Herman Melville, whose 195th birthday passed this August, is one of the few white American writers of the pre-civil rights era whose writing doesn’t swoop into icky moments of surprise racism—you know, those times when, say, a pack of “woolly-headed” “Negroes” suddenly appears in an otherwise highbrow novel, “grinning” and “rolling their eyes,” at which point bookish black folks like myself either snap the thing shut or—sometimes—read on in fascinated horror. I am far from the first to note that Melville’s sensibility had a prophetically modern cast (despite his troublesome lack of interest in female characters).
See also: The 2014 Fall (Arts) Issue: An Index
Even by today’s standards, he’s something of a radical. Anticolonial before colonialism really kicked in, Melville also “went native” before it was cool—his first book, Typee, is the mostly true account of when he jumped ship in French Polynesia and lived as the guest of a tribe considered to be cannibals. How did that go? It gave him a new perspective on white people: “The fiend-like skill we display in the invention of all manner of death-dealing engines, the vindictiveness with which we carry on our wars, and the misery and desolation that follow in their train, are enough of themselves to distinguish the white civilized man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth,” he wrote. In 1846.
Melville mocked missionaries in his work; some American editions of his books were altered to avoid criticism from the church. The little-read Pierre presents an oblique condemnation of Christian morality. Not surprisingly, Melville’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne described Melville as someone ambivalent even about his lack of faith.
LGBT critics frequently point to various passages in Melville (especially that “sperm squeezing” scene from Moby-Dick) and certain details of his biography to make a case for his homosexuality, though he was perhaps in the process of inventing gay identity more than living it. And why wouldn’t you want Herman on your team? Heck, he even looked like he could get a job as a bartender in a modern Brooklyn alehouse.
The dustier elocutions of 19th-century prose that still cling to Melville’s style have remained part and parcel of his influence on modern thought and expression, and his ideas have percolated through American letters, especially historical and neo-historical fiction, at an even higher temperature since his rediscovery in the 1920s.
As if in celebration of his 195th, a big chunk of this fall’s most anticipated books and authors owe at least part of their heritages to Melville—others might have pleased him. David Mitchell flaunts a grandiosity and wanderlust that wax Melvillian, while Denis Johnson would make Melville proud with his questioning attitude toward the rapacious capitalist impulse in the Southern Hemisphere. Even Marilynne Robinson, who’s quite pious in comparison to Melville, indulges in a similar fiery lyricism. Naomi Klein’s and Lydia Millet’s insistent environmentalism dovetails nicely with Melville’s; Millet’s ironic voice could’ve been inspired by Omoo, the sequel to Typee, whose snarky protagonist takes part in a mutiny. Laila Lalami reaches into the past—further back than Melville ever did—to demonstrate to modernity a fact that Melville flaunted both in Typee and Benito Cereno (1855): that the nonwhite casualties of global capitalism have always had articulate voices and stories worth hearing.
The Bone Clocks
By David Mitchell
His highly acclaimed novels Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet have given David Mitchell a towering reputation as a wizard-like, shape-shifting, time-defying stylist. You might call him the Terry Gilliam of literary fiction, were he not so prolific. While Mitchell has taken readers to feudal Japan, midcentury Belgium, and a nightmarish future Korea, he occasionally tackles less elaborate, more personal material: say, the agony of stuttering alter ego Jason Taylor in Black Swan Green. His newest finds him synthesizing his impulse to conquer time, space, and consciousness with his more personal side in order to inhabit the mind of Holly Sykes, who begins the novel as a saucy teen runaway in the 1980s. From there, Mitchell leaps into the future—all the way to 2043, in fact—to demonstrate the repercussions of Holly’s impulsive youthful mistakes. Random House, $30, 640 pp.
The Moor’s Account
By Laila Lalami
While David Mitchell explores Westernized takes on postcolonial globalism, award-winning Moroccan writer Laila Lalami offers a more radical break with that tradition, one in which the subaltern literally speaks. The Moor’s Account is based on the true story of Andres Dorantes, a real explorer who was part of a doomed expedition in 1527 to colonize Florida—or rather, the imagined testimony of Dorantes’s slave, Estebanico, one of four men out of the 600-strong crew to survive and make their way across what is now the Gulf Coast. Pantheon, $25.95, 336 pp.
This Changes Everything
By Naomi Klein
Having toppled the “free market” economic theories of Milton Friedman in the national bestseller The Shock Doctrine, or at least exposed their nefarious ability to create income disparity and encourage their adherents to take advantage of chaos around the world, Klein’s ready to take on something even more ambitious, if one can imagine that — climate change. Free-market mentality is again her target, but in this case, the stakes are higher, since the entire planet’s at risk. As if telling the world’s story would not already exhaust a lesser journalist, Klein then argues that the effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions can’t help but temper the spread of global capitalism and its various associated evils. Simon & Schuster, $30, 384 pp.
By Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson’s project is unusual in modern American letters: In four beloved novels, three of which tell interconnected stories taking place in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, she has passionately advocated for American religious faith to regain the quiet dignity, erudition, and rationality which seem to have all but disappeared from public discourse, let alone modern religion. Her belief that Puritanism has been unfairly stereotyped and misunderstood fueled the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead (2004), whose main character is a clergyman, John Ames. Lila presents the counter narrative of Ames’s humble wife, an uneducated former migrant worker, further complicating Robinson’s novel series as she more deeply excavates her small plot of Midwestern ground. FSG, $26, 272 pp.
Mermaids in Paradise
By Lydia Millet
After a trilogy of urgent, intense novels and a Pulitzer-finalist story collection, Millet returns to her absurdist roots with a hilarious farce about a couple on honeymoon in the Caribbean who first encounter real mermaids, and, shortly after, the corporate zeal for monetizing them. In the process, Millet’s deadpan heroine, Deb, wades through a morass of annoying trends, spiritual bankruptcy, and insubstantial dreck that bears a close resemblance to modern life. Of her husband, Deb says, “Chip had initially wanted one of those Renaissance faire weddings, until I told him I’d rather get a Renaissance faire divorce. I could live with [his] gaming, I told him—though it was going to be a stretch, sustaining sexual desire for a mate with multiple cudgel-bearing avatars.” Norton, $25.95, 288 pp.
The Laughing Monsters
By Denis Johnson
His novel Tree of Smoke (2007) won a National Book Award, his novella Train Dreams (2002/2011) got shortlisted for the Pulitzer, Jesus’ Son (1992) is revered everywhere. With all that pressure to succeed, it seems like Johnson has reacted by going pulp: His neo-noir Nobody Move (2009) was like a rebellious child—serialized in Playboy, with trashy, ignoble grifters at its center, it went relatively unaccoladed. FSG bills The Laughing Monsters as “a literary spy thriller,” but this tale of a Scandinavian entrepreneur drawn back to Sierra Leone by the promise of a vague moneymaking scheme dreamed up by a long-lost African friend promises to be a post-colonial take on Heart of Darkness, or at least the Nigerian 419 scam. FSG, $25, 240 pp.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 3, 2014