Monday, April 25, 2011

Biographer at work: one report from the trenches, 1989-1990

The Revolution was "not such a calm, majestic movement as I supposed," a child says in Hawthorne's "Liberty Tree."

Surely biography, by contrast, is a calm, majestic movement in which the writer does the first page, then the second page, and so on to the conclusion.

How one biographer worked:

20 December 1989. 344 pm 20th started writing Biography. Woke up rested & cheerful.
Happy mg--dancing around the job of starting to draft some pp of the Biography. Read Sandberg on "B[urgundy] Club"--incl new "The House of the Tragic Poet." . . . 28º and wcf [wind chill factor] of 0º but not very windy so Ran 4½. Reckless--after gg around Tower crossed frozen Brandywine over Swinging Bridge with no floorboards. Taking a big chance--so went home & started writing last chapter my key being decline of Hawthorne in ct to his [M's] decline. Never mind that I only did a page plus--I started. Lay down 20 mins, maybe 5 min deep sleep.

21 December Wed night Thurs mg. Restless night. 15º up to 25º before going down precipitously Thurs night. Wk on HM Biography--in a confused state, o/c--no tone established, & no sense of selectivity yet. Assembling material from various files--apparently I destroyed all the MD [Historical note] files!!
But be resolute--this o/c = a necessary stage.

22 Wkg on start of Pierre --why Mamma had more time to be on Herman's case.

23 Did not write any on biography (want to do s/t every day)

24 Trying Pierre--see I can't present all the evidence--have to give conclusions & blaze ahead not strewing page with "the evidence is" or probably or very likely--A new technique

27 At 7 am actually began the biography--"Pulled Hither & Thither"--on sale of NYC house and readjustment of expectations--doing a story. BEGAN (i.e. getting tone & proportion & strategies) working on early 1851.

28 December 1989 Up working on biog 2-3:30 & slept rest of night till 6 up there in 3rd floor.

30 Haunted--the Haunting by the Family has begun. Some work on Aug 1851. Sat. Morning 30th-- the problem starts--being haunted by a throng of characters. The sisters, Mamma, EAD, NH, Robert so I have to live with them for the next year and a half and have to find strategies for making this nocturnal haunting useful, focused.

1 January 1990. Melville biography absorbing all energy--awake at 1 am with the thronging, clamoring characters--result (immediately) of adding some parts of EAD letters not in Log

5 January 1990. Decided to start with Redburn, backing up to get a running start--& after a little confusion it went great & I got on to WJ before 5 pm. . . . So extremely busy [with other demands including Reading BILLY BUDD and the Checklist of Melville Reviews and The Powell Papers and the G. K. Hall book on MD]--& seeing that I will succeed if I just keep myself in the chair in front of the screen.

6 Some work on WJ period.

7 Up early & off (60 dollars each) to Wash DC . . . Natl Gallery East Wing for a terrifically spaced 49 ptg F. E. Church show incl one Kate gave to Albany Institute of History & Art--wow!

9 Awake at 130 & up till 430 wkg on BB book then jarred awake by alarm & bk to BB at nearly noon trying hard to keep my focus as I plow on thru the chapter-by-chapter section--aware of the need to keep an intensity going until I am done--& then to be vigilant as I revise on the screen. Exalted but fearful--exalted by the fact that almost all of it is good, fearful that I will not make all the needed final revisions.

10 up on BB 3am-5am then slept till 845

15 Did not get to write. . . . Trying to keep perspective on interruptions--part of the business of living.

22 January 1990 I am starting on getting Shak editions into biog summer 1850 section--HM & what was on his mind as he went to Pittsfield, aesthetic/historical problems.

23 Progressed on 1850 into Idyl in good day's work. . . . Worked 11-1 am. Realized EAD decided to stay till 12th on Wed or early Thurs (Maria knew)--Have to change LOG.

24 Almost prodigious day of pushing on through Aug 9-12

25 Up 130-330 a.m. on Aug 12-15 1850. Rain when I looked out at 330 am. 11 am that tension of not wanting to lose the momentum yet knowing that hours have to pass before I get down late Aug--WI[rving], Sophia, NH, Augusta--the retelling in sequence--. . . . [On Run at Water Tower:] Bummed paper & pencil at Sam Francis [DuPont] statue & made excellent notes on Sophia & Tappan & other motivations from Sept 50--coming alive--pushed on till 410 no nap. . . . About here the 25th I said, "I put it in the book already"--used the term "the book"--

26 Tired but soldiered on thru the day--inching up to purchase of Arrowhead & febrile about discoveries. . . . Realized how very pissed Leon would have been at what I've done in the last days--me the father pleaser.

29 January 1990 Mumford died Friday January 26 at 94.

2 February 1990 Up at 4 am needing to get down stoicism → recklessness & Mardi to EAD Feb 50--why HM cd let go.

7 February 1990 Slave labor up at 4:30 am pausing at 530 pm-- Drove thru Isle of the Cross & Office-Seeker

9 February 1990 Resigned from NCL & SAF & Review and other editorial boards. No time for them. Painful to resign from NCL.

15 February 1990 Jay Leyda dead 2 years--and today Willard Thorp died. Walking home, exhausted, umbrella--attacked in Plaza Parking lot by 8-10 black men (some teenagers)--hit with brick in left buttock--("You got a problem," I heard—as I was trying to get away.) . . . Chased them but in Earth Shoes--no help [from anyone].

