Sunday, March 13, 2011

How Reviewers Opt out of the Literary Conversation to Wage War Against Scholarship

This is a 2006 attempt to explain to a mystery writer how literary reviewing has set itself against scholarship.

Recently literary study has been depicted as an ongoing “cultural conversation,” what Steven Mailloux, elaborating on Kenneth Burke, calls a “historical conversation of multiple voices engaged in continuing rhetorical conflict.” In Burke's idea of cultural conversation, you enter a crowded parlor to find lively debate already in progress. You listen, according to Burke, long enough to catch the drift of the argument, then join in, pushing your opinion against those of any opponent, grateful for any allies who defend you, then depart at a late hour, knowing that the discussion will go on without you. Another time, you may re-enter the parlor, size up what has happened to the arguments, and the take up your part in the debate. As Mailloux summarizes, “Burke's fable involves argumentative battles, rhetorical allies and enemies, and struggles for persuasive power.” Later, Mailloux takes Michel Foucault as proponent of a still “more combative model of power-knowledge,” one in which “the cultural conversation” is “a complex rhetorical struggle of everyone with everyone, a conversation traversed by uneven power relations, a rhetorical conflict implicated in social formation of race, class, gender, age, and nation.” Restating the matter, Mailloux says that “in this depiction of the cultural conversation, rhetorical power describes the argumentative forces at work within the particular historical contexts in which interpretive knowledge emerges.”

Elsewhere Mailloux, qualifying Burke, suggests that cultural discourse is composed not of one ongoing conversation but many, which may or may not “intersect with others at various points.” Cultural history proceeds, Mailloux suggests, as “a complex network of conversations.” Scholarship and criticism on Melville have fallen short of this depiction of an ideal network of conversations moving more or less responsibly and cogently toward new cultural insights. With Melville if you imagine an elegant Burkean parlor you see that, decade after decade, a clever group holds forth in the middle of the mansion-sized Heriz. These privileged talkers are the critics. All the while a scholar or two may sit at a drafty window seat or stand nearby, hidden from the circle of critics behind giant dieffenbachia and great pots of hanging ferns. Today, in that Burkean parlor, literary critics tend not to listen for scholarly news, old or fresh. Even when scholars announce discoveries that seem, to them, momentous, many critics will leave the party vibrant at having participated in delicious banter and badinage in the center of the room on quite other topics. Critics regularly refuse to recognize that a new scholarly discovery could impinge on, modify, supplement, or, much less, obviate a favorite topic of theirs. When they next write criticism most of these guests will do so just as if the new discovery had never been announced. If for some reason they feel required to acknowledge it, they may give it the shortest possible shrift and misrepresent it in the process. New scholarship, or even old scholarship, does not impinge upon their minds.

Critics have failed to engage the last half century of scholarship on Melville and now still isolate themselves from the ongoing conversations of the remnant of Melville scholars who practice careful scholarship. In literary conversation a catchily phrased critical topic has often carried the hour—and some such topics, factitious or not, have dominated future conversations for decades. William Braswell's claim that PIERRE was a “last fling” at authorship, a reformulation of the arguments of Raymond Weaver and Lewis Mumford, had such a triumph. So did a belated companion piece, “Melville‟s Quarrel with Fiction” (1979), where Nina Baym claimed that by the time Melville wrote PIERRE he had decided that truth “could not be expressed in works of literature” and that by 1857 he had withdrawn from authorship because of “the absurdity of writing.” Upon its publication, scholars saw at once that Baym's argument was dubious in the light of biographical evidence in an article she did not cite, Harrison Hayford's 1946 demonstration that Melville had not renounced fiction after PIERRE, and in the light of evidence in the 1960 LETTERS. Subsequent documentary discoveries have made it clear that what Baym described is NOT what really happened. Melville did indeed have an unresolved quarrel, but it was a quarrel with reviewers from the Religious Right, with his mercenary American publishers, with his pious, constricting literary circle, and beyond everything else a quarrel with a power he could not hope to control, the lack of an International Copyright Law.

Recent Melville critics display a debilitating inability to imagine the existence of something they have not seen, a failure that stems from their inability to imagine writers as real persons in real life situations—situations made visible by real scholarship. They simply do not see how scholarship proceeds—incrementally, bits of evidence built on bits of evidence, and don't see how interpretative richness can grow out of scholarship. They disparage or dismiss all the accumulation of biographical scholarship. Scholars or scholar-critics trained in the 1930s and 1940s often remained in the classroom through the 1970s and even beyond, but they published little new scholarship, certainly little on Melville beyond a few projects conceived in the 1940s, and few of their students carried on their work. It seemed for a time in the late 1960s and 1970s that through the Center for Editions of American Authors older scholars might train a new generation of graduate students in research methods and that in turn students might lead their professors to greater scholarly achievements. That happened, at times, but the younger associates of the aging scholars found it hard to win and keep jobs in prestigious colleges and universities dominated by first one and then another critical approach based on the New Criticism. The most hireable new professors were those who had been trained to write criticism but had not been trained to do research. Students of Charles Feidelson and his generation at Yale and elsewhere or students of those students came to occupy prominent academic positions in which they functioned as critics, not scholars, even when they ventured onto topics which by their nature demand scholarship.

