us:
“[On July 7, 1851] Melville inscribed in his copy of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy a poignant discovery Allan [Herman’s younger brother] had made, a faint signature, `A. Melvill’: `I bought this book more than four years ago at Gowans’ Store in New York. Today, Allan in looking at it, first detected the above pencil signature of my father’s; who,--as it now appears—must have had the book, with many others, sold at auction, at least twenty-five years ago.—Strange!’”
Strange, indeed, for Burton ranks among the honorary fathers of Moby-Dick, joining the distinguished lineage of Rabelais, Shakespeare, Browne, Coleridge, Carlyle and Hawthorne. Poignant, too: Melville’s father’s financial fecklessness led indirectly to his son going to sea, and thus to the writing of Moby-Dick and the other books. Herman, too, knew money troubles.
In Volume 2, 1851-1891, Parker includes excerpts from an article by Oscar Wegelin published in the Summer 1935 issue of The Colophon. As a youth, Wegelin worked as an apprentice in the bookshop of Johnson Anderson Jr., on Nassau Street in Manhattan. He recalls Melville’s first visit to the shop, still hunting books, in autumn 1890. Wegelin describes the meeting as “the beginning of a brief but pleasant friendship” between the almost-forgotten author and Anderson, who recognizes his name. Forty-five years after the fact, Wegelin is unable to remember the title of the book Melville sought, only that “it was concerned with the sea.” Wegelin writes:
“I particularly recall his gentleness of manner and his pleasant smile. I never found him to be the misanthrope that many authorities accuse him of having been; it was difficult for me to believe that he was a disappointed man—if he was he did not permit his disappointment to come out into the open…”
How reassuring to think Melville had moments of contentment during his long eclipse, and that at least some of them were associated with the acquisition of books.