A review of Jay Parini's "The Passages of H.M.," a fictional version of the life of author Herman Melville. The story reveals how Melville renounced popular and critical acclaim when he wrote his masterwork "Moby-Dick," a novel relegated to obscurity during Melville's lifetime that eventually achieved literary immortality.

Share story

‘The Passages of H.M.’

by Jay Parini

Doubleday, 454 pp., $26.95

In his novel “The Last Station,” Jay Parini adroitly shifted perspectives to tell the story of Leo Tolstoy’s late years. Tolstoy was a celebrity, almost a saint, and so multifaceted that no one point of view could encompass him. Now, in “The Passages of H.M.,” novelist, poet and biographer Parini uses that technique to tell the story of Herman Melville, who became America’s Tolstoy but was far from that exalted role in his own time.

The technique works even better here than it did in “The Last Station” (made into a 2009 movie of the same name with Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren). Parini’s fictionalized life of Melville explores the dimensions of a man who could never be confined or fully defined.

Among many excerpts from letters and journal entries, Parini quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s comments to his younger friend on “Moby-Dick,” the book that helped destroy Melville’s literary reputation in his own time and that established it for ever after: “Each character in this novel is you. You are Ahab — the monomania is yours, the will to fusion with the whiteness of the whale … You have split yourself into many parts.”

For Melville, this praise from his venerated friend counted more than public acclaim: “A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book … I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the supper, and that we are the pieces.”

Parini shows us Melville’s genius as well as the reasons the writing and the man himself made genteel readers uneasy — as they made him. We follow young Melville as he leaves New England on a whaling ship and experiences the boundless sea, finding that lack of boundaries reflected in the amorality of his fellow whalers and the people they encounter. When he jumps ship in the South Pacific and lives among cannibals, he sees innocence and savagery inextricably intertwined. Where others might be appalled, he is drawn to it. He asks himself why he should accept “Western life with its serial obligations.” “Why should one accept the rigidities of married life,” he wonders, “where sexual impulses — ever mysterious, ambiguous — found a narrow bed to lie in?” The passages narrated by his wife, Lizzie, confirm how uneasy he was in that narrow bed.

His early novels, including the very successful “Typee” and “Omoo,” packaged his experiences in ways that made them palatable to readers’ taste for the exotic without challenging their moral code or their expectations about literature. But he remained dissatisfied. In a story by Hawthorne, he read about the psychological effects of transgressing social boundaries, something Melville himself had experienced but not yet explored in fiction. While working on “Moby-Dick” he finally met Hawthorne, whose influence helped turn a story of a whaling adventure into something far greater, albeit a greatness too challenging for most contemporary readers. The very form of the book, sprawling and endlessly allusive, was an affront to readers and critics.

As a result, Melville became estranged from the literary world and forgotten by the reading public. He eked out a living as a customs inspector, dispirited and seemingly reconciled to obscurity, although he continued to write fiction that has since found wide acclaim — and some long poems that remain, alas, unreadable.

Parini’s Melville is a writer whose heart will not be restrained. The title character from his short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” has every chance at a comfortable life if only he will submit to the routine of work. Refusing an ordinary task, he says, “I prefer not to.” In “The Passages of H.M.,” Jay Parini gives flesh and soul to a great author who gained immortality by resolving never to be ordinary.

Richard Wakefield, a Tacoma Community College instructor, recently won the 2010 Howard Nemerov Sonnet award for his sonnet “Petrarch.”