Rather than merely disparaging scholarship, as Feidelson did, recent critics have pretty much declared open war on scholarship. At its extreme stage this denial of historical, biographical, and textual evidence (and rejection of any new presentation of such evidence) is plainly exemplified in the comments of three well known Melville critics in reviewing the second volume of my biography of Melville. Here is Richard Brodhead in the New York Times for 23 June 2002 on “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.  [You would not know it, but I say this--Brodhead picks the idea up as if it were his] 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.” But it is not “Parker alone”! Every Melville scholar since 1922, the year after Weaver's biography was published, has known about Poems. Furthermore, Merton M. Sealts in 1987 had assembled almost all of the evidence about The Isle of the Cross except the name and the date of completion, which I subsequently discovered. And Sealts himself had built on a 1946 study by Harrison Hayford and the edition of LETTERS (1960) by Merrell R. Davis and William Gilman.

Here is Andrew Delbanco in the New Republic (September 2002), warning that like the first volume, Parker‟s second volume “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 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.”

Again, I was not trusting my “own intuition” at all on Poems, but repeating what everyone had known since 1922, and on The Isle of the Cross I was adding the title and the date of publication to what the editors of the LETTERS and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., had established, the fact that Melville offered a book to the Harpers in June 1853. Here is Elizabeth Schultz in The Common Review (Winter 2002): “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. 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." Again, Schultz acts as if I had come up with these lost books out of the blue, as if they had been unknown to scholarship. Indeed, Schultz seems to see me as embodying scholarship envisioned as merely visionary, speculative, conjectural. She shows no sense of what scholars had done before me, shows no awareness that good scholarship is always cumulative and ongoing.

These critics ignore scholarly evidence that has accumulated over the many years since Raymond Weaver published his biography in 1921. For the book Melville wrote after Pierre, scholarship has been incremental. Harrison Hayford in 1946 published evidence that Melville had not renounced writing after Pierre but late in 1852 had been thinking seriously of writing up the story of Agatha Hatch which he had learned in Nantucket in July 1852. Then in 1987 in the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Works, 1839-1860 Merton M. Sealts, Jr., reassembled the almost all the then-known evidence (overlooking one important letter Hayford printed in his last footnote in the 1946 article and mentioned again in 1949, his mother's statement that Melville in April 1853 had a new book “nearly ready for the press”). Sealts concluded that in June 1853 Melville had taken a book to New York to offer to the Harpers and that he still had it in his possession in November 1853. In 1990, building on both Hayford and Sealts, I published new evidence for the date Melville completed the book (on or very close to 22 May 1853) and published for the first time the title of the work, The Isle of the Cross, which I had discovered in letters from Melville‟s Cousin Priscilla to his sister Augusta, his copyist that Spring. Almost at once Gary Scharnhorst supplemented my discovery with a newspaper notice of Melville's going to New York with a manuscript, and years later Scott Norsworthy discovered yet another such report. Brodhead, Delbanco, and Schultz ignored all the work by Hayford and Sealts on which Parker had built, and ignored as well the documents he first printed in 1990 then summarized in 2002. These critics, to emphasize the situation, ignored half a century of progressive investigation and intermittent discovery.

Is it gross or downright tacky to point out that all the evidence about these two lost books was printed in English on the pages of the biography these exalted critics were paid to review? Is it irrelevant to point out that they were acting as if two generations of literary scholars had never existed, never labored to contribute grains or nuggets of gold to scholarship? Is there something faintly wrong, morally speaking, about treating magnificent human beings as if they never existed?  Can one ever apply a standard of morality and immorality to reviewers?

