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Melville: His World and Work

4.02  ·  Rating Details  ·  253 Ratings  ·  34 Reviews
If Dickens was nineteenth-century London personified, Herman Melville was the quintessential American. With a historian’s perspective and a critic’s insight, award-winning author Andrew Delbanco marvelously demonstrates that Melville was very much a man of his era and that he recorded — in his books, letters, and marginalia; and in conversations with friends like Nathaniel ...more
Paperback, 448 pages
Published September 12th 2006 by Vintage (first published September 20th 2005)
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Apr 08, 2013 John rated it really liked it
The preface is splendid. In it Delbanco describes his biographical strategy, which is among the best I've read. He writes that the biographer's task is to evoke the past, to evoke an at-"home-feeling" about the past (my mangling of one of Hawthorne's phrases, that was the subject's present. Delbanco also quotes Henry James, who wrote that the business of the biographer is "detail." But not just any detail, rather the heaps and mounds of detail that establish the biographer's view of:
- the sort o
Aug 02, 2012 Judy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Judy by: Tajma
While most biographies of authors energize me to read more of the touted one's work, this did the opposite. No fault of Andrew Delbanco who wrote an unbiased account of Melville's life, I believe, but because I see how much Melville's moodiness and possible mental instability figures in his work. Not to mention dry passages in post-Moby Dick works and his uninspired poetry. At times, he behaved (and wrote) like a loose cannon shooting out spite and malice. However, Delbanco makes an excellent po ...more
Jim Hale
Nov 28, 2014 Jim Hale rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography-memoir
You must heed the title of this book lest you think it is straight narrative biography. It focuses on Melville's "World and Work" and not on his life. For standard biographical fare Melville: A Biography is the place to go. Delbanco examines Melville's work in the context of the epic transformations of the 19th century and offers perspectives which fascinate and frustrate at times. Sometimes I thought Delbanco went too far in his conclusions, but like Melville, he swings for the fences and when ...more
James Murphy
Jul 31, 2013 James Murphy rated it really liked it
This is critical biography laced with history. It's a fascinating look at the times in which Melville lived. Some portions of the biography, such as descriptions of the junctions of the primitive and the technologically superior as experienced by Melville, or the portrait of New York City during the time he lived there, are engaging and necessary subjects explaining the social and intellectual backgrounds which informed his work. That work itself is discussed at length. I'd not come across an an ...more
Jee Koh
Jun 08, 2013 Jee Koh rated it liked it
There are two major challenges facing any biographer of Melville, as Delbanco frankly admits. The first is the paucity of surviving documentation such as correspondence and notebooks. Delbanco overcomes this deficit to some extent by sketching in the historical picture, with some nice descriptions of New York City in the 19th century, for instance, and by delineating the debate over slavery in the lead-up to civil war.

The other challenge stems directly from Melville's own writing. After the popu
Rick Skwiot
Apr 02, 2014 Rick Skwiot rated it it was amazing
Delblanco brings Melville and 19th century America to life with his far-ranging research and analysis in this witty and engaging book that is part biography, part social history and part penetrating literary criticism on Melville’s works both great and not so great. Sadly, for Melville, he achieved only modest success during his lifetime, later gaining what many writers dread: but posthumous fame, resting primarily on Moby Dick and Billy Budd, both of which Delblanco examines with verve and insi ...more
Christopher Sutch
A fascinating, readable, and insightful work of synthetic and original scholarship. Delbanco obviously did a lot of reading, covering as he does all the primary material as well as large swathes of the secondary critical and historical material to place Melville's work in cultural and historical context. I enjoyed this work immensely, but then again I enjoy Melville's ouevre immensely as well. My only slight quibble is that Delbanc, during a discussion of the beliefs of American Transcendentalis ...more

THIS is how you do a literary biography. A pleasure to read, erudite, comprehensive though easily digestible, engaged and engaging, well-drawn and sympathetically felt. You get plenty on the good stuff and an excellent investigation of the lesser-known efforts. There isn't very much of Melville that survives, in terms of letters or diaries and so forth, and so Delbanco does a beautiful job of bringing out what he can of a rather insular and extremely complex man.

