Thursday, February 17, 2011

Irresponsible Reviewers Series--Brodhead, Delbanco, & Schultz

In the old days if someone printed an error about a historical event, say, in a newspaper or magazine you could try to get a correction printed in the same paper or magazine. Now, errors put into print in (say in a review of a book) frequently live for years, fresh as ever every day, on the Internet. Is there any way of scotching this snake? Hopeless to think of killing it?

Early in the twenty-first century three prominent Melville critics, Richard Brodhead, Andrew Delbanco, and Elizabeth Schultz, warned that my biography of Melville was unreliable by citing my treatment of the lost The Isle of the Cross (1853) and the lost Poems (1860). The second of these reviewers, Delbanco, did not cite the earliest, Brodhead, as his authority, and Schultz cited neither Brodhead nor Delbanco.

Brodhead in the New York Times for 23 June 2002 disparaged “Parker's surmises about works Melville never published that did not survive”:

“He makes the case that in 1852-53 Melville wrote a novel based on materials he shared with Hawthorne about a sailor who deserted his wife. If this is true, then the theory that Melville renounced writing after ‘Pierre’ is just wrong, and the mysterious leap from ‘Pierre’ to the work he published after a silence, the very different ‘Bartleby the Scrivener,’ can be explained in a new way. [This “insight” is not Brodhead’s but mine; “as Parker says” would have made that clear.] Parker is also convinced that Melville prepared a volume of poems in 1860 that failed to be published. If this is so, a stretch that had seemed empty of literary strivings was instead a time of new effort and new failure--a black hole Parker alone has the instruments to detect.”

Similarly, Andrew Delbanco in the New Republic (September 2002) warned that my second volume, like the first, “must be used with caution”:

“For one thing, Parker is amazingly certain of his own conclusions. . . . He is sure that immediately after completing Pierre, Melville wrote an unpublished novel (Parker implies that after failing to find a publisher, Melville burned it) inspired by a story he had heard about a sailor who disappears for thirty years, then returns to the wife for whom he has become a distant memory. He is sure that when Melville traveled by slow boat [“slow boat is a romantic intrusion] to San Francisco in 1860, he expected to find waiting for him a finished copy of a book of poems that he had entrusted in manuscript to his brother for transmission to his publishers before leaving the East. (Such a book was never published--and it is a surmise that Melville ever wrote it.) . . . . In short, Parker trusts his own intuition completely, and, presenting inferences as facts, he expects his readers to trust it, too.”

Brodhead and Delbanco refrained even from naming The Isle of the Cross, as if the title gave it too much actuality. Elizabeth Schultz in The Common Review (Winter 2002) mentioned the title skeptically in her complaint:

“Parker also reads betrayal and despair into the disappearance of two manuscripts, which he contends Melville completed--a novel, putatively titled The Isle of the Cross, and his first collection of poems. Throughout his biography, Parker bemoans the loss of The Isle of the Cross's ghostly manuscript, imagining Melville's regret at never having found a publisher for it. [But where throughout the biography are these ghostly references?] Although there is only tentative evidence for the manuscript's existence and submission to a publisher, its ostensible rejection leads Parker to view his heroic author as victimized: ‘masterful as he could be, [Melville] had a way now, after the failure of Moby-Dick and Pierre, of seeing himself as passive victim to whom things were done.’"

In their implication that I had invented these lost books none of these three reviewers mentioned the existence of any documentary evidence that earlier scholars and I had brought forward concerning these same two lost books.

All three critics, Brodhead, Delbanco, and Schultz, ignored a full half century of accumulating evidence about the book Melville completed in 1853, the book he had tried to get Hawthorne to write but had decided in December 1852 to write himself. (It was 1987 when I found the title The Isle of the Cross.) All three ignored extensive evidence about Poems, most of which had been available for eight decades. To ignore the work of generations of dedicated scholars comes close to being a mortal sin, it seems to me. To ignore their work is to erase their lives.

