The Example of Melville

The Example of Melville



The Pequod Review:

This short examination of Herman Melville’s work is a highly intelligent, detailed, and original work of literary criticism. Warner Berthoff’s insights are so dense and numerous that it is a difficult book to excerpt, but here as an example are the initial paragraphs of his perceptive (and dissenting) analysis of Billy Budd:

In the case of Billy Budd, it may be well to ask at the start just what kind of performance we are dealing with. First of all, it is a narrated story – whatever else we may say of it must take account of the particular manner of its telling. More precisely, it is, in Melville’s own phrase, “an inside narrative”; we are to take it as decisively identifying the characters and events it describes, so far as this may ever be done. It is of course an extraordinarily poignant narrative, and one which many readers have felt to be extraordinarily meaningful. The difficulty, to judge from what has been written about it, comes in trying to say what exactly does happen in it and what the meaning is. A great deal of Melville’s work, early and late, seems often to have an unsettling effect on the judgments of his readers, not least the more responsive and sympathetic among them. His writing has provided perilously attractive to certain extravagant fashions in present-day criticism, especially that of appealing to a few chosen works of literature for moral or even religious authority; or of imputing systems of meaning such as could not practicably be secured within the actual form and scope of the work in question. The warping that results is not unnatural and may indeed express an unusual generosity of response; we are all drawn, in the flush of our involvement with some deeply stirring experience, to see it as containing some conclusive message or as delivering some consummate revelation of our own earnest desiring. No claim of immunity in this respect is made for the present account, which can only take its chances with the rest – and which I offer here in corroboration of the general views of Melville’s accomplishment so far advanced.

The ground common to most discussion of Billy Budd is the assumption that the story is allegorical – a narrative representation of some universal truth or law or balance of contraries, a parable of Good and Evil, a re-enactment of the Fall, a projected myth of ritual killing which is also a resurrection, and so on. Such interpretations do not have to be scrambled for. The evidence they adduce is undeniably there. The trouble is rather that the statement of them will seem to miss what one feels, as one reads and re-reads, to be the governing concentration and emphasis of the actual telling…

Highly recommended if you have even a passing interest in Herman Melville.