Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Irresponsible Reviewers Series--James Wood

         I've been working hard on Herman Melville and not paying attention to recent criticism, although I have been aware of James Wood when he popped up in one English or American paper or another taking pay for writing reviews on Melville which turned into bullying bloviations on theology.  His information about Melville's life was sketchy, I knew, and I thought his notions of Calvinism vs. Unitarians were shaky.  Well, while I was dismissing Wood as a religious obsessive posing as a book reviewer everyone else was strewing palm leaves along his way.   Cynthia Ozick had huffed at the idea that Wood was called "our best young literary critic." Untrue, cried Ozick: "He is our best literary critic." Adam Begley in the Financial Times proclaimed Wood "the best literary critic of his generation." In Los  Angeles Times Gideon Lewis-Kraus elaborated: "To call James Wood the finest literary critic writing in English today, as is commonplace, is to treat him like some sort of fancy terrier at Westminster.  It both exaggerates and diminishes his importance. . . . It would be better to say simply that Wood is among the very few contemporary writers of great consequence. . . . He has earned a rare and awesome cultural authority."  How wrong could I be?

         Not very.  In the summer of 2009 I looked at Wood’s 2006 New Republic review of Delbanco's Melville: His World and Work which begins with some off-base theological bullying then frankly turns into an essay on Melville's language in Moby-Dick:
         "Melville's words muster their associations, their deep histories, on every page.  There are scores of allusions to the King James Bible. Adjectives and adverbs are placed in glorious, loaded convoy: 'The warmly cool, clear, ringing, perfumed, overflowing, redundant days, were as crystal goblets of Persian sherbert, heaped up, flaked up, with rose water snow.' With a tiny smirk of irony, Melville saves the word 'redundant' for the last place in that gorgeous list: as if to say, 'I dare you to find any of these multiple adjectives . . . redundant!'"
Well, correct "sherbert" to "sherbet" and put a hyphen in "rose-water," to start with, assuming my online text is right.  Then what? 

         The first thing you think of, if you know even a shallow history of Melville's words, is that he cannot be using "redundant" to mean "duplicative."  He must be using it in a Latin sense, one easy enough to establish with a dictionary if you don't know Latin.

         If you know Melville, whether or not you know Latin, you know that he takes many latinate words from John Milton.  It takes only a moment on Google to locate a couple of likely analogues in Paradise Lost and in Samson Agonistes.

         As it happens, the use of "redundant" in Paradise Lost is in a description of Satan as serpent which Melville was very familiar with: "his head / Crested aloft, and carbuncle his eyes; / With burnish'd neck of verdant gold, erect / Amidst his circling spires, that on the grass / Floated redundant: pleasing was his shape, /And lovely" . . . . Melville used the passage in The Confidence-Man, for example. Or look at this passage in Samson Agonistes where the fallen hero laments his condition: "to visitants a gaze, / Or pitied object, these redundant locks / Robustious to no purpose clust'/ring down, / Vain monument of strength" . . . . (lines 567-570).

         When Melville's two-volume Milton first came into view in 1983 in the Phillips Gallery I got a glimpse of it, and when it came up for auction again at Sotheby's in 1989 I was equipped with a copy of the same set, onto which one cloudy Manhattan day I inscribed all Melville's marks and annotations I could see.  Now I open my surrogate for Melville's own Milton and see that Melville did some underlining and marking of the page opposite "Floated redundant" and that in the Samson Agonistes he drew a line along all of 559-574, with another, shorter line along 567-569, three of the lines I just quoted, including "these redundant locks / Robustious."

         It apparently did not occur to Wood that "redundant" did not mean something like "duplicative." If he had been sensitive to Melville's language enough to know the word had to be Miltonic (or most likely was Miltonic), he could have consulted Melville &  Milton (2004), ed. Robin Grey, which reprints from Leviathan (March and October 2002) the transcription of Melville's marginalia in his Milton by Grey and Douglas Robillard, in consultation with me.  But that would have meant being scholarly instead of a smirking, superior critic.

         Nice people don't smirk. Dubya was a compulsive smirker, and look where it got the world.  Wood may smirk, also compulsively, but he is wrong to bring Melville into his nasty little clique of smirkers.  I could muster many other examples from Wood on Melville. He may be the greatest critic in the world, but he does not give evidence of knowing anything worth knowing about Melville, and he certainly does not understand the nobility of Melville's literary ancestry and the towering grandeur of Melville's spirit.

