Although he salts his prose carefully with 'must haves,' Mr. Shelden makes liberal use of the few inscriptions or pencilings in books that Melville gave Morewood ... Though Mr. Shelden writes well and has constructed an imaginative tale, in the final analysis his theory remains unconvincing.
Michael Shelden’s made-for-daytime biography, Melville in Love lets you know up front what new detail Shelden believes he’s disinterred: Melville’s mistress ... Shelden’s panting, cliché-choked style soon has you reaching for the light switch and candle, then the cigarette and bonbons ... Shelden proceeds, page upon page, with the dauntless pluck of a conspiracy theorist out to show that Elvis killed Kennedy. The tenet that bold claims require bold evidence? Shelden is having none of it ... Worse, he’s consistently inept at handling Melville’s language ... an extended gossip column for those voyeurs who believe that every Melville needs an inamorata.
How strong is Shelden’s case? Plausible, but not definitive. As in many such exercises, circumstantial evidence is often suggestively framed as conclusive. Shelden’s assertion, for example, that the birth of Morewood’s son was accompanied by 'the knowing glances of astute observers' is highly speculative, to put it mildly. Provocative hypothesis aside, the most vivid character in the book is Morewood herself. A proto-feminist woman of letters, impresario and poet in her own right, Morewood strikes us in Shelden’s account as a person of imagination and courage straining against the socially imposed constrictions of her time.
At times he responsibly confines his claims to the possible...But all too frequently, Shelden commits what Alistair Fowler calls 'the fatal switch from subjunctive to indicative' ... Emboldened by his leaps from speculation to declaration, Shelden even suggests Melville was the father of two of Sarah’s children. Shelden diminishes genius to bodice-ripping. This happens when you conflate life and art. While certainly the artist’s life affects his art, art is not simply biography.