As the subtitle of The Passages of H. M. makes clear, this is not a biography of Herman Melville. It is a novel about Melville, who, in the 19th century, gave the world tales of tall ships, monstrous white whales, and exotic South Pacific tribes. Jay Parini admits that he “made up many things” in this novel so that he could take us to “places a conventional biographer cannot go,” although he affirms that he “stuck to the essential facts of Melville’s life” and did not change historical details.
If you are interested in a novel about Herman Melville, you probably already know who Melville was. But for those who don’t and to refresh your memories, Melville authored such classics as Moby Dick, Typee, and Omoo. Melville is considered by some to be among the greats like Milton and Hawthorne. For others, Melville is confusing and a challenge – especially for those of us who had to struggle through him in a literature class. Either way, Melville has an impact.
Parini attempts to open the doors into aspects of Melville’s life that have, up until recently, been closed. He does this by shuttling between two stories. One is a first-person story – written like a letter to a personal friend – by Melville’s wife Lizzie. Parini admits to making up a lot about Lizzie as “very little is known,” although he used known source material and adhered to its facts.
The second story within the novel is an ongoing narrative about Herman Melville’s life outside of his marriage – his youth, his sea voyages, his yearnings, his travels to Europe, etc. Again, Parini uses artistic license to fill in dialogue and personal exchanges, even using “words and phrases drawn from the writings of Melville himself.”
By alternating these two stories – one story a tale of the long-suffering wife, the other of the deeply confused author and husband – Parini does a brilliant job of shedding light into the dark recesses of Herman Melville’s psyche and emotions. We finally come to terms with the man behind Moby Dick and why his work remains enigmatic today.