by Robert WeibezahlNovember 2010
The marriage behind Melville's masterpiece
As he dramatized the final days of the mercurial marriage of Leo and Sofia Tolstoy in The Last Station, Jay Parini imagines the less tumultuous, but perhaps unhappier marriage of Herman Melville and his wife, Lizzie, in his new novel, The Passages of H.M. We join the couple mid-voyage, after the critical and commercial failure of Moby-Dick has sunk H.M., as he is called, into a well of despair from which he will never fully ascend. Lizzie, who describes herself as “a captive,” lives discontentedly in Manhattan with Herman and their children. The family has moved back to the city, after living a more agreeable life in the Berkshires, so that Herman can take a much-needed job as a customs inspector. In that capacity, he wanders the docks of New York, returning home often drunk, nearly always in one of his moods. H.M. perpetually broods about his literary obscurity and his failure to make a living as a writer. Lizzie keeps them afloat with bequests from her distinguished Boston family.
It was not always so bleak. In alternating chapters, H.M.’s own story unfolds, with his younger self embarking on the series of sea voyages that will provide the material for much of his fiction. Bright and optimistic at the start, H.M. experiences life to the fullest aboard ship and at ports of call, particularly on the South Pacific islands that inspire his first novels, Typee and Omoo. Having lost his father when only 12, Herman seeks the affection of men, and while he never fully acts upon his homoerotic urges, he develops strong attachments to a number of fellow sailors. These relationships, accentuated by the isolation of life at sea, bring him pleasure, but also considerable emotional pain. Later, when he befriends Nathaniel Hawthorne, H.M. yearns for an intimacy with the great writer that Hawthorne—whom, despite Herman’s adoration, Lizzie paints as haughty and self-absorbed—is incapable of sharing.
While Countess Tolstoy was a prolific diarist, little is known about Lizzie Melville, forcing Parini to create her inner life out of whole cloth. The woman he gives us is intelligent, well-bred and remarkably patient, while frustrated and disillusioned by the way in which her marriage has succumbed to the dark moods and occasional rage of her husband. Lizzie is an astute woman—she tells us more than once that she wishes H.M. had left out the encyclopedic history of whaling that weighs down Moby-Dick’s narrative. Still, she never seems fully aware of the sexual wedge that cleaves her marriage, although she does note that her husband has “a soft spot for any young man, especially a gentle one.” When their son, Malcolm, commits suicide amid a despondency that seems to mirror his father’s in heartbreaking ways, the couple cannot bridge the chasm of grief. Only at the end of his life, after Herman makes one last voyage and finds inspiration for the story that will become Billy Budd, does the great writer acknowledge his dependency on his long-suffering wife.
Parini, who is an accomplished literary biographer (Faulkner, Steinbeck, Frost) and poet as well as novelist, exploits the freedom only fiction affords in fashioning a wholly absorbing portrait of the Melvilles. Illuminating the mysterious life of an iconic American writer, The Passages of H.M. may inspire many readers to rediscover the strange wonders of his novels and stories.