Raymond Weaver did not mention Poems (1860) in his biography, but the next year, Meade Minnigerode in Some Personal Letters of Herman Melville and a Bibliography (New York: Brick Row Book Shop, 1922), devoted a chapter to his discovery that Melville had written a volume of poems which he expected to have published in 1860. Minnigerode began with a quotation taken from Weaver, who had misdated it by a decade and a half: it was not 1859 when Melville's wife wrote to her stepmother that “Herman has taken to writing poetry. You need not tell anyone, for you know how such things get around.” Then Minnigerode proceeded with his startling new information. First he printed a letter written by Melville on 21 May 1860 asking Evert A. Duyckinck if in two weeks or so he would look over a manuscript and discuss with Melville's brother Allan how best to publish it. There Melville did not specify that the manuscript was poetry. From shipboard on 29 May Melville wrote again, still not saying that the manuscript was poetry, but assuring Duyckinck that Elizabeth Melville would send down “the parcel in the course of a week or so,” when she had finished “copying the M.S.S.” Minnigerode then printed Mrs. Melville's letter to Duyckinck of 1 June 1860 assuring him that she was soon sending down the manuscript as well as a copy she had made of “memoranda which he jotted down for Allan.” That last document, known only in her copy, is Melville's 22 May 1860 “Memoranda for Allan Concerning the publication of my verses,” a twelve point list of which (to quote short ones) #2 is “Don't have the Harpers” and #6 is “Let the title-page be simply / Poems / by / Herman Melville.” Then Minnigerode published Mrs. Melville's letter to Duyckinck on 4 June, written to accompany the manuscript, and her letter of 23 June 1860 regretting that Duyckinck had failed to place the work. She bravely said: "I suppose that if John Milton were to offer 'Paradise Lost' to the Harpers tomorrow, it would be promptly rejected as 'unsuitable,' not to say denounced as dull.” Here in one group Minnigerode printed all the known documents about Poems (1860).

Scholarship has not added substantially to what he found. Willard Thorp in 1938 printed a poetic epistle Melville had written in 1859 to a friend Daniel Shepherd, evidence that Melville had mastered more than fundamentals of poetry by that time. Jay Leyda in 1951 added Charles Scribner's letter refusing POEMS. Minnigerode's evidence was quoted at length by Thorp, was alluded to by Howard P. Vincent in his 1947 Collected Poems of Herman Melville, and has been quoted or reprinted many times since then, in Leon Howard's biography (1951), in The Melville Log (1951), in Letters (1960), in the Northwestern-Newberry Correspondence (1993). The existence of Poems (1860) is stated as fact in William H. Shurr's 1972
The Mystery of Iniquity: Melville as Poet, 1857-1891.

Anyone who knew any of the biographical studies of Melville after 1921, anyone who knew many of the critical studies even, knew that Melville had finished a volume of poetry in 1860. No one had ever challenged the existence of this volume of poetry until 2002 and 2003, when Brodhead, Delbanco, and Schultz all expressed their doubts that the collection had ever existed in manuscript (and used it to challenge the veracity of my new two-volume biography as a whole). So far have these modern distinguished critics distanced themselves from scholarship! Early in the 21st century respect for archival research is lower than it has ever been, and the consequence is that most critics who publish on Melville are talking to themselves, each to himself or herself, or to each other, not to an audience who wants criticism to arise out of knowledge of scholarship. Still, we hear much of the ideal of a cultural conversation I mentioned at the outset. In the case of Brodhead, Delbanco, and Schultz, there is no obvious indication of collusion, so what you have is one ignorant false accusation followed by gossip, whether or not Delbanco read Brodhead and Schultz read one or both men. It is conceivable that all three eminent critics independently seized on the same two points at which to challenge the reliability of a two-volume biography. Whatever the case, dishonest gossip by reviewers does not constitute great literary conversation.

Here is the reply from the novelist:
This is amazing to me. Is it sloppiness and laziness on the part of these three not to take into account the scholarship that is there on the record, or have they allowed themselves to become agenda-driven in some way, making selective use of facts to fit some theory of their own, and ignoring or discounting those facts that don't? Either way, this behavior is not the least bit professional or responsible. Hell, it doesn't even meet the minimum standard of behavior to which you'd expect any mature adult to hold himself.

My response:
Yes, yes. How could a Dean at Yale go into print saying I made up Poems when everyone had known about it since 1922? It is in the 1960 LETTERS, it's in the Northwestern-Newberry Correspondence volume, it's in Leon Howard's biography, it's in Jay Leyda's The Melville Log. And the fact that Melville was talking about working on a story in the fall of 1852 and that his mother said a book was almost done in April 1853 and that Melville mentioned to the Harpers that November the book he had been prevented from publishing--all that had been known many years, although no one knew the date (22 May or very close to that) he finished it and no one knew the title until I found it in a cousin's letter, The Isle of the Cross. Imagine my calling two of Williams's students who had worked on this in the 1940s (Hayford and Sealts) and telling them that Melville did definitely finish it and the title was The Isle of the Cross. Imagine their joy! That's what scholarship is at the best, one person adding to what another had been working on, one person adding to what others had been working on.

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