Culture  /  Book Review

After Melville

In every generation, writers and readers find new ways to plumb the depths of Herman Melville and his work.
Jennifer Habel, Chris Bachelder

Mumford’s approach continued to influence the course of Melville studies, which fully exploded after the Moby-Dick centennial in 1951. In the aftermath of World War II and its attendant atrocities, and at the dawn of the nuclear age, critics looked to Melville to address these newly relevant issues convulsing the world. From there, critical approaches proliferated, as did the sheer volume of material, a trend that continues unabated to the present day. In the years since the Melville revival, several more biographies have appeared, with Hershel Parker’s two-volume epic standing as the most exhaustive. Critical studies focusing on everything from Melville’s attitude toward the Civil War, to his theology, to his possible homosexuality have continued to crop up, and virtually every major American critic, from F.O. Matthiessen to Elizabeth Hardwick, has weighed in on his life and work.

Perhaps most interesting, Melville’s aesthetic form-busting and restless metaphysical questing have inspired a series of generically slippery fiction that reflects the famed disorderly order of the Moby-Dick author’s methods. This group of nominal novels—a mini-canon that properly begins with French writer Jean Giono’s 1941 biographical fantasy Melville: A Novel and which reaches its apotheosis with Melville’s great-grandson Paul Metcalf’s 1965 book Genoa—are works of hybridity, grounding critical analysis of Melville’s work in a fictional narrative, often embracing a cut-up approach while occasionally giving in to fevered flights of fancy. These books are one of the more thrilling phenomena in the long Melville afterlife. The latest entry in the genre, Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel’s Dayswork, represents a more than worthy extension of the growing canon.

A largely plotless novel consisting of a long series of short lines separated by white space, Dayswork is, like its predecessors, a reckoning with the legacy of Melville and what he means in the present day. It is also a novel about a marriage, a study of minor obsession, a quest for meaning, and, in a somewhat surprising turn, an agon with Melville super biographer, Hershel Parker. (Parker is mentioned by name just once; the rest of the time he is referred to derisively as “the Biographer.”)