16 February 1990 Work on [writing of] Typee trying not to lose momentum but wiped out from classes, [chairman's] insistence that his secretary can smoke directly under my cubicle], and gang attack--very perturbing, making me more wary than ever. Copy of Mod Lang Studies (Winter 1990) with Log article came 26 February 1990; Isle of the Cross offprints came from AL the same day

2 March 1990 Trip to NYC. NYPL. Got the Hoadley. Got Powell refs in EAD to GLD--Corrected some of the Picnic [on Monument Mountain] letters & got more refs to picnic 1850 then before noon in folder of undated letters from unidentified correspondents discovered HM letter to EAD-- Ecstatic trembled . . . . DISCOVERED A MELVILLE LETTER.

12 March 1990 Stunning letter from Nina Murray--AM to HM 17 Oct. 1844. [Henry Murray had owned it for decades.]

18 March 1990 Holland PA almost to Trenton. Fascinating. [Daughter-in-law of Milie, born 1849. Yes, daughter-in-law of the child born just after Malcolm.] Anna Morewood 84 years old, widow of Henry (Larry) Gansevoort--"The only Melville or Gansevoort that counts is the one standing in my own shoes." Locket February 1872 [each girl got a mourning locket charged to the estate] AM to Florence, Flo to Agnes--carte de visite photo of Allan. Gold--gorgeous Tiffany locket--Big, great photo of Allan in field north of Arrowhead--Took it off with me to have it copied. [She had Lathers's copper humidor.]

31 March 1990 Serious cleaning up--adding & moving about (of marginalia). Before getting out of bed the fine idea of saying "one 'decision'" [M made] was to take NH along on the journey [in Clarel].

March 1990--[Battling post-surgical infections all month and regularly sickened, desperately sickened, by tobacco at the university. Enlisted OSHA, who on 30 March said it was the dean's call--not true, I am sure--and the dean smokes. Among other things trying to figure out how to use Bezanson's 1960 introduction and yet update it.] Big confrontation 2-3 April 1990 everyone against me [on smoking] except Robinson.

Other things going on in 1990:

Member of the board of the University Press of Delaware, 1990-1991

"Authorial Intention and the New Historicism," given at the annual meeting of the Association for Documentary Editing in Washington, D. C., November 1989

"Writing a Life in a Decade of Theory," given in Albuquerque at a meeting of the English Department of the University of New Mexico, November 1990

"The Puissance and Pusillanimity of the Anthology Editor," delivered at the second American Literature Section session at the Chicago MLA, December 1990

"Historical Research vs. the New Historicism," given at the Melville panel organized by the Association for Documentary Editing at the Chicago MLA, December 1990

"Very Loose Fish," Melville Society Extracts, 75 (November 1988 [published November 1989]), pp. 14-15, a short version of the progress report on The New Melville Log in Modern Language Studies (Winter 1990).

"Billy Budd, Foretopman and the Dynamics of Canonization," College Literature, 17 (Winter 1990), pp. 21-32 (Bernard Oldsey's "Farewell Issue").

"Herman Melville's The Isle of the Cross: A Survey and a Chronology," American Literature, 62 (March 1990), pp. 1-16.

"The New Melville Log: A Progress Report and an Appeal," Modern Language Studies, 20 (Winter 1990), pp. 53-66.

"Melville to Duyckinck: A New Letter," Melville Society Extracts, 81 (May 1990), p. 9.

Review of David S. Reynolds's Beneath the American Renaissance, Modern Language Quarterly, 49 (September 1988 [published September 1990]), pp. 298-302.

"A Position Paper on Authorial Intention and the Socialization of Texts," Documentary Editing, 12 (September 1990), pp. 62-65. (This is part of an exchange of views; Jerome J. McGann's "The Socialization of Texts" appears on 56-61 in the same issue.)

Reading "Billy Budd" (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990), pp. ix and 190.


  1. 23 Progressed on 1850 into Idyl in good day's work. . . . Worked 11-1 am. Realized EAD decided to stay till 12th on Wed or early Thurs (Maria knew)--Have to change LOG.

    The importance: Duyckinck decided to stay on so he could take what Melville was going to write or had started to write) back to NYC with him.

  2. "22 January 1990 I am starting on getting Shak editions into biog summer 1850 section--HM & what was on his mind as he went to Pittsfield, aesthetic/historical problems."

    Since focusing on how Wineapple FAILS to envision the scenes as we can reconstruct them (as when she has HM reading OUTSIDE the barn) while indulging in wild envisioning not based on documents (as when she has HM sprinting from rock to rock), I see what I TRIED to do, anyhow--to think what people had with them, what they brought with them, what they had been thinking about. What did HM have with him on the way from Boston to Manhattan in October 1844. One thing, for sure, was Allan's letter. Would you have read it over at least once in the journey? And have reflected on all the news in it, as supplemented by what you had just heard in Boston?

    What had HM been thinking about when he invited up to Pittsfield people interested in American drama? What did he hope to talk to Mathews about? Ishmael, after all, portrays himself as a tragic dramatist.

    It seems to me a biographer is more apt to envision documented scenes if he or she takes the time to TRY at least to think what is on people's minds on a given morning or noon or night. There is often evidence.

    Anyhow, in looking at my diary entries I see good hints for young aspirants!