Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Some Notes on Laurie Robertson-Lorant's Book

“I had a Rival”—the Heart-Wrenching Lament of Frances Wilson

When Laurie Robertson-Lorant's 1996 Melville: A Biography was published ahead of my first volume I was forced to make a quick addition to my preface, then being pushed into final form:
Casting a wider net than [Edwin H.] Miller, Robertson-Lorant made good use of recent publications, including the Historical Notes and other editorial information in volumes of The Writings of Herman Melville. She made vigorous forays into much the same archival material I have used, but she was sporadic rather than exhaustive in her study of the family letters, and not always alert to the narrative potential of other kinds of evidence, such as records of Melville's reading and his marginalia.
In an earlier draft of the passage, for the eyes of the publisher, I had gone on:

"Robertson-Lorant's transcriptions of manuscript material are erratic: a bedstead can be transmogrified into a "bird-cage stand.” On the level of detail, her book is pervasively unreliable: letters are frequently misdated and mistranscribed, events are misdated, events and behavior are misconstrued."

The 15 December 1996 New York Times Magazine article on Melville by Philip Weiss quoted my exasperation over some of her transcriptions, but no reviewer noticed anything amiss. Later a prominent reviewer scolded me for suggesting that her readers might be cautious about her work. So it goes.

I itemized to the publisher some of what I had found in that several-hour scan of her book: what I had to do was finish my revisions to my preface so as to take account of her book in it. The eager but inexperienced Robertson-Lorant, I found, had related incidents reminiscent of Weaver's and Miller's contrivances. In her book (but not mine) a fourteen-year-old Herman had been caught boozing in a Schenectady barroom (60). Hun or Hunn Gansevoort was Herman's first cousin, son of Peter and Mary Gansevoort, she revealed (89). It mattered to me when Robertson-Lorant wrote about a nonexistent cousin, "Millie Van Rensselaer Thayer" instead of Cornelia (Nilly!) Van Rensselaer who married Nathaniel Thayer in 1846, not 1845 (137), and whom Melville visited in 1846, after he had finished Omoo, not before Typee was published.

Ruthlessly she had killed off Cousin Stanwix Gansevoort decades early. She had assigned Maria Gansevoort Melvill (as the name was still spelled) a nephew, "Henry Gansevoort," in the 1820s. Robertson-Lorant informed the reader that "boys--and perhaps even a few rebellious girls--shed their clothes" and swam together in the "Hudson's many streams or tributaries" (45). A biographer who thinks Helen Maria Melville might have skinny-dipped in the Hudson simply does not comprehend American class distinctions. Decades later gentlemen and ladies taking the ferry boat to Staten Ireland were sometimes aghast at the state of undress of Irishwomen on the beaches, but gentlewomen like the daughters of Maria Gansevoort Melville did not "skinny dip."

I cringed when Robertson-Lorant luridly asserted that the intensely religious Augusta Melville liked "being escorted around Albany and Lansingburgh by Stephen Van Rensselaer, until it dawned on her that his reckless driving hinted at qualities undesirable in a marriage prospect"-- Stephen Van Rensselaer, the mature and securely married pillar of the Albany Dutch Church, Augusta's spiritual mentor, far more akin to her in religious matters than, say, Helen and Herman--Stephen Van Rensselaer, the father of Cornelia (Nilly, not Milly!) Van Rensselaer Thayer! In my account the brothers Herman and Allan do not pool their resources and buy a brownstone (166). Sister Fanny does not visit Black Rock, New Jersey (182); instead, she accompanies Allan and Sophia Melville to the scenic Black Rock near Niagara Falls. Herman Melville buys his father's own copy of The Anatomy of Melancholy at a famous Manhattan bookstore in my biography, not in Pittsfield (625). I had thought I was aware of things sexual (indeed, Andrew Delbanco thought I was obsessed with the topic), but Robertson-Lorant's outdid me not only with Augusta's thoughts about Stephen Van Rensselaer but with her teasing description of a Herman who in 1847, safely out of sight in Washington City, made moves on a girl from Bond Street (155) at a time when he was engaged to Elizabeth Shaw. He had not been flirting "a bit with 'one of the sweetest of our Bond Street girls.'" The flirting was wholly Robertson-Lorant's invention and the girl referred to was Sophia Thurston, whom Allan Melville married later in the year.

Herman at the end of July 1850 did not go "to New York to bring his mothers and sisters to Pittsfield"; Maria Melville went there first to Pittsfield in June and others followed. In Robertson-Lorant's book, but not mine, Melville and Sophia Hawthorne sat cramped together "on the verandah of the red cottage overlooking Stockbridge Bowl" (253). In fact, the cottage lacked that architectural feature and in my book the two sit more grandly on the verandah of the higher situated Tappan house--painted brown (hence, "Chateau Brun"). It was Helen who had the special friendship with Mrs. Ives and Augusta who had the special friendship with Cornelia (Nilly) Van Rensselaer Thayer. In my biography Augusta has poignant reason for being at Arrowhead in June 1851, Helen for being in Manhattan and Brooklyn; in Robertson-Lorant's account they change places (272), with no reason given. Melville, we are told by Robertson-Lorant, "burned his love letters to Lizzie" (618), those which his daughter Bessie possessed in the early twentieth century. All this I told the publisher and then went on with the revisions to the preface.