         Having gotten this off my chest in an Amazon comment on The Broken Estate, I went on to comment on a personal grievance. In his New Republic review of the first volume of my Melville biography Wood had begun with a subtle insult: mine was a "semi-biography"--not because it was half fiction or half essay but because it was the first volume. And I was "not a critic" but merely "a connoisseur of facts."

         According to Wood, I had confessed that in writing this "biography" (or "semi-biography"?) I had assembled documents chronologically in my computer then "simply moved chunks of the Log from one computer file to the other," not bothering to construct a single sentence of prose of my own. This is, let me say, not what I said. I made no such confession. It is not what I did. The only time I moved chunks of the Log into the biography was to avoid retyping some passage I was intending to quote. I was saving effort and trying not to introduce new errors. Wood seems to suffer from the common malady among reviewers, the fear of documents: “My God, they might contain information no one had ever known before! Suppress them!”

         Then Wood charged that I quoted "from almost every published contemporary review of Melville's novels." Now, I take some pride in having searched for many months, all told, since 1962, for unknown reviews and having publishing most of the known reviews, with the help of Brian Higgins, in the Cambridge Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews, but in the biography I had been selective in quoting. Wood complained that I had filled "twelve pages with reviews of Omoo" but had almost neglected to describe or interpret the book. My view was and is that the reviews of Omoo that came to the attention of Melville's publishers and his friends and family were important--indeed, they were crucial. If they had not been favorable, he and Elizabeth Shaw could not have announced their engagement and proceeded with plans for marriage, and Melville could not have confidently embarked on Mardi. Then, the reviews by Horace Greeley and G. W. Peck came just in time to sour the mood of the wedding. Finally, in 1849 Richard Bentley would not have taken a chance on Mardi if the English reviews of Omoo had not been favorable. I could not tell the story without the reviews.

         As for not describing the book, in Ch. 12, "Beachcomber and Whaler, 1842-1843," I had told what was known of Melville on Tahiti and Eimeo, drawing on old sources and two previously unpublished sources, one passed on to me from Wilson Heflin's papers and one in the 1878 Shaker Manifesto, discovered by Rita Gollin but not yet used in a biography. Was Wood competent enough to recognize that new sources made a new story?

         In Ch. 23, "Winning Elizabeth Shaw and Winning the Harpers," I had reviewed what scholars had shown about the sourcebooks for Omoo, focusing on the way he "used, misused, and downright abused his sources."

         Now I see that, deluding myself that I was a critic, I had devoted a substantial paragraph to one "of the characteristics of his mature style," Melville's "powerful portrayal of images from different times and places which alternate rapidly in the mind, merge with each other, and (in later examples) disentangle again. In Pierre and in Clarel, he made profound use of this psychological phenomenon, but it appears in most of its essentials in Omoo."

         I see that I had also devoted most of a page to describing "Melville's new command of language, particularly in the way his descriptions of events and actions were now saturated with the Scriptures." You would have thought that Wood would have liked that paragraph on Melville's use of the Bible, since in 2006 he wrote the passage I quoted in my earlier initial comment: "Melville's words muster their associations, their deep histories, on every page. There are scores of allusions to the King James Bible."

         Indeed, there are scores of allusions to the King James Bible in Moby-Dick. Therefore I would have thought that Wood might have been intrigued by my concluding that Omoo was "saturated with the Scriptures." He ought to have liked my conclusion that some readers would enjoy the evidence that Melville's brain was "Bible-soaked," even while his use of the Bible would offend "many pious people who kept a wary eye out for the use of God's word in vain, and who would find such submerged allusions blasphemous." Melville was taking a risk, I said.

Here I interpolate on 26 January 2011 a passage just retrieved from WP5.1 via floppy and flash drive:

