Marya: A Life - Back in Print
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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism

Joyce Carol Oates on Herman Melville

Moby Dick: An American Book of Wonders


Why is it that Moby Dick, our greatest native work of prose fiction, strikes us as so uniquely American?—the product of a successful young writer at the peak of his somewhat precocious powers (Melville was only thirty-two years old at the time of its publication in 1851); a tour de force of brilliantly sustained metaphor, in which an albino whale and his fanatic pursuers enact a tragic drama as old as the race; the most sympathetic and unsentimental exploration of monomania in our literature; a novel of ideas—many ideas—imposed upon an epic adventure of the high seas; a compendium of data on whales, whaling vessels, and the men who made up their crews; a prodigious assemblage of humor, and philosophizing, and prose poetry, and monologues reminiscent of the great soliloquies of Shakespeare; a work that reveals on virtually every page its youthful author's exuberance, as, daringly, sometimes recklessly, he addresses the reader in defiance of authorial decorum?

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"Then All Collapsed": Tragic Melville


Billy Budd (An Inside Narrative) was not published until 1924. The text we have is teasingly incomplete, very likely interlarded with inaccuracies, since the manuscript found among Melville's papers was written in Melville's difficult hand, with many emendations and insertions, and not successively paginated. It is a writer's nightmare to contemplate the publication of a work not only unrevised, but unfinished; there is evidence that Melville worked on the tragedy for years, from 1888 until the very spring of his death in 1891, seeking but failing to find, in his own estimation, its ideal "symmetrical" form. The prose style of Billy Budd is ponderous and arthritic, burdened by excessive analysis; depictions of crucial dramatic scenes, particularly the scene in which Billy with a single unintended blow of his hand kills Claggart, are sketchy and underwritten; parts of early chapters containing overly explicit descriptions of Billy, Claggart, and Vere suggest the notes an author writes to himself in a work-in-progress, to be judiciously excised when his manuscript is revised and polished. Yet the wish to make of Billy Budd a great work to set beside Moby-Dick, the valedictory gesture of an American genius so ill-served by America, is totally comprehensible. And we can see, in the text at hand, the glimmerings of a brilliant and heart-stopping work

Full Text of "Then All Collapsed": Tragic Melvilleright-arrows

Melville and the Tragedy of Nihilism


There is a fault in assuming that, given two apparently antithetical points of view, one must necessarily be right and the other wrong. Melville's intention is to display the hollowness, the inadequacy, of both points of view: the truth that will not be comforted, the "no trust" world, the grave beneath the flowers, the transcendental ethic, the discomforting reality that underlies appearance—and, against this, the world of professed Christianity, the faith in charity, in confidence. The confidence-man's defeat at the hands of the transcendentalist disciple is a token of the ultimate defeat of the surface confidence of the heart by the irrefragable reality that underlies it—the grave beneath. But the confidence that cannot be betrayed, that does not even exist, is more deadly than the instrument that would betray this confidence. Here there is no longer, to use Conrad's phrase, a "choice of nightmares."[ ...] A compromise of what is divine and what is human in a mean of adaptation of divine law is not the struggle here: the struggle is rather one of the consciousness of the confidence-man that there is, perhaps, no real struggle at all, no polarity of "good and evil," "truth and falsity," and nothing to sustain the struggle through time. Both transcendentalism and the feigned confidence of the cosmopolitan are but the expression of the time's vast descendentalism of spirit that reduces even the consciousness of an intelligent irony to this sequence of cheap tricks.

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