Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My Excellent Reasons (despite Tuttleton!) for not Correcting the Great Thicket of Old Mistakes Promiscuously Piled up by all Previous Biographers

Should a Biographer Signal when Correcting Earlier Biographers? NEVER NEVER NEVER.

Early in the 21st century, after many (but far from all) old gaps in basic knowledge have been filled and after many often-repeated errors have long been corrected, mysteries remain and misconceptions still persist, carelessly repeated from Raymond Weaver or from other obdurate sources of errors. Corrections have often gone unregarded for years or even decades. In my biography I resisted the impulse to flag an episode with "Watch me set Weaver Straight Again!" or "Heads Up Now--New Portion of Old Episode Starts Here!" or even "Be Alert Now--Previously Unknown Episode Coming Up!"

In the Preface" to the first volume I explained:

"The abundance of new documentation afford me the extraordinary--almost unique--luxury of telling my new story without reference to other biographers, after these prefatory pages. The alternative would have been to choke the pages with modifications, corrections, and rebuttals, some significant, some quite trivial. . . . I never correct any biographer in the body of this book, and I have resisted coming down emphatically when I am quoting a document that someone else had mistranscribed or misdated.

Who would have thought that anyone wanted extraneous gloating?

Yet a reviewer of the first volume of my biography, James W. Tuttleton, in the December 1996 New Criterion was deeply vexed at my "deliberate refusal to engage with previous biographers," never to "correct any biographer in the body of this book," or to point out that I was quoting a document that previously had been "mistranscribed or misdated":

Such an attitude, in my view, is really an impediment to Melville studies and an obstacle to learning itself, which is cumulative and aggregative and which proceeds, among other ways, by the careful documentation and elimination of error. Parker's method presupposes that his life is the really accurate one, that only his need be consulted, that it displaces all previous work, and in all this we have to take him at his word. Such a viewpoint discourages collation of information, the comparison of various biographical accounts, and the verification of fact. I have the greatest respect for Parker's work on Melville. And I am convinced that he knows more about Melville's life and books than anyone else in the world. This will be the standard biography for years to come. But he has tried to close the door to comparative analysis and it won't do.

The last thing I wanted was to be "an impediment to Melville studies and an obstacle to learning itself." Far from meaning my biography to close the door to investigation, I had hoped earnestly to encourage careful scrutiny of the evidence. The reader certainly did not need to take me on faith: I documented everything. If I quoted a letter, I dated it and named the archive where it was held. I was encouraging anyone to check my work. I expected that my biography would send dozens of young academics to the libraries wanting to see why I said what I did and find that still more needed to be explored and presented to the world. (It was not my fault that nothing like that raid on the archives took place!)

Yes, learning is "cumulative and aggregative," as Tuttleton said, and almost everything I had ever written on Melville had built upon the work of Jay Leyda, Wilson Heflin, Harrison Hayford, Merton M. Sealts, William H. Gilman, Merrell Davis, Elizabeth Foster, and other students of Stanley T. Williams and occasional later contributors such as Frederick J. and Joyce Deveau Kennedy. The glory, for me, in finding the title The Isle of the Cross was precisely the fact that I was building upon the work of Hayford and Sealts, both then still alive to rejoice at my telephone calls, and on the work of men who would have rejoiced with them if they had been alive, Gilman and Davis, and William Charvat. (I took Amtrak up to tell Jay Leyda in person in his bed at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine.)

But to stop the narrative in the biography in order to weigh what Hayford said or almost said in 1946 about what Melville was writing in the winter of 1852-1853, what he and Davis did in 1949 and what Davis and Gilman added in 1960 and what Charvat added in 1968 and then to triumphantly proclaim the title, The Isle of the Cross--that would have been to blur the news. I was not writing the history of scholarship but a biography.

I guarantee you, Harrison Hayford and Jay Leyda knew just how strongly I acknowledged--and celebrated--scholarship as "cumulative and aggregative." Anyone reading the chapter in my first volume on Melville and Hawthorne's last dinner in the Berkshires will see a demonstration of scholarship as cumulative and aggregative, and scholarship as lovingly respectful of those who went before. We add our grains of sand; a few times, if we are lucky, we pile on a handful of sand all at once. Imagine Hayford's joy when I called him to tell him that the Agatha story which he had written about in the mid-1940s had been finished in late May 1853 and that the title was The Isle of the Cross. Imagine our mutual delight when I told him about Melville and Hawthorne’s dinner in Lenox, Hayford being the man who had first tried to list all the NH-HM meetings.

Howard thought Melville had money in the bank in the first half of the 1850s. Once we began to learn how deeply in debt he was, there was no point talking about what Leon thought. I would have been a fool to engage biographical fantasies such as Edwin H. Miller's lurid claim in his critical biography (p. 247) that "Something occurred" in the relationship between Melville and Hawthorne in September 1850, "possibly during Sophia's three-week absence from Lenox." Previously, Hawthorne had "kept Melville at a distance a great deal of the time," but now Hawthorne wrote to Sophia of "our trouble" and said that "we shall never be comfortable in Lenox again." The [249] "younger man must have introduced the subject of male friendship, not once but many times," Miller asserted. Then Melville had "maniacally indulged himself in wild capers, like signing a letter 'his X mark,' visiting Hawthorne in a Spanish cavalier's costume, and cavorting in the company of the Duyckinck brothers during an August day that included a visit to a Shaker village."

