Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bodice-Ripping prose of Brenda Wineapple as Biographer

Brenda Wineapple in CONTEMPT FOR BIOGRAPHICAL FACTS SERIES--Romantic Fiction or Bodice-Ripping Prose? Wineapple on the Day Melville Met Hawthorne

I began adding to Jay Leyda’s 1951 LOG as early as 1987, as preparation for the NN “Historical Note,” concentrating first on letters from 1850 and 1851, and made minor additions up to the publication of the first volume of my biography in 1996. I did not go back to verify Luther S. Mansfield’s 1930s transcriptions of Evert Duyckinck’s letters until 1998. Then, in 1998, I made several minor corrections and one very important correction. Hawthorne had not been “mildly” looking about for his Great Carbuncle on the way up Monument Mountain the now famous Monday, 5 August: excited or unnerved by the little mob of people including his new acquaintance with Melville, he had been hamming it up, looking “wildly” about, just as, hours later, he made what we see as uncharacteristic noise in the Icy Glen.

Hawthorne, in all likelihood, was as excited at meeting Melville as Melville was at meeting him: how often did he invite strangers to stay overnight in his house? Chances are that Melville became still more excited about meeting Hawthorne three days later, when he began writing his essay on Mosses from an Old Manse, and by the time he finished the essay the next day he was far more excited about Hawthorne than Hawthorne ever became about him. Before completing the first volume of my biography I understood enough from the published accounts to stress that the attraction was mutual, but I would have given a stronger account if I had known Hawthorne had been looking “wildly” about instead of “mildly.” As it was, I put the new information into the back of the second volume (2002) at the start of Documentation where any reader would be sure to encounter it. Any reviewer as careful as Brenda Wineapple would surely have seen it.

Now I begin this post on Brenda Wineapple’s errors in her pages on Hawthorne and Melville by copying unto this file all the pages in my electronic LOG about the meeting of Melville and Hawthorne. I won’t print them but I will be consulting them regularly.

Page and line numbers are to Wineapple’s HAWTHORNE: A LIFE.

222.3 “the Pittsfield farm owned by Melville’s cousin.” Wineapple means Robert Melvill. No, the farm had already been sold to the Morewoods and anyhow it had never been owned by Robert Melvill.

222.8: “August 5, a day soon to be promoted as an American Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (without the scandal) . . . .” Well, the day was described in the Literary World on 24 August 1850 in Cornelius Mathews’ “Several Days in Berkshire." Joel T. Headley in "Berkshire Scenery," New York Observer, 14 September 1850, described his leading the tour of the Icy Glen, late in the afternoon. But then the meeting was forgotten, I think, as far as public knowledge went, for many years. Through the 1850s and 1860s the day was not “promoted as an American Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (without the scandal).” The 1868 Passages from the American Note-Books contained only a very short mention of the outing.

I think James T. Fields in the Atlantic Monthly for February 1871 was the first to characterize the event in something close to our way of celebration of it, although he did not put Hawthorne and Melville alone together and he got the Field dinner and the Icy Glen backwards. (The Atlantic came out in January, as usual, so there was at least one newspaper reprint before the first of February.) This account Fields reprinted in Yesterdays with Authors (Boston, 1878). In the next year, 1879, in his new edition of Taghconic J. E. A. Smith said Melville and Hawthorne sealed their friendship when they took shelter in a narrow recess of the rocks for two hours: clearly wrong, but putting them alone together, I think for the first time. America's literary critics did not rush to read TAGHCONIC and celebrate this intimacy of NH and HM. What critic or biographer first mentioned this TAGHCONIC edition? In the 1940s or 1950s? I don’t see the meeting described in Julian Hawthorne’s 1884 NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE AND HIS WIFE. I don’t see the actual meeting described in Weaver (1921), either. The 5 August 1850 meeting is mentioned in a few lines in Mumford (1929) but not at all as “an American Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.” The promotion of the meeting as an idyl in the Berkshires was a phenomenon of the 1930s or later, it seems to me. I’ll check further.

So, no, the day was NOT soon to be promoted as a significant day in American literary history.

222.9-13. Wineapple then does something odd: she offers a lurid account then equates it with a calmer account: “Hawthorne, fully clothed, pursues the Great Carbuncle while Herman Melville, Mr. Neptune, rapturously pursues Mr. Noble Melancholy. It’s a good story: friendship forged in the blue mountains between two of the most singular of all American writers, attended by a retinue of lesser-knowns.” I will ignore “fully clothed.” The source of “blue mountains” is not clear to me. The forging of a friendship on this day is not part of American literary folklore for decades—not in a prominent place for almost a century?

All this is sloppy, ruined by the word “soon,” in “soon to be promoted,” and the depiction is, to use Denis Donoghue’s term, from Wineapple’s “romantic fiction” mode. Also, she ought to have taken note of my correction of the transcription “mildly” to “wildly,” since the context is Hawthorne’s looking WILDLY about for his Great Carbuncle.

222.18. Does anyone say Fields actually slips in his patent leather shoes? Did his patent leather shoes just possibly have regular soles? At Delaware cotillions and black tie chaired professors' dinners I saw men in patent leather Brooks Brothers shoes but these shoes all had regular soles good for dancing without slipping. A fault that occurs several times just in Wineapple's pages on Melville is her inability to visualize--whether it is visualizing how many people Sophia saw on 5 August or visualizing Melville INSIDE the barn. Part of Wineapple's problem is just not paying attention, as here she is not paying attention to what was actually recorded about the problem that patent leather shoes posed. Slipping in them was NOT the problem.