I have not revisited Laurie Robertson-Lorant’s book except when someone has queried me about a particular point. I do assert now that I was polite in what I said in the preface to the first volume of my biography.

I think it’s time to admit how I thought of her in the early 90s when I would see her in the front row as I gave a talk about my discoveries. Her name was so complicated that I irresistibly thought of an analogy with Melville’s Marquesan fellow, Kory-Kory. Wouldn’t you have shortened Laurie Robertson-Lorant to Lory-Lory, honestly?

I had seen fast enough that Laurie Robertson-Lorant's biography was very much a 1990s document. The fullest analysis of her book in that light is in the December 1996 New Criterion review by James W. Tuttleton, who, though critical, was seemingly compelled to defend her as a product of his own New York University. "Ms. Robertson-Lorant," he said, "took her doctorate from New York University and acknowledges the inspiration of the eminent Americanists Gay Wilson Allen and William Gibson." This is the Allen who decade after decade hoped against hope that Walt Whitman was not a degenerate, a homosexual--who hoped, oh hoped (p. 424 of The Solitary Singer) that "actual perversion" (homosexual love-making) was, oh heavenly powers, not likely! This is the Gibson, a lovely, sweet man, who as the inspector for Fredson Bowers's now notoriously misconceived and error-ridden Virginia Edition of Crane's Maggie gave this endorsement: "As always, Professor Bowers' texts and apparatus are impeccable." Tuttleton observed that the Melville biographer Edwin H. Miller "might very well have been another of her teachers at NYU, although she scants his work." This is the Miller who fantasized for Melville "a Spanish cavalier's costume" 250 for his "wild caper" of making sexual advances to Hawthorne.

In most regards the NYU loyalist Tuttleton sees Robertson-Lorant's performance not in the light of what she actually did in her biography of Melville but in the light of the superb training which by definition she had received at NYU: "she was taught to plumb the archives and secure the facts."

Focused as he was on defending an NYU PhD as the product of rigorous training in scholarly methods, Tuttleton nevertheless acknowledged that "inundating detail that is marginal to Melville's life" obscured "the historical context" in Robertson-Lorant's treatment:

Long paragraphs or even pages are given to discussion of extra-literary events. We learn more than we need to know about how sex was repressed in Melville's day (though he and Lizzie managed to produce four children, and six or eight were not uncommon at the time). We also hear about how blacks were enslaved and American Indians were discriminated against. The domestic situation of women and the laws that governed property loom large in the Robertson-Lorant account. In case anybody is interested (and we aren't), she repeatedly flourishes her radical bona fides by constantly faulting the market economy, and we hear a great deal about the despoliation [sic] of nature by westering America. She is so hopelessly PC that she makes me want to go out and get the bumper sticker "NUKE THE WHALES." ¶Robertson-Lorant's life is an instance of the abysmal New Historicism, which authorizes anyone to jerry-rig her own political prejudices into a so-called context for a historical biography. She is thin, thin, thin, on Melville's political views and so comes very close to seriously misrepresenting his fundamental social conservatism. . . . .¶In short, for Robertson-Lorant a biography is an occasion for didactic homily, and she never misses a chance to demonstrate her superior morality, often in the most risible ways. An instance: "Having recently learned that ACLS supported teachers and artists who were blacklisted during the McCarthy reign of terror in the 1950s, I was doubly proud to have been a recipient of an ACLS fellowship." Imagine being proud of a link with Communist teachers and artists who wanted nothing less than the overthrow of our constitutional liberties and the violent wreckage of our elective government! Poor woman, she hasn't the faintest clue about what a "reign of terror" is. . . Evidently Dr. Robertson-Lorant is one of those parlor Marxists in the educational world for whom "the new market capitalism and industrialization" can be blamed for Melville's and even America's ills. Adolescents should be protected from her.

From this diatribe Tuttleton moved on to a long treatment of Robertson-Lorant on homosexuality and her conclusion that Melville "'undoubtedly' experienced some form of homosexual activity." For this claim, he said, "there is zero evidence and every reason to doubt it."

In the March 1998 Nineteenth-Century Literature Robert Milder supplemented this analysis. Robertson-Lorant’s biography was “not a book for professional Americanists, much less for knowledgeable Melvilleans”:

Robertson-Lorant evidently aims to give us a Melville for the 1990s. In practice this means a Melville meritoriously liberal in his writing on the touchstone issues of the time (more our time, perhaps, than his own) but not above tyrannizing over his household with the combined force of the Victorian paterfamilias and the frustrated man of genius. Her main themes—“Melville’s sexuality, his relationship with his wife and children, and the degree of responsibility he bears for his older son’s suicide” (Robertson-Lorant, p. xv)—are important additions to the emphases of older biographies, but rather than complement established concerns they have been allowed to displace them.

The man who had reproached me for the modest hint in my preface has not yet taken on Tuttleton and Milder.

1 comment:

  1. I too did my MA/PhD in Lit at NYU. Proff Tuttleton ? A misogynist windbag- ungenerous and mean. ( I did Medieval/Anglo-Saxon, not American lit .