Delbanco (humanities and American studies, Columbia U.) carefully traces Melville's work in the context of the space and time in which his fortunes rose and fell, largely along with those of his country and class, as he came to be a friend of those who were also great writers but too soon retired from their midst as his audience fell away, and as he struggled to somehow cope with a complex family life often struck by tragedy. Delbanco manages to accomplish this by looking into the many shadows that obscure Melville rather than passing them by, finding startling and illuminating connections amongst Melville's life, mind and work. Annotation ©2006 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
The real comparison is with Arvin's great biography, published in 1950, which won the National Book Award and remains in print. Delbanco doesn't quite match Arvin's psychological penetration, but he offers a richer account of Melville's relation to his times, opening up period debates on slavery and drawing connections between the New York of the 1840's and the city we know today. He writes throughout with grace and wit, his lucid contextual readings synthesize a generation of scholarship, and the wonderfully chosen illustrations even include some pornographic scrimshaw. Melville: His World and Work is tight and accessible, and its deep learning floats as lightly as silk in the breeze. In all that it is unlike its subject, to whom it stands as the best contemporary introduction.