Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Short Comment on Unqualified Reviewers and the Dearth of Researchers

Any good biographer would prefer to be reviewed by other biographers who have worked through the known archives and have discovered at least a few unknown caches of material. Few reviewers, as Carl Rollyson testifies in Biography: A User's Guide (275), have such qualifications. Why should we expect them to have? Older reviewers now writing were almost all trained as New Critics to ignore biographical evidence, and very few of them learned along the way how to take account of long-known documentary evidence, let alone how to weigh new evidence. Most younger reviewers have studied under third generation New Critics or else under first or second generation New Historicists who studied under New Critics, and many of the young have been trained mainly in Deconstructionism and its successive -isms by teachers who know nothing of historical and biographical research and carry New Critical tenets into trendier approaches. In the 1960s and early 1970s it became clear that critics could not write a minimally acceptable "Historical Note" for the Northwestern-Newberry Edition (one surveying the composition, publication, reception, and later critical history), and became clear, even, that all of us needed refresher courses in biographical investigating.

When academics in their forties or fifties or even sixties now attempt to do serious research they are handicapped by lack of training, and their writings almost never meets even minimal standards--such as being able to date documents accurately, to transcribe them accurately, and to demonstrate some comprehension of their significances. Ever since the mid-1980s, when I began helping Jay Leyda expand The Melville Log I have been looking for companions in biographical research on Melville and not finding many. Among the hunters are the chairman of the history department at UCSB, a librarian at Harvard, a librarian in Albany,a librarian in Portsmouth, an ice cream man in Cleveland, a nursing home man in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, and a former student of mine in Idaho. A few great researchers, notably the Kennedys, have been silent for several years.

The dismal level of the academy is epitomized for me by Cathy Davidson's perversion of the scholarly AMERICAN LITERATURE in a special issue (March 1994) in which she allowed a hand-selected contributor to proclaim: "WE ALREADY HAVE FULL-SCALE BIOGRAPHIES OF MELVILLE."

Could there be a clearer attack on biographical research?

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