222.19: “Herman Melville is the daredevil who sprints from rock to jutting rock.” Who says this? Duyckinck says that Melville, “the boldest of all,” seated himself “astride a projecting bow sprit of rock.” Fields in the Atlantic says Melville bestrode a peaked rock, which ran out like a bowsprit, but not that he ran or leaped.

Who says he sprints (or leaps)? Melville sprinted from rock to jutting rock? I don’t see any authority for this. This is Runaway Wineapple in her “Bodice-Ripping Prose” mode. Might as well have him lassooing the Devil's Pulpit and tightrope walking over to it then doing somersaults there while, as she says elsewhere, BELLOWING. If you are Going for Gothic, go, go.

Notice that Fields does not say that Melville ran out on the rock: IT ran out like a bowsprit, and he bestrode it. Bestrode means he straddled it, put one leg on one side of it and the other leg on the other side, not that he strode on it, fast or not. Here we have the problem Donoghue bemoaned, Wineapple’s uncertainty with vocabulary?

222.24. Actually, Fields says Hawthorne was NOT looking “amiably on” at the dinner but was stoutly arguing with Dr. Holmes, denying that Americans were degenerating. Now, this is probably wrong, and Duyckinck was probably right in crediting Melville with arguing with Holmes, but we can’t just assert that all Hawthorne did was look amiably on.

222.35-36. I don’t see the source for Holmes’s shouting “If you’d give your authors another 10 percent, you wouldn’t have so much fat.” When the prose is this vulgar I suspect the Romantic Fiction mode but it sounds as if it may have a real basis. I may not have all of Headley’s article in the New York OBSERVER. [Must Check.]

222.37: “Of the group, Melville captured Sophia’s fancy.” Well, what group? I have not listed all those who climbed Monument Mountain or those who dined at the Field house or those who went to the Icy Glen. The only ones Sophia saw that day were Field (and Mrs. Field?) who called for Hawthorne in a comfortable “chariott and two”—two horses. Now, she saw some others later, including Melville. But Sophia never was exposed to “the group” who had made such a day of 5 August 1850. This is perplexing: Wineapple has failed to visualize the scenes. This is slovenly writing.

223.5. Who would in 2003 call Redburn “autobiographical” without qualification? Only Wineapple?

223.12-15: “In America the family had distinguished itself during the Revolution, with one grandfather dumping tea in Boston Harbor and the other raising his musket in defense of Fort Stanwix.” I find this cheap writing.

223.25 “the bushy-bearded young man”—Melville. There is no source for his being bushy-bearded on 5 August 1850. This is the Romantic Fiction mode, as Donoghue called it, edging to Bodice Ripper prose. At least she assured us that Hawthorne remained "fully clothed" . . . . (What was in her imagination that would have prodded her to assure us that Hawthorne remained "fully clothed"?) Problem: Wineapple has fictionalizing imagination, bad enough, but that flaw is coupled with an inability to envision scenes that are actually documented.

Aside: I did warm-up exercises for group scenes as I prepared to write. I tried to think not only who was wearing what but who was carrying what and, more than that, what they had just come from doing ("just" meaning immediately or over the past days or longer). I did not always get very far, I admit, but the exercise got me in the right frame for beginning to think how to depict the scene. Do other biographers do such warm-up exercises? I would love some comments from any who do.

223.29: Prose: “Plus, like Melville, he loved the sea . . . .” Does Wineapple ask her students to begin sentences, “Too,” or “Plus,”?

223.35-37: “Melville was the coxswain, not a dry-docked Custom House inspector, come back to tell all, striding off the gangplank into a garret where he could dip his pen into the inkpot and be, of all things, a writer.” Here we have Wineapple in her Romantic Fiction mode, with a lapse into Prufrock (“come back to tell you all”). Melville had not been a coxswain, as far as we know, had he? So he claims to Bentley to have been a harpooneer! Melville may have stridden off a gangplank or walked slowly off one or he may have left the United States by a rope ladder for all we know. When did he write in a garret (can you imagine the problem of lighting one?).” This is cheap fiction, and precisely the thing Wineapple accused me of writing when I envisioned Hawthorne's nervous hand gestures at the end of my first volume: I was going by what everyone described Hawthorne as always doing in such situations, so I felt secure in thinking he would have done what I attributed to him. But I did not witness the scene in the dining room in mid November 1850, I admit. What is interesting to me now is what I show in another post: that I "invented" very very little because the documentation was so thick. "Largely invented" in the New York Times Magazine was way off base.

224.12: “Though it’s not clear when Melville began the review, whether before or after meeting Hawthorne . . . .” Maria Melville’s letter to her daughter Augusta allowed me to make it, I think, quite clear that Melville began writing the Thursday after the Monday he met Hawthorne. If Wineapple disagreed, she could have challenged me.

224.13: “it’s obvious that Melville was smitten with Hawthorne and his work.” I find this “smitten” so vulgar as to be shocking. Whatever happened to the ideal of writing decorously? And then in the last line of 224 Wineapple has Melville knowing that “morbidness is the clear-eyed admission that all the tanks have been drained.” The image is one Mark Twain might have used, but never Melville. The inappropriateness is shocking to my sensibilities.

225. It’s late at night as I type this, so I will just say that I am stopping at a ghastly place, where “Melville pictured Hawthorne as a mate bobbling like him on the troubled seas of publishing, recognition, and posterity.”

I will force myself to go on one of these days. Tomorrow I intend to look this over and correct any mistakes I can find.

P.S. the next morning. Wineapple accuses me of being envious of Hawthorne for Melville. Tell you what I am envious of. Bottom of 488 and top of 489: "I am grateful to the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities for full fellowships that released me from my teaching duties for years at a time."

The ACLS and the NEH did not get good value for our money.

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