     When Melville informed Murray that a little experience in the art of book craft had done wonders for the condition of the manuscript, he meant that the compositor would find the manuscript easier to set from, since it would have, for instance, fewer "slips" pinned to the pages.  (He was thinking that Murray would set the book from manuscript, which did not happen.)  He had learned more than the mechanics of manuscript preparation since Typee.  There he had been diffident about expressing his thoughts, as in Ch. 4, where he punctured his sententious mood, confessing that even while he was revolving portentous ideas about "long centuries of progressive civilization and refinement" in Europe, contrasted with the static societies of the islands, he had been partaking of a "golden-hued bunch of bananas."  In the preface to Omoo he similarly disclaimed any "pretensions to philosophic research"; if reflections were "occasionally indulged in," they were "spontaneous, and such as would, very probably, suggest themselves to the most casual observer."  Yet in Omoo he began to elaborate his reflections in a personal way, as when (Ch. 9) he described the inevitable revery that would occur when, at night, the ship headed "right out into the immense blank of the Western Pacific"; then he would lean over the side and think of the strange objects they might be sailing over, the dangers of uncharted or ill-charted regions being enough "to cause any reflecting mind to feel at least a little uneasy."  At the end of Ch. 17 he described his "dreaming of the endless grottoes and galleries, far below the reach of the mariner's lead"--alliterative, poetic, and unclichéd.  In his new unselfconscious use of metaphor, albeit indebted to books about early explorations, Tahiti seemed "a fairy world, all fresh and blooming from the hand of the Creator," the landscape "like something seen in a dream" (Ch. 18).  And now he could quote Bougainville--"'I thought I was walking in the Garden of Eden'"--without puncturing the mood with self-deprecating humor.  Melville's recent experiences (among which were the composition and publication of his first book and the death of the most important man in his life) had stimulated his psychological growth beyond anything evidenced in Typee.
     One of the characteristics of his mature style was Melville's powerful portrayal of images from different times and places which alternate rapidly in the mind, merge with each other, and (in later examples) disentangle again.  In Pierre and in Clarel, he made profound use of this psychological phenomenon, but it appears in most of its essentials in Omoo (Ch. 27), where he described the sensations of seeing on the stern of the beached whaler in the harbor at Tahiti the name of a town on the Hudson: "In an instant, palm-trees and elms--canoes and skiffs--church spires and bamboos--all mingled in one vision of the present and the past."  In Ch. 17 the onward gliding of the ship preceded his reveries; later, in Moby-Dick and Pierre, the gliding would be explicitly transferred to the mental processes, but even now, in Ch. 31, he described "sliding from one revery into another"--simple enough, but destined to eventuate in the sliding, gliding, images of thought progression in Pierre.  The narrator of Omoo proved powerfully attractive, for all the jocoseness of attitude, for all the comicality of the events he described: a unique sensibility was emerging.  Melville was on his way to what he described himself as being while he was in Cologne late in 1849--"a pondering man."
     Book craft was evident in Melville's new command of language--particularly in the way his descriptions of events and actions were now saturated with the Scriptures.  The mate (Ch. 2) "abhorred all weak infusions, and cleaved manfully to strong drink" (Romans 12:9).  The crew (Ch. 3) "gave themselves little thought of the morrow" (Matthew 6:34).  Lem Hardy's tattooed face was far worse than Cain's (Genesis 4:15); indeed, "all the waters of Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, could never wash out" the blue shark on his forehead (II Kings 5:12).  Hardy had "a sort of Urim and Thummim engraven upon his chest" (Exodus 28:30).  A luxury on the Julia was the molasses, despite the rat found in one can, and bread dipped in the liquid, "thus prepared and eaten in secret," could not be other than pleasant (Proverbs 9:17).  Nobody liked a land-lubber such as Rope Yarn (Ch. 14); "a sailor has no bowels of compassion for him" (I John 3:17).  In the same chapter there was danger to Ropey if he looked too eagerly at his food ("Woe be unto him"--as in Jeremiah 23:1 and elsewhere); yet Ropey had managed in Sydney the biblical-like action of taking "unto himself a wife."  Imprisoned on the Reine Blanche, "the sailors asked for meat," and the Frenchmen "gave them soup" (Matthew 7:9-10).  In Ch. 39 the departing companions told Captain Bob "to give no thought as to wherewithal" they should be clothed and fed (Matthew 6:13).  Kooloo was "as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal" (I Corinthians 13:1).  A question for casuistical debate (Ch. 42) was "whether it was right and lawful" for any native to keep the European as opposed to the missionary sabbath (Matthew 12:2).  Ten times out of eleven, a "respectably dressed European" would shun Melville and Long Ghost "by going over to the other side of the road" (Luke 10:29-37).  Pomare's consort (Ch. 65) besought an auctioneer "to leave all and follow him" (a biblical melange).  Melville's mind was Bible-soaked, and this sort of writing to many people is enormously appealing, enlarging as it does the frames of reference, creating an effect not unlike Milton's comparisons of small things to great (or great to small).  Yet there were many pious people who kept a wary eye out for the use of God's word in vain, and who would find such submerged allusions blasphemous.  This was risky writing, for a man who had been denounced by the Evangelist and other right-minded papers.

