Book Reviews - Summer 2022

A Whale of a Story

The parallel lives of   Moby-Dick’s creator and the historian who rescued him from obscurity

By Steven G. Kellman | June 1, 2022
Portrait of Herman Melville by Joseph Oriel Eaton, 1870 (Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait of Herman Melville by Joseph Oriel Eaton, 1870 (Wikimedia Commons)

Up from the Depths: Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford, and Rediscovery in Dark Times by Aaron Sachs; Princeton University Press, 472 pp., $32

Writers die twice—when they breathe their last breath, and when they cease being read. Herman Melville was 72 when he died of heart failure in 1891, but his books had already been out of print for 15 years. The Melville revival, which propelled him into the canon of American literature as perhaps the Great American Novelist, began in 1919, the centennial of his birth, and gained momentum throughout the 1920s. A pivotal figure in promoting Melville was Lewis Mumford, whose 1926 study The Golden Day celebrated the brilliant convergence of Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau in Massachusetts in the 1850s. Mumford’s 1929 biography, Herman Melville, further enhanced the reputation of the man behind Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, and the classic short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”

A polymath historian, literary critic, urbanologist, and philosopher, Mumford, who died in 1990, is not quite forgotten, but his works are not nearly as widely read as they were in 1938, when he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. For much of the 20th century, he was one of the most prominent public intellectuals in the United States. Mumford published his biography of Melville 32 years after the novelist’s death, and now, 32 years after Mumford’s death, Aaron Sachs, a professor of history at Cornell, offers an inspired study of the two men, juxtaposing their lives and works in alternating chapters.

Sachs’s book, Up from the Depths, is reminiscent of Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, in which Plutarch traces enlightening parallels between Demosthenes and Cicero, Alexander and Julius Caesar, Alcibiades and Coriolanus, and other classical pairings. Reading Mumford reading Melville, both of whom closely scrutinized the world around them, can shed light, Sachs suggests, on our own era. Whereas Melville confronted the Civil War, racism, and predatory industrial capitalism, Mumford contended with two world wars, the Great Depression, environmental devastation, and the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Bleak circumstances, which in our own time include climate change, Covid-19, and the recrudescence of fascism, tend to concentrate sensitive minds. Both Melville and Mumford experienced crises of confidence that led them to the conclusion that, despite the advances of science, the universe remains unfathomable and malicious. In an 1851 letter to Hawthorne, when Melville praised his friend for proclaiming “No! in thunder,” he was expressing his own dark vision. “For all men who say yes lie,” Melville continued. Mumford’s studies of technological development and urban design left him similarly despondent over the isolation and alienation induced by life in the new metropolises. As Nazi forces ravaged Europe, he declared: “The one kind of ism that no intelligent man should hold today is optimism.”

“Though he remained committed to fighting for justice and equality,” Sachs writes of Mumford, “he didn’t expect that life would ever get less tragic.” But neither of Sachs’s subjects was entirely consumed by darkness. Melville’s disillusionment with the American experiment was driven by his faith in the values he saw betrayed. Embittered over the failure of Moby-Dick and his later fiction to please the public, he nevertheless persisted in creating extraordinary stories and poems. What draws Sachs to both Melville and Mumford is the dialectic in each between continuity and disruption, confidence and despair.

One could take many other pairings from the 19th and 20th centuries—Dostoyevsky and Arendt, Ibsen and Camus, Dickens and Freud—and find in them similar anguish over the toxins of modernity. However, the Mumford-Melville coupling is far from arbitrary. Mumford’s Herman Melville, Sachs writes, was an early manifestation of Mumford’s “lifelong obsession not only with Melville but with the darkness of his own soul, and of human history.”

“Melville,” Sachs writes, “was Mumford’s constant companion.” Throughout a long, productive career, Mumford made frequent reference to Melville and his creations, through epigraphs he attached to his books and through extensive discussions. Sachs also finds parallels in the lives of the two authors—their long but troubled marriages, their grief over the premature deaths of their sons (Malcolm Melville from a self-inflicted gunshot, Stanwix Melville from tuberculosis, Geddes Mumford during combat in World War II), and their close male friendships (Melville’s with Hawthorne, Mumford’s with the psychologist Henry Murray). Sachs notes that Mumford’s frustration over “the escapism of the Roaring Twenties” enabled him to understand “Melville’s condemnation of the escapist Gilded Age and the Wild West,” but those reactions were not unique to either writer.

Like his subjects, Sachs has a penchant for drafty, histrionic pronouncements. “Do you know any optimistic historians?” he asks at the book’s outset. “There aren’t many,” he answers. But what about Howard Zinn, who titled one of his books Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian? Or Rutger Bregman, who wrote Humankind: A Hopeful History? Later on, Sachs declares that it’s “somewhat difficult to find a modernist who did not embrace Melville,” but again, he does not look hard enough. Gore Vidal told an interviewer: “I do detest Moby-Dick and I never finished Pierre; or, The Ambiguities. But then, I don’t like Melville’s writing. It is windy and pretentious, it is bogus Shakespeare.” Alternating chapters on Melville and Mumford makes sense, but jumbling the chronology for each makes for confusion.

Sachs quips that “Melville, it turned out, was Mumford’s white whale.” It turns out that Melville and Mumford are his. While hunting them down, he adopts their own hortatory tones. In pursuit of his big subject, Sachs has a bit of Ahab in him, but he also resembles Father Mapple, the New Bedford preacher whose memorable sermon sets Ishmael off on his adventure: “Today, in an age of hurricanes, floods, droughts, fires, epidemics, and refugees, we need to revive the humane tradition of community support.” While acknowledging the doubts and darkness, Sachs nevertheless concludes: “There is only a shared faith in the value of human history, with all its catastrophes and renewals, with all its uncertainty.” In their most despondent moments, Melville and Mumford might not have been able to share even that certainty about uncertainties.

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