Great social panorama, too, of t
I would have loved to give this four stars but it was just too light on facts. Delbanco is an incredibly engaging biographer and I kept having to remind myself that his subject has been dead for over a century. It is impossible not to feel for this writer who continued to pursue his craft in the face of near constant rejection and ridicule.
Oct 25, 2009 Wendy rated it liked it
Very readable but amazingly reductive in its discussion of major works: Pierre and Bartleby, particularly. Delbanco can't seem to make up his mind whether Melville is an allegorist or not, although Melville could hardly write a non-allegorical sentence.
Rob Weedon
Nov 04, 2014 Rob Weedon rated it it was amazing
I bought this book at Arrowhead, the country house near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where Melville lived with his family during and after the time he wrote Moby Dick. You can take a tour of the house and stand at the window that Melville looked through as he wrote. The tour is worth taking for any Melville fan but this book is even better.
This book has it all, from his childhood to the crazy adventures of his youth, to the early triumphs of his literary career then on to the debilitating slump a
Richard Finney
Jun 06, 2014 Richard Finney rated it it was amazing
I have read "Melville" by Andrew Delbanco twice and dipped into it numerous times for referene and inspiration. Really a fantastic one volume take on a great author. And here's the thing -- if you haven't read "Moby Dick," no problem, read this book, it will serve as an introduction and a basic understanding of what makes this work so powerful even to this day. Perhaps the biggest reason to read the book is a rare step by step examination of how an author deals with early commercial success that ...more
Sean de la Rosa
Moby Dick was by far Herman Melvilles greatest life achievement. Although he wrote frantically after this work, it was only then again his last book, Billy Budd, that received great acclaim (and this, only posthumously). During his life he also attempted poetry, but this was not well received by fans and critics.

Melville suffered from bi-polar disorder. Financial difficulties exasperated by the uncertainty of income from new writings added to his anxieties. His wife Lizzie and close family memb
Oct 16, 2008 Jason rated it liked it
Shelves: biography
Delbanco's working thesis is spot on: Melville is a writer who covers so much ground that he can speak to everyone. Melville expresses so much ambivalence about God, human nature, politics, in short, ambivalence about everything, that he can strike a profound chord with any reader. Delbanco does an excellent job capturing the ambiguity and exploring the questions that Melville asks but rarely answers. Delbanco also really brings his subject to life, capturing a man who is the product of his own ...more
Jan 13, 2009 William rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, american-lit
I really enjoyed this book. Delbanco's style is very readable. He offers a great contextual view of Melville's personal life, family life and historical period, interweaving them in a smooth and accessible narrative. The only thing that made me a bit nervous at times was his frequent attempts to tie Melville's fictional characters and journeys to Melville's personal journeys. Sometimes he was persuasive, while other times I was not fully convinced. Perhaps I've been too jaded by the attempts to ...more
Sep 06, 2015 Rick rated it liked it
I enjoyed this biography of Herman Melville a great. And difficult writer. There is not a lot known about Melville's life so DElBanco focuses on a closely read textual analysis of his major works. The book made me want to read more of Melville in the original and I have read some of his work Bartelby, Redburn, Billy Budd and in high school Moby Dick. It may be time to take another run at the Great White Whale.
Bookmarks Magazine

There's little new to say about an author as studied and lionized as Herman Melville. What notes he left have been scoured clean for insight into his thoughts on subjects from sexuality to slavery. Delbanco, Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and author of The Death of Satan, takes on the role of the great collator. With an eye toward creating a biography for the general reader, he borrows liberally from the work of others, tying the whole together with his own readings and

John Woodington
Delbanco does a great job of placing Melville in the time and place in which he lived, and shows how his personal milieu contributed to his ideas and his fiction and poetry. Particularly interesting is Melville's personal struggle with his desire to believe in God, and recent findings in his day and age which pointed to a lack of God's existence.

