Friday, April 22, 2011

Great Melville Authority Brenda Wineapple vs Harrison Hayford--Challenge to Wineapple

This is the first of three posts to be read as a group.

HERE IS SOME OF THE SCATHING DISMISSAL OF MY BIOGRAPHY BY BRENDA WINEAPPLE, WHO WROTE MUCH OF “HAWTHORNE: A LIFE” IN THE GENRE OF “ROMANTIC FICTION” (Denis Donoghue’s term in his review of her book)—Brenda Wineapple, whose outright errors (and pervasive vulgarities) about Melville and Hawthorne are detailed in other posts in my blog already posted and will be supplemented in more posts.

Brenda Wineapple accused me of “fudging the biographical imperative”; in her treatment of Melville and Hawthorne she did not fudge that imperative so much as repudiate it altogether for a prose that vacillates between “romantic fiction” and the luridness of the “bodice ripper.” Think of Melville sprinting from rock to jutting rock! Think of Melville spotless as a Berkshire lamb! Think of the years Wineapple had free to perfect her method of fictionalizing documentary material thanks to the ACLS and NEH!

Will you believe Hayford or Wineapple? Did Wineapple spend even one day on the two volumes of my biography of Melville? I vouch for HH’s spending the 10 days and nights he specifies he devoted to the first volume. (He did not live to read the second volume but he read a draft of it a decade before it was published.)

Wineapple in the NATION: As Hawthorne held Moby-Dick in his hand, "he could open the book in his nervous way (more nervous even than normally)," writes Parker, "and get from his friend a guided tour of the organization of the thing now in print, and even sample a few paragraphs that caught his eye or that the author eagerly pointed out to him." He could indeed. Whether he did is another matter, though not for Parker, as secure in his fantasy as Edmund Morris is in his imaginary Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. Yet despite the hulking material he's amassed from a mountain of newspapers, a fairly new cache of family papers and a host of collateral letters, to name just a few of his sources, Parker continually veers into unwonted speculation that then careens into certainty, moving back and forth between data and guesswork, seamlessly fusing the two and squandering his credibility as biographer along the way. . . .

Wineapple in the NATION: [Q]uestions remain, skirted by Parker, as if his dizzying array of biographical detritus would prevent our posing them. Cramming his book with long, bloodless catalogues of what Melville might have seen or read, Parker layers each sentence with so much stuff he sacrifices drama, insight and even, on occasion, grammar. "Knowing Melville's sightseeing habits as detailed in his journals," Parker obfuscates, "chances are he saw all he could see, keeping a lookout for superb views." He then provides us with all these vistas, plus newspaper reports and tangential historical information, fudging the biographical imperative: to show how Melville transforms the shaggy minutiae of life and its myriad characters (whether Hawthorne, Malcolm, a besieged wife or a shipmate) into an alembic of wishes, conflicts and disappointments that, taken together, reflect him, a mysterious, roiling, poignant writer alive, painfully alive, in every phrase he wrote.


I challenge Brenda Wineapple: take any 10 scenes in my biography and justify your saying that I “continually” veer “into unwonted speculation that then careens into certainty, moving back and forth between data and guesswork, seamlessly fusing the two” and squandering my “credibility as biographer along the way.” Brenda Wineapple, you got an early copy of my second volume in order to make this accusation in a way to set the tone for all subsequent reviews. Now you have matured even more as a scholar and are able to give examples of what you accuse me of, I invite you a fair debate. Show people what so offended you about my handling of evidence. I promise to swat up my Hawthorne scholarship to deal with you on your ground, too, on 10 scenes of my choosing from HAWTHORNE: A LIFE.


  1. Hawthorne: A Life is deplorable...take her to task!

  2. I don't intend to read anything more in Wineapple except the remaining pages on Melville unless she takes me up on the challenge to defend 10 scenes. I found her treatment of the meeting with Hawthorne unimaginably sloppy, then yesterday and today I had to work through her treatment of Melville's essay on MOSSES. I could not read her all these years until now, the pain of the slaughter in the NATION was so great.

    Mainly, I am horrified at the casual disregard of documentary evidence she displays and John Bryant displayed in his fns to the 1991 panel discussion: it truly is as if accuracy is not an aim with such people, and they have won the battle.