Not knowing of the meetings in early and mid-November, Miller speculated that Hawthorne in his letter of 17 November "may have informed Melville for the first time of his departure." How many paragraphs would it take to explain to the reader's satisfaction that Melville did not, really did not, dress up in a Spanish cavalier's costume but merely called out something on the order of "Buenos días, Señor" or "Hola, señor"? Miller's vivid fantasizing would have taken dozens of pages to correct. (There’s enough to do to deal with the way professedly (professionally) gay critics have responded to my own description of Melville's homoerotic feelings.) The only responsible thing to do was to ignore Miller.

I shared Tuttleton's feelings much more than he could have realized, but I was haunted by the memory of a long evening in Los Angeles in the late 1970s when Carvel Collins, who had promised a Faulkner biography for many years, had fascinated and appalled me, Regina Fadiman, Michael Millgate, Meta Carpenter Wilde, and others with his stories of how he was correcting Joseph Blotner's biography of Faulkner one line at a time. Might he have finished his biography before he died if he had simply written it without correcting Joe? Michael, already an aspiring biographer, observed to me cautiously that Carvel was "an accumulator." I was not yet an aspiring biographer, and far from being a hoarder was still at the stage of hastening to share anything I found, usually by publishing it as fast as I could in the Melville Society newsletter. I had not yet gone down the pages of the biography by Leon Howard, whom I loved like an uncle, putting "No" "No" "No" in the margins, but even in the 1970s I understood the lesson about fixating on someone else's errors rather than telling your own story. Fredson Bowers had already cost me too many days identifying his errors and trying to sort out his convoluted truculencies, a period I remembered in the late 1970s as an expense of spirit in a waste of shame, particularly because Bowers kept out of print a very long detailed article I had done with Brian Higgins. In the early 1990s I was determined not to go Carvel's way. For me madness lay in approaching a biography by focusing on earlier biographers' errors. Besides, to have done what Tuttleton wanted would have meant doubling the length of the book, at least, while turning it into a relentless ongoing celebration of my superiority to previous benighted tellers. No, I had told myself, you will never get anywhere if you correct other people's errors.

Visualize this: many biographers write their books from earlier biographies. Laurie Robertson-Lorant, whatever her faults, really did not, for the most part; Andrew Delbanco did. I was writing a biography from documents, not from other biographies, so I would not profit from reading other biographers' outdated stories. After getting very far along with expanding the Log I did, I confess, make a fast turn-through of the biographies to be sure Leyda and I had not missed a document that someone else had seen. Once I began writing, I never read any chapter of an earlier biography (and later found nothing that was both accurate and new to me in Robertson-Lorant's 1996 volume).

My reason for leaving biographies aside was that in every period of Melville's life my new documents, when intermixed in sequence with the previously known documents, dictated a very different story than anyone had told. My biography was new to the point that not a single episode could be told as an earlier biography had told it. My massive labor of the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially, was to put all the old and all the new documents together in a sequence. Finally, I reached the point of having what seemed a sufficiency of documents incorporated but not as yet assimilated. About the same time I experienced keen psychological urgency to see what the documents meant so I could start writing. Enough of the gathering phase--at least for a time! The trick you have to master is to know when you have really done enough gathering. Carvel Collins had fixated at the state of accumulating documents and correcting Joe Blotner, and understandably so, for to go on and begin to write a biography is terrifying, or ought to be, if the writer is serious. Nevertheless, the imperative to stop accumulating and start writing ultimately becomes ever more more powerful as the accumulation goes on. Resolved to start, I cleared my mind of preconceptions and began to read a stretch of documents, new ones all intermixed with old ones (often old ones in a corrected order). I read on until I saw a chapter-length story emerge, and then tried to blaze ahead writing the story.

Like Tuttleton, I find the idea of tracing the history of scholarship enthralling, and trace that history repeatedly in MELVILLE AND BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE, but he had no idea of the sheer number of places where I got on with my story only by ignoring small and large errors in previous biographies. The time to engage other biographers would have been if the evidence was inconclusive and there was real reason for uncertainty. That just did not happen.

Jay Leyda had taken the Virginian of the Mosses essay as speaking for Melville when he declared he had never met Hawthorne. When I worked through the 1850 Augusta Papers for 1850 for the 1988 Moby-Dick Historical Note I constructed, mainly from Maria Melville's letters, a day-by-day account of the first two weeks of August 1850. I had then far more evidence than anyone else had worked with and felt no joy at all in discovering that Jay Leyda had been wrong. I had a four-aspirin headache as I changed the LOG, and I called Hayford and Sealts before doing so. Would Tuttleton have wanted me to set straight Jay and everyone else who had ever argued that Melville read Mosses from an Old Manse before meeting Hawthorne? Now, my word! Brenda Wineapple in her 2003 Hawthorne biography announces that the question of whether Melville read the essay before or after meeting Hawthorne is undecided!!!!

You can’t make critics pay attention to your corrections of old mistakes. Even if I laid out a complicated new (or partially old) story with great clarity, I could not make critics pay attention to it. Literary critics and even many biographers continue to act according to our natures, which is to ignore facts.

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