Monday, March 21, 2011

Series: Academics in the Death-Grasp of the New Criticism, No. 1, Robert Milder, Part 2

In the preface to his Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine (2006) Robert Milder declared that the two volumes of my biography had made available "more than any reasonable person would want to know about the outward particulars of Melville's life while leaving room for new imaginative uses of its material." In practice, what Milder did instead of displaying “new imagination uses” was disastrously irresponsible and unimaginative. This is clear in an examination of his passage on Melville's "forty-five-year development." There Milder traced Melville's production in "the first decade or so" of his career: Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick, Pierre, "magazine pieces," Israel Potter, The Confidence-Man, "and finally silence" (then Battle-Pieces in 1866). Milder immediately went on to say that "successful biography is a labor of integrating the outer life and the inner life." Despite "the richness" of the merely external, factual Melville "family archive" there is little, Milder said, in the way of "testimonies to the interior life," the truly valuable materials "from which the biographer must reconstruct or imagine or invent a 'Melville.'"

So what is wrong with this list?--Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick, Pierre, "magazine pieces," Israel Potter, The Confidence-Man, "and finally silence" (then Battle-Pieces in 1866). What’s wrong is that Milder's "eleven-year parabola of Melville's rise and putative fall" is radically incomplete. It omits two books, both now lost, The Isle of the Cross and Poems, as well as some tortoise material that was not published in The Encantadas. It is as if it never occurred to Milder that there was anything to be “reconstructed” or “imagined” or “invented” from the fact that Melville spent many months during this "parabola" writing The Isle of the Cross, some days writing lost tortoise material, and two or three years writing Poems. Even if a critic declares himself a devotee of the life which he "imagines" rather than the life which a scholar retrieves from the archives and interprets, that critic has an obligation to imagine as much of Melville's "development" as he responsibly can. A responsible critic would exercise his reconstruction or imagining or inventing on a "Melville" who produced Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick, Pierre, The Isle of the Cross, some "magazine pieces," Israel Potter (serialized before book publication, overlapping with some of the stories), one unpublished magazine diptych, The Piazza Tales (including the introduction, never a magazine piece), The Confidence-Man, Poems, and Battle-Pieces, as well as miscellaneous now-lost material (such as more tortoise material than was published in The Encantadas).

Contemptuous of mere fact, Milder could not make "new imaginative uses" of all the "material" of "Melville's life" since he had relegated so much of the material into the category of "more than any reasonable person would want to know." Milder simply could not make himself aware of all the "material" which might repay imaginative attention. In consequence, the sum of what he regarded as "material" was diminished by whatever facts he had dismissed. A quick comparison can clarify this point: textual critics make much the same mistake when they talk about the meaning of "the text as a whole." Often, what they are calling the "whole" is only what happens to be left after the expurgation of some of its most powerful scenes, such as the longest chapter in The Red Badge of Courage. The "text as a whole" is not necessarily "the whole text." The book subtitled "Melville and the Life We Imagine" is necessarily limited to the fragments of material Milder chose to exercise his imagination upon. In this instance, some of the facts which beg for imaginative use cannot be held in the hand. For Milder to write about Melville's development in the Gunn collection without mentioning The Isle of the Cross and Poems is to stand at the doorway to biography, not to enter the room even briefly, and to shout into the room, like the red-bearded stranger at the Chicago Melville Society Meeting in 1990, "THE FACTS DON'T MATTER."

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