Sunday, March 27, 2011


Beyond a Mere Hatchet-Job.

Brenda Wineapple’s review in the Nation hit like axe-murder on my HERMAN MELVILLE: A BIOGRAPHY and my reputation. Why did she write such a review? See the previous post.

In 2002, as I learned, Brenda Wineapple made a special request for an early review copy of the second volume of my biography of Melville. The innocent director of Johns Hopkins University Press obliged. Upon publication of her review in the NATION for 2 May 2002 it was clear that Wineapple had ground her axe in advance and used it, and not only on the book she was supposed to be reviewing. The next three paragraphs are hers:

Parker's fine sleuthing turned up a newspaper article, printed in the 1852 Windsor, Vermont, Journal, that recounts Melville meeting Hawthorne for dinner at a hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts, conveniently situated between Pittsfield and the small house the Hawthornes were occupying on the border of what today is known as Tanglewood. And on the basis of this gossip column, Parker speculates that the dinner took place circa November 14 and that as the two friends lingered, alone in the dining room, Melville handed Moby-Dick to Hawthorne. ("In no other way could Hawthorne have had a copy so soon," Parker explains.)

As Hawthorne held Moby-Dick in his hand, "he could open the book in his nervous way (more nervous even than normally)," writes Parker, "and get from his friend a guided tour of the organization of the thing now in print, and even sample a few paragraphs that caught his eye or that the author eagerly pointed out to him." He could indeed. Whether he did is another matter, though not for Parker, as secure in his fantasy as Edmund Morris is in his imaginary Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. "Take it all in all," Parker concludes, "this was the happiest day of Melville's life."

This reconstructed dinner purports to have happened because Parker, a mighty researcher, has loaded his book with enough fact, detail and circumstantial inference to oblige assent from a weary reader. Yet despite the hulking material he's amassed from a mountain of newspapers, a fairly new cache of family papers and a host of collateral letters, to name just a few of his sources, Parker continually veers into unwonted speculation that then careens into certainty, moving back and forth between data and guesswork, seamlessly fusing the two and squandering his credibility as biographer along the way. The happy dinner is a jarring case in point--and surprising in the work of a scholar as seemingly scrupulous as Parker, the associate general editor of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville.

This “happy dinner,” Wineapple explains, “ is essential to Herman Melville, A Biography,Volume 2, 1851-1891,” the book she is nominally reviewing, because at different parts of the second volume I write about Melville’s relationship with Hawthorne.

Apparently everything I said about Hawthorne and Melville was wrong. “Parker is irritated by the pairing”—apparently because I do not think Hawthorne was as great as Melville. Wineapple is not clear when, but “in the nineteenth-century eye [the two men] were yoked forevermore, Melville in the background and remembered, ‘if remembered at all,’ snaps Parker, ‘as a man who had known Hawthorne, the literary man who had known Hawthorne during the Lenox months.’" I certainly was not snapping in the late chapter where I discussed the way Melville experienced the exaltation of Hawthorne’s reputation during his own near-oblivion.

Interestingly enough, Tony Kushner in an interview with Frederic Tuten understood perfectly well what I was doing in this late chapter:

Kushner: I didn’t mean that it [The Confidence-Man] was the end of his life as a great writer. I just meant that, you feel like after Pierre, that he becomes more and more discouraged. The Confidence-Man, as dark as it is, it’s in a certain sense permission that he was given to Clarel, which is thirteen thousand lines of rhymed verse about pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. It’s incredibly great and almost completely unreadable. But he becomes more and more a writer for himself and gives up on the idea that he’s going to rival Hawthorne. There’s a terrifyingly sad moment in Hershel Parker’s biography of Melville where he’s been completely forgotten and he’s seen Hawthorne become the great American writer. And Hawthorne’s dead and his diary has just been published. Melville, whose life has changed by reading Hawthorne, and reviewing Hawthorne, and meeting him, rushes to a bookstore in downtown Manhattan to buy a copy of the diary . . . . And he opens it to the index to see if the day of their meeting and their friendship is in the diary. He’s mentioned, I think, once, as a kind of a strange bearded man whom Hawthorne knew vaguely.

Yes, I succeeded: “a terrifyingly sad moment.” What I hoped for, all the years of my research and writing, was for majestic readers to take up the book, as Kushner did, rising to the power of the darkest scenes I was depicting.

Wineapple continued to turn my second volume into an ongoing rant against Hawthorne.