In their 1960 LETTERS, Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman showed that Melville had taken a book to the Harpers in the spring of 1853 but had been prevented from publishing it and still had the manuscript when he wrote the Harpers on 24 November 1853. Merton M. Sealts, Jr., building upon work by Harrison Hayford in 1946, concluded in his 1987 "Historical Note" to the Northwestern-Newberry "The Piazza Tales" and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860 that Melville had completed the “Agatha” story. Sealts managed to narrow the completion date to around May 1853, demonstrating, on the basis of available evidence, that Melville had offered to the Harpers in June 1853 a new book which he still had in his possession that November in manuscript. Sealts quoted the forthright assertion at the start of Melville’s letter to the Harpers on 24 November 1853: “In addition to the work which I took to New York last Spring, but which I was prevented from printing at that time; I have now in hand, and pretty well on towards completion, another book—300 pages, say—partly of nautical adventure, and partly—or, rather, chiefly, of Tortoise Hunting Adventure.” Then Sealts commented: “The opening sentence of this letter would seem to indicate that Melville still had ‘in hand’ the unpublished work of the previous spring; if so, he had not at this point destroyed the manuscript.”

In 1987, just after Sealts’s “Historical Note” went to press, in the course of transcribing Melville’s cousin Priscilla’s letters to his sister Augusta, I found that Augusta Melville’s letter to Priscilla on 6 April 1853 had mentioned Herman’s new manuscript as near completion. Consequently Priscilla for weeks afterwards had “constantly” looked in “the journals & magazines” that reached her in isolated Canandaigua, New York, hoping to see notices. On 22 May she asked eagerly: “When will the ‘Isle of the Cross’ make its appearance?” Her letter reached Arrowhead on 26 May, and Augusta replied four days later, telling her that Bessie, the third Melville child, had been born on the 22nd and that Herman had completed his book. In her reply on 12 June Priscilla commented: “the ‘Isle of the Cross’ is almost a twin sister of the little one & I think she should be nam’d for the heroine—if there is such a personage—the advent of the two are singularly near together.” Some time passed before the manuscript was in good order and Melville felt he could be away from his family and the farm. It was around 6 or 7 June when he left with the manuscript for New York, very much as Sealts had said. In the same 1990 issue of American Literature where Parker published the new evidence for the title and date of completion, Gary Scharnhorst announced his discovery that on 11 June the Springfield Daily Republican had reported regional news: “Herman Melville has gone to New York to superintend the issue of a new work.” On 14 June (as Scott Norsworthy discovered in 2001) the Daily Evening Transcript repeated the news for Bostonians : “Herman Melville has gone to New York to superintend the issue of a new work.” The newspaper items in themselves are not conclusive, but in conjunction with Priscilla’s letters and with Melville’s own comments in November, where he implies the unpublished manuscript he was prevented from publishing was a book (in the same class as “another book” he was engaged on in November), the matter should have been settled. For Sealts and Hayford the matter was settled after Parker’s discoveries, before the news reports were found, although the fate of The Isle of the Cross was left as mysterious as ever. In his February 1990 “A Supplementary Note to Melville’s Reading (1988)” Sealts added a note to his earlier assertion that in June 1853 Melville took to New York “for submission to Harper and Brothers a book-length manuscript”: “Hershel Parker, working with Augusta Melville’s correspondence as recently added to the Gansevoort-Lansing Collection, New York Public Library, has established that this work was in fact ‘completed under the title of The Isle of the Cross.’”

Sealts’s use of the words “in fact” revealed his bias: he believed that sometimes archival evidence could reveal historical and biographical truth. Sealts knew that he was writing at a time when many academicians professed not to believe that any historical or biographical truth could ever be established. The repudiation of biographical information by the New Critics in the 1940s and 1950s and their successors through the New Historicists in the 1980s and 1990s had, after half a century and more, resulted in a professoriat which far too often not only did not know how to conduct archival research but was skeptical that any new information could be gained from archival research.

