This admirable book is rightly termed a biography, but its chief concern is to analyse Melville’s intellect—in Mr. Mumford’s words, “his ideas, his feelings, his urges, his vision of life”. Just enough detail is given to show the dismal quotidian round which enslaved Melville when his voyages were over. We see him as an overworked man of genius, living among people to whom he was hardly more than a tiresome, incomprehensible failure. We are shown how poverty, which threatened even when he was writing Moby Dick, infected him through nearly forty years with such loneliness and bitterness as to cripple his talents almost completely. Mr. Mumford does not allow this background of poverty to be forgotten; but his declared him is to expound, criticise, and—unpleasant but necessary word—interpret.
It is just this aim which is responsible for the only large fault of the book. The criticism which sets out to interpret—to be at the deepest meaning and cause of every act—is very well when applied to a man, but it is a dangerous method of approaching a work of art. Done with absolute thoroughness, it would cause art itself to vanish. And therefore when Mr. Mumford is interpreting Melville himself—analysing his philosophy and psychology, his religion and sexual life—he is excellent; but he goes on to interpret Melville’s poetry, and therein he is not so successful. For one can only “interpret” a poem by reducing it to an allegory—which is like eating an apple for the pips. As in the old legend of Cupid and Psyche, there are times when it is wise to accept without seeking knowledge.
It follows that Mr. Mumford is least happy when he is dealing with Moby Dick. He is justly appreciative and nobly enthusiastic, but he has altogether too keen an eye for the inner meaning. He asks us, in effect, to take Moby Dick as an allegory first and a poem afterwards:
Moby Dick . . . is, fundamentally, a parable on the mystery of evil and the accidental malice of the universe. The white whale stands for the brute energies of existence . . . while Ahab is the spirit of man, small and feeble, but purposive, that pits its puniness against this might, and its purpose against the blank senselessness of power . . .
That much no one will deny, but it was a pity that Mr. Mumford should pursue the allegory to the bitter end. Whaling, he continues, is the symbol of existence and livelihood, the common whales (as opposed to Moby Dick) are tractable nature, the crew of the Pequod are the races of mankind—and so forth. It is the old mistake of wanting to read too much between the lines. Here is an example of interpretation altogether too cute:
In . . . Hamlet, an unconscious incest-wish incapacitates the hero for marriage with the girl he has wooed. . . .
Very ingenious, one feels, but how much better not to have said it!