In 1852, with the success of The Blithedale Romance, Melville [Wineapple says] "may have sensed what would become a recurrent phenomenon for the rest of his life, that he was being eclipsed by Hawthorne." This is Parker speaking, not Melville. Despite Melville's capaciousness, Parker is convinced that envy preoccupies Melville, though the evidence suggests Parker is the envious one, so riled is he by Hawthorne's posthumous reputation and Melville's sinking one. Parker closely identifies with Melville, at times too closely, and will cross swords with anyone who ignored, outsold, criticized or just plain didn't like Melville. But alas, Melville was in fact forgotten in America until his own posthumous revival in the 1920s, especially in Britain, when, Parker declares more than once, Moby-Dick and sometimes Pierre take their place in a literary pantheon that does not include the establishment writer (according to Parker) Hawthorne. "Not one of all these British admirers ever asked Melville what it had been like to be a friend of Hawthorne," Parker writes near the end of his book. "They understood that Hawthorne, like Longfellow, was immensely popular but not of the same order of literary greatness as Melville and Whitman." Take that, you American fools.

Wineapple’s tone totally misrepresents my tone. I do not “snap.” I do not speak in a “Take that, you American fools” tone. The problem is Wineapple’s. Here I can only assume that she is being reflexively defensive of her Hawthorne—a very peculiar thing to do, in the light of Denis Donoghue’s perception that she despised the man. The problem is hers, not mine. Now, I simply take it as a given that Hawthorne is not of the same order of literary greatness as Melville and Whitman, or for that matter as Emily Dickinson. I am so comfortable in this conviction that I don’t, anywhere in the biography, have any impulse to be invidious about Hawthorne. And I never treat Melville as merely or mainly envious of Hawthorne’s fame. I treat him as grand enough to take a long historical view of himself and Hawthorne, grand enough to understand and even sympathize with the exaltation of Hawthorne’s reputation. I would have thought my chapters on CLAREL had shown that Melville was anything but merely jealous or envious of Hawthorne.

I keep coming back to the cheapness of Wineapple’s tone throughout her review. This cheapness of her tone persisted into her biography of Hawthorne, so that Denis Donoghue worried about her living with him too long and coming to dislike him. Did she detest him as Lawrance Thompson came to detest Frost, Donoghue wonders, and concludes: “Wineapple seems to have wearied of her subject and become exasperated with his debility.” Then he says: “Wineapple wants to cuff Hawthorne about the ears”!

Perhaps Wineapple’s misrepresentation of MY tone is an early manifestation of HER dislike of her subject, HER jealousy that I was dealing with new documents (even using for the first time some previously unknown Hawthorne documents!), describing many previously unknown episodes, and taking a long historical view in which MY author, however obscure, WOULD be recognized as one of the Titanic writers of the world. I tried at all points to rise to the depiction of human grandeur.

I needed better reviewers than I got in New York. I needed someone of the stature of Tony Kushner. The ONLY person I have seen make mention of this sad section of my book is Tony, the only one. And there are other chapters of equal weight which were never once mentioned by a New York critic.

Surprisingly, Wineapple might think, I got some remarkably intelligent, sensitive, and objective reviewers from the hinterlands and overseas, reviewers who read the book with care and wrote about it temperately. Her review was far worse than a hatchet-job. It was an axe-murder of my book and my reputation.

I will probably post a series on documentary evidence and how a careful biographer makes responsible narrative of such evidence. I have in a previous post shown just how little I "fantasized" in my depiction of Hawthorne and Melville in the Lenox hotel, but I want to conduct some classes here in the wise use of archival evidence--avuncular tutorials if not quite master classes.

It was a terrible thing Wineapple did, saying I was like Edmund Morris in DUTCH. It was as far from truth as anyone could imagine. And it hurt, it hurts. Whatever she achieved by her review, she achieved her end of weakening my spirit, exhausted as I already was by the years of work on the biography. And soon after Wineapple came Brodhead and soon after Brodhead came Delbanco, then Schultz.

People are real, even biographers, and they should not be lied about, as (my posts show) Brodhead and Delbanco and Schultz and Milder lied about my biography. For it is a lie to say or imply that I invented THE ISLE OF THE CROSS and POEMS, and it is a lie to say that I neglected marginalia in the biography. Lies stay up indefinitely on the Internet. Let Truth stay on the Internet too in blogs. It's a new world.

No comments:

Post a Comment