         A decade and a half after writing the passage, I look at my concluding paragraph on the composition of Omoo with delight and pride.

Here is a version of that paragraph:

     What Melville put together was not the obviously disjointed thing that might have resulted from such a series of traumatic interruptions as he had suffered all through 1846.  He had, after all, a happily episodic tale to tell, comical and melodramatic voyaging on an ill-captained whaleship, a serio-comic mutiny in Tahiti, followed by a little beachcombing there and on the neighboring island of Eimeo before signing on another whaler.  He had in the actual John Troy material to transform into a figure of "fantastic raffishness," as Hayford says, an unselfconsciously lustful companion whom he could depict as satisfying his sexual urges while depicting himself as altogether more staid and self-disciplined, albeit envious.  He was adept enough at sexual innuendo to be able to quote Long Ghost (Ch. 34)'s opinion on keeping "a small leather wallet--a 'monkey bag'" ready for use: "'it behooves a stranger, in Tahiti, to have his knife in readiness, and his caster slung.'"  Melville himself took great joy in writing much of the book, pleasure that glistens in his portraying the desirable Mrs. Bell then depicting his own hopeless sexual envy of her husband--"Mr. Bell (happy dog!)."  He had read and passed on to Wiley the review of Typee in the Times of London, and had rejoiced in that reviewer's exclamation--surely one that had become the subject of badinage in the family: "Enviable Herman! A happier dog it is impossible to imagine than Herman in the Typee Valley."  Herman was a happy dog, his fame achieved, internationally, by one book; his literary competence growing amazingly in his second manuscript; his physicality and his high moral character triumphant in Lizzie's consent to marry him; and his sexual urges in a fair way to be gratified, with the blessings of society, in holy wedlock.  Meanwhile, his knife in readiness and his caster slung, there were hours when it was impossible to imagine a happier dog than Herman in the Hudson Valley.

I had been delicately humorous about the sexuality in Omoo, demonstrating Melville's own adeptness at sexual innuendo in describing how a stranger in Tahiti should have his knife in readiness and his caster slung. In a parenthetical exclamation Melville had identified Mr. Bell, the husband of the infinitely desirable Mrs. Bell, as "happy dog!" That term was loaded. Melville had passed on to the publisher John Wiley the review in which the Times of London had said this about him: "Enviable Herman! A happier dog it is impossible to imagine than Herman in the Typee Valley." I laugh aloud now, in reading, after this space of time, my summation of the successful author and lover: "Meanwhile, his knife in readiness and his caster slung, there were hours when it was impossible to imagine a happier dog than Herman in the Hudson Valley." At the moment I wrote that, I must have been in my modest way a "happy dog." I did well by Omoo, take it all in all.

         Melville, Wood charged, was "tied down by Parker's Lilliputian facts." Nevertheless, it was "at least a fine family chronicle." Then Wood abandoned my "semi-biography" for rhapsodical excursions of his own. Midway, he recollected me long enough to slap me into the dirt before snatching me halfway up, his mighty fist clutching my shirt: "His [Melville's] reading, which had been eager but arbitrary, now took on a systematic wildness. Here, Parker, with his dribbling data, is useful." The slapping down is in the "dribbling," and the jerking up comes fast in the assertion that the data is "useful." Useful, if one paid a little attention, but my dates of Melville's reading, for instance, got mixed up in Wood's mind. Far, far into theological rhapsodies in the New Republic, Wood remembered me again: "Parker is right to call Moby-Dick "the most daring and prolonged aesthetic adventure that had ever been conducted in the hemisphere in the English language." Then Wood was swept up and away with his metaphysical effusions. Well, what was the New Republic paying him for? for reviewing a book fairly and conscientiously or writing a dazzling critical essay which he could collect in The Broken Estate?

         Reviewers like Wood have enjoyed the freedom to misrepresent and insult their victims. Now, if a victim wants to put himself or herself out in the open, there’s a recourse: a review in Amazon.com. There’s also the democracy of the Google blog, as I am discovering at the age of 75. With a little luck I will live to put a few more items on the blog and a few more books into print. With the aid of a little constructive criticism instead of fatuous adulation, Wood might someday become a responsible reviewer as well as the world’s greatest living critic.

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