The Passages of H.M.

Written by Jay Parini
Review by Kathryn Johnson

Even readers unacquainted with much of Early American literature recognize the name of literary giant Herman Melville and connect him with Moby Dick, the novel for which he remains best known. But few have any inkling of H.M.’s personal life, or the demons that drove him.

Jay Parini has accomplished what no scholarly biography of Melville has been able to do. He breathes life into this shadowy character, making Melville human—for better or worse, because he was a complex and troubled man and wasn’t always a pleasant companion, even at this distance. Moreover, he introduces us to key players in his subject’s life in a very personal way. Melville’s friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne was intimate, intense, and puzzling. When Hawthorne announced he was moving away from the Berkshires where both families lived, Melville tearfully begged his friend not to leave him, a reaction that only made Hawthorne all the more uncomfortable. Earlier, when Melville wed his Lizzie, she thought she was saying “I do” to a man of creativity and deep thoughts, a world traveler and best-selling author. But most of their life together he worked as a lowly customs agent and struggled with an alcohol addiction, his volatile moods, and a failing writing career.

Parini alternates vivid narrative episodes throughout Melville’s life, from his earliest shipboard travels to tense domestic scenes, with glimpses into Lizzie’s letters and observations of her husband. He handles Melville’s difficult character with compassion and realism. And when stepping into Lizzie’s perspective he shows remarkable sensitivity, portraying a woman in love who discovers too late she has signed on to a life with a man possessed. As possessed by his own tragic writing career as Ahab was by his illusive white whale. This is a stunning novel, full of surprises, beautifully imagined and written.