The sections of this books center around Melville's major works, Moby-Dick, "Bartelby: The Scrivner," and Billy Budd. Delbanco shows with exacting detai
Matthew Balliro
Jun 02, 2010 Matthew Balliro rated it liked it
Shelves: 2010
This book was ok, but if you're already into Melville (taken a few classes here and there, read most of the major novels and stories, read some other books and articles), there isn't anything groundbreaking. There are some good stories and anecdotes about his life but the readings of the works aren't anything that hasn't been published many other places. There is, however, a lot of space dedicated to poetry, including a good bit on "Clarel," probably his most underread work (I admit, I've never ...more
Apr 13, 2011 Lauren rated it really liked it
Delbanco's cultural biography of Melville is comprehensive, insightful, and beautifully written. It speaks to both a lay audience and a scholarly one; to do so in a book of this scope is beyond impressive. My only complaint is not that Delbanco sometimes relies upon speculation--such is to be expected of any study wherein there are archival gaps, of course--but that that speculation is usually related to Melville's sex life or relationship with his wife. Those passages could easily have been exc ...more
David Barbero
Sep 26, 2009 David Barbero rated it really liked it
No other author so fully lived life, including it grandest heights and most abysmal lows. Delbanco's comprehensive portrait of Melville reveals the young adventurer behind Typee, the brooding genius behind Moby-Dick, the weary has-been behind his poems, and the mourning father behind Billy Budd. The biographer writes a compelling, highly readable book, despite the convoluted nature of much of Melville's own writing, and he masterfully teases out revelatory passages from Melville's works to suppl ...more
Dec 08, 2013 Jason rated it it was amazing
Delbanco is one of those author's who can deftly fuse together a highly readable and fascinating narrative with incredibly disparate sources. In this book he seems to have left no stone unturned. It isn't just Melville's life that we read about in this highly readable work, but a cultural history of 19th century America. If any author tried to incorporate all of the contradicting and complexly intersecting social strata it was Melville, and I can't think of a better author than Delbanco to tackl ...more
Tom Thompson
Jan 12, 2010 Tom Thompson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Delbanco gives a lovely sense of the age -- though not as comprehensive a portrait of the intellectual and political climate as David S. Reynolds' great "Walt Whitman's America." This is really a literary biography, with emphasis on the literature, slowly, carefully, comprehensively walking you through Moby Dick, Benito Cerino, et al.
Oct 07, 2012 Muzzy rated it liked it
A decent and very balanced trip through the most important events and changes in Melville's life. Especially good on his marriage and family issues. Somewhat lacking as a critical reading of his works, especially the literary merits of his minor sea adventures. But overall a fine introduction to the writer's unfortunate life.
Pierre Lauzon
Oct 12, 2013 Pierre Lauzon rated it it was amazing
A very good book providing background on Melville's mind through his work. Delbanco has narratives on virtually all of Melville's work with context to his life adventures, contacts, and personal circumstance. Very good on Melville's friendship with Nathanial Hawthorne. Delbanco is very readable.
Aug 03, 2008 John added it
Excellent book. Now need to read "Pierre, or the Ambiguities", "The Confidence Man," and "Billy Budd". And then need to write sprawling metaphysical exploration of human existence. Or a droll eight-line poem. Probably the latter.
Mar 04, 2014 Patrick rated it it was amazing
Biography that reads as a narrative. Delbanco's writing makes the subject almost irrelevant.
Nov 25, 2010 James rated it really liked it
Shelves: lit-criticism
Delbanco is brilliant in his assessment of Melville and his work. You get a true feeling for Melville's approach to his writing and the works and experiences that influenced him.
Dec 17, 2010 Todd rated it liked it
Solid book, usually very helpful in understanding Melville's background for each of his major works. Some of the research is a bit shoddy, though.
Jul 06, 2009 brian rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
i'd like to go on a road trip with my dog and herman melville and malcolm lowry.
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Andrew H. Delbanco (born 1952) is Director of American Studies at Columbia University and has been Columbia's Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities since 1995. He writes extensively on American literary and religious history.
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