(Roughly) Daily

“Anything down there about your souls?”*…

Herman Melville; drawing by David Levine

Andrew Delbanco on the difficulty, to date, of capturing Herman Melville’s central importance in a biography…

The fact is that Herman Melville is a singularly unyielding subject for literary biography. “One portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another,” as he says of the whale, “but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness…[because] there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like.” The dim record of Melville’s life simply disappears into the glare of his work, and the best one can hope for is to glimpse a few moments of convergence between them…

By what alchemy did an apparently unremarkable boy become the genius who broke open the conventional form of the novel and pushed the American language far beyond where any previous practitioner had taken it? Where did he acquire his knowledge of evil that made him seem mad to his contemporaries, but prescient of our own blasted century?…

On the problem of understanding Melville’s work via his life: “The Great Leviathan.”

* Queequeg, Moby-Dick, Chapter 19

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As we wonder about white whales, we might recall that it was on this date in 1855 that David Livingstone became the first European to see (what we now call) Victoria Falls in what is now Zambia-Zimbabwe.

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