Andrew Delbanco interviewed on new Melville book


RB: You say that the world that Melville came into was close to a medieval world and the world that he left was a world that more closely resembled a modern world.

AD: That’s a fast and loose use of the world “medieval.” But the huge changes he lived through did strike me, as I was rummaging around about Melville’s world, [that] he was born in 1819 in New York City. It was a place then where there were no mechanical form of transportation, no suspension bridges, no tall buildings. But by the time Melville died in New York 72 years later the place had come to feel like the New York that we love and love to hate today. And the way I tried to express this was to say that when Melville was born, the fastest way you could send a message more complicated than could be sent via drum beat or smoke signals or semaphore was to write it down and send it by a messenger on a horse. And that has been the case throughout human history. But by the time Melville was 25 we had the telegraph and then the transatlantic cable, and before the end of Melville’s life, the telephone and electricity, and the Brooklyn Bridge. So the way I tried to represent this, I had one map from 1817, a year or so before Melville was born, and it has all these empty streets, and New York City consisted mainly of the tip of Manhattan. Another map of New York from 1890, a year before he died, and that map is so crabbed and crowded. I put the two maps side by side at the beginning of the book, and they tell the story, I think.

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