When he wrote his 1921 biography of Melville, Raymond Weaver had not known about POEMS (1860); his primary source of family information, Melville's granddaughter Eleanor Thomas Metcalf, treated Poems at length in her 1953 book, Herman Melville: Cycle and Epicycle, but she apparently had not learned about it in time to tell Weaver. The evidence had rested, unread, in the Duyckinck Collection in the New York Public Library until 1922, the year after Weaver’s biography appeared, when Meade Minnigerode published Some Personal Letters of Herman Melville and a Bibliography (New York: Brick Row). There he printed documents that showed that Melville had completed a volume of poetry early in 1860 and left it to be published when he sailed with his brother Thomas around Cape Horn. The documents included Melville’s two letters to Evert A. Duyckinck asking if he would “lend something of an overseeing eye” to the launching of his new manuscript and telling him to expect to hear from Mrs. Melville. Minnigerode also printed three detailed letters from Elizabeth Shaw Melville to Duyckinck and, very tellingly, her copy of a letter Melville wrote to his brother Allan: “Memoranda for Allan Concerning the publication of my verses,” twelve specific directions. (In one of her letters Mrs. Melville later conveyed a thirteenth directive directly to Duyckinck.) The documents printed in 1922 show that Duyckinck submitted the manuscript to at least two New York publishers. In what became a standard anthology, often used as a textbook, Melville: Representative Selections (1938), Willard Thorp reprinted or summarized this evidence. Thereafter, the fact that Melville had completed a volume of poems in 1860 was familiar to Jay Leyda (who in The Melville Log published additional evidence, the letter from Charles Scribner rejecting Melville's Poems), to Leon Howard, Eleanor Metcalf, Walter E. Bezanson, Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman (the joint editors of Melville's Letters), Harrison Hayford, Merton M. Sealts, Jr., and Hershel Parker—that is, to all Melville scholars after Thorp, and even to many critics who had not worked with Melville documents themselves or would not have seen Minnigerode’s book. It seemed that no one could deny the existence of Poems except by demonstrating that the documents Minnigerode discovered (and the later-discovered letter from Scribner) were forgeries, part of a gigantic hoax on Melville scholars.

The claims made in 2002 and 2003 that THE ISLE OF THE CROSS and the 1860 POEMS had only a hypothetical existence were published in the New York Times and in influential magazines, just where they could most seriously mislead the general literary community and Melville critics, including the reviewers who read at least the early review in the Times. But the existence of Poems in 1860 is simple fact, inarguable to anyone who believes there is such a thing as verifiable biographical fact. A few decades ago scholars could hope at least that a printed correction would ultimately scotch the snake of error, if not kill it. In the twenty-first century errors in reviews are almost uncorrectable, for false statements may continue to mislead incalculable numbers of readers during an extended afterlife on the Internet, where an eager new Melvillean of the indefinite future may encounter even the most inaccurate review without the advantage of a warning label.

Weirdly, Andrew Delbanco in his 2005 MELVILLE: HIS WORLD AND WORK (208) refers to “a novel-length manuscript, now lost, submitted . . . to Harper’s under the title The Isle of the Cross.” Eerily, on 266-267 he refers to “a small manuscript” of poems Melville asked his brother Allan to place with a publisher when he sailed for San Francisco in 1860, although he does not give Melville’s title, POEMS.

Nowhere does Andrew Delbanco explain his sudden rich knowledge of Melville’s world and work between 2002 and 2005, or apologize for his trashing of my reputation for careful scholarship. Is it odd that in the advance proofs of his MELVILLE: HIS WORLD AND WORK there was no mention of my contribution to Melville scholarship at all?

Richard Brodhead and Elizabeth Schultz have not recanted their reviews, as far as I know, and no one of the three has explained whether or not any two or all three consulted about their decision to base their discrediting of my biography on my discussion of the very real but lost THE ISLE OF THE CROSS and POEMS.

On 17 February 2011 the President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences announced that this same Richard Brodhead has been named as Chairman of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, charged “to bolster teaching and research.” Does no one at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences have a sense of irony or a sense of humor?

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