The Clare Spark Blog

November 27, 2010

Melville “unpainted to the last”?

Gore Vidal and Jay Parini at Key West, 2009

Read this first.

Megan Marshall reviewed Jay Parini’s novel purporting to explain the Melville problem. She pans this folly, but praises Andrew Delbanco’s study of HM, because Delbanco is untouchable, being a member of the literary establishment. Oddly, she does not mention Hershel Parker’s two volume biography or other Melville scholarship.

   I do not deny that Melville was masked, at the same time that he pulled off (or tried to) pierce the masks of powerful others. But that is not the same as imagining that he was unknowable or evasive or that extant materials elude accurate readings of his life and art.

   As Harrison Hayford noticed long ago, Melville’s prisons were a major motif in his fiction. As I have insisted ever since I started working on “the Melville problem”, Melville was ambivalent, but displays his ambivalence openly. Ambivalence is the only response for a man who longs to invent new forms but is unable to break away from his patronage system and closest relatives for reasons of psychological and financial dependency. So he writhes, and in his Laocoön agony discloses everything we need to know to comprehend his supposedly mysterious texts, with the appropriate amount of stoicism on the part of the author. Or perhaps you will hear a scream as I sometimes do.

   Jay Parini is the literary executor for Gore Vidal. Is it any surprise that Melville’s supposed secretiveness has to do with the claim by many gay readers and critics that the most important thing to know about HM is his sexuality, which was either closeted or practiced furtively? But is an unfulfilled longing for sex with males his Big Secret? Or is HM after bigger fish, say double binds, mixed messages, and irrational, abusive authority in a new republic where “the Declaration of Independence makes a difference?” Listen, gentle reader, to the man who once blurted out (through one of his characters) that we apparently throw ourselves so helplessly open when we write.

    “Unpainted to the Last” is the title that Professor Elizabeth Schultz gave to a big book of Melville illustrations and other art works inspired by his characters. This is the state of Melville scholarship today: anything and everything goes in the Melville industry in the name of a “multiplicity” that would have made Melville wince, groan, and laugh out loud.


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