Critics maintain that the fiction of Herman Melville (1819–1891) has limitations, such as its lack of inventive plots after Moby-Dick (1851) and its occasionally inscrutable style. A more serious, yet problematic, charge is that Melville is a deficient writer because he is not a practitioner of the “art of fiction,” as critics have conceived of this art since the late nineteenth- century essays and novels of Henry James. Indeed, most twentieth-century commentators regard Melville not as a novelist but as a writer of romance, since they believe that Melville’s fiction lacks the continuity that James viewed as essential to a novel: the continuity between what characters feel or think and what they do, and the continuity between characters’ fates and their pasts or original social classes. Critics argue that only Pierre (1852), because of its subject and its characters, is close to being a novel in the Jamesian sense.
However, although Melville is not a Jamesian novelist, he is not therefore a deficient writer. A more reasonable position is that Melville is a different kind of writer, who held, and should be judged by, presuppositions about fiction that are quite different from James’s. It is true that Melville wrote “romances”; however, these are not the escapist fictions this word often implies, but fictions that range freely among very unusual or intense human experiences. Melville portrayed such experiences because he believed these best enabled him to explore moral questions, an exploration he assumed was the ultimate purpose of fiction. He was content to sacrifice continuity or even credibility as long as he could establish a significant moral situation. Thus Melville’s romances do not give the reader a full understanding of the complete feelings and thoughts that motivate actions and events that shape fate. Rather, the romances leave unexplained the sequence of events and either simplify or obscure motives. Again, such simplifications and obscurities exist in order to give prominence to the depiction of sharply delineated moral values, values derived from a character’s purely personal sense of honor, rather than, as in a Jamesian novel, from the conventions of society.
The primary purpose of the passage is to
make a case for the importance of skillful psychological motivation in well-written novels and romances
contrast the romantic and novelistic traditions and assert the aesthetic superiority of the romantic tradition
survey some of the responses to Melville’s fiction put forward by James and twentieth- century literary critics
argue that the charges made against Melville’s fiction by literary critics are suspect and misleading
note several accusations made against Melville’s fiction by literary critics and refute one of these accusations