Andrew Delbanco, Melville: His World and Work (New York: Knopf, 2005)
Robert Milder, Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)
Edgar A. Dryden, Monumental Melville: The Formation of a Literary Career (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004)
Reading Melville in relation to intellectual history is both necessary and hard. His writings explore (among other things) political and legal theory, theology, aesthetics, natural philosophy, and what he once called “ontological heroics.” Yet if Melville engages ideas as intensely as any United States literary figure, his work remains difficult to locate within intellectual traditions. Largely an autodidact, Melville read eclectically; and unlike Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller—all of whom have occasioned intellectual biographies—he left no extensive journals or letters from which to reconstruct his education and mind. We have the checkmarks, scores, and occasional comments of his partially recovered marginalia, important evidence that can raise as many questions as answers regarding influence and intention. Melville's novels, short fiction, and poetry thus bear the heaviest burden of proof as to his thinking, though these texts are also tricky, not only because of their famously complex structures and ambiguities, but also because they tend to subvert the intellectual systems they inhabit. Melville's tendency to push ideas to their limits is part of his achievement and appeal, and befitting his image as a roughhewn sailor there is a kind of skeptical restlessness to his thought. To appreciate Melville's relation to ideas is to pursue a commensurately unbounded mode of inquiry that includes (among other things) literary criticism, cultural history, and biography.