Sunday, August 21, 2011

Richard Brodhead Gets Things Backwards as New Critic Misreading Melville

Some things are so embarrassing you really don't want to talk about them. I waited years to point this out hoping that my copy of Brodhead's THE SCHOOL OF HAWTHORNE would miraculously correct itself. I am tired of waiting. If Brodhead can't be a halfway decent New Critic what hope is there for him?

In the early 1980s Richard Brodhead, like others of his generation, decided to branch out from the new literary history. The result was the 1986 The School of Hawthorne. I did not think Melville had ever been a student of Hawthorne’s and questioned his presence in the book, especially since Brodhead did nothing new to justify his inclusion. He had not been trained in writing literary history. The New Criticism, embodied by Charles Feidelson of Yale, had scorned biographical-historical research for decades. A scholar would have worked his or her way through dozens of nineteenth-century American novels lying neglected in Sterling Memorial Library before thinking of writing a book called The School of Hawthorne. I had a good idea of what the research should have involved, for in 1961, after I had decided to work on Melville with Harrison Hayford at Northwestern, I arranged to take my only graduate independent reading course. I went through all the literary histories of American literature making lists of nineteenth-century American novels pointed out by one critic or another as interesting although neglected. I read or skimmed thoughtfully 200 or so books and made little two or three page reports on them. Among the best surprises for me were Harriet Beecher Stowe's New England novels. Nobody wrote more authoritatively about New England theology of the Young Republic than Stowe. What I learned served me extremely well in classes later on, and came into play when as I looked at The School of Hawthorne.

Brodhead had elected to write a contribution to the history of the novel in the United States without reading very widely in the novels written in the United States. He set out to show just "how pervasive Hawthorne's influence was among American novelists of the second half of the nineteenth century"—without having any idea how pervasive that influence was. When I began looking for novelists other than the dead white men in his book I did not find them. How, I asked, backing away to an earlier decade, can Brodhead have mentioned Harriet Beecher Stowe several times in the notes without knowing that Hawthorne's influence can be traced in her New England novels, very obviously, the title should tell you, in The Pearl of Orr's Island? Then, I found this remarkably invidious comment: "Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a once-admired poet more forgotten now than even the word 'limbo' can suggest, found his poetical vocation while reading Longfellow." As someone who knows first-hand just how much pain Brodhead's snide innuendo can inflict (for I remember my baffled agony at his vicious lie in the New York Times--that I, alone in my “black hole,” had fantasized Melville’s Poems), I wince at the contempt in this sentence as I retype it.

Here, as in his review of my biography, his elitist contempt masks Brodhead's own ignorance. Aldrich is farther out of reach even than "limbo"? What about the nearby shelves of the Sterling Library? Brodhead should have harrowed Hell itself if necessary in reading through novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth century looking for followers of Hawthorne. How can you write a book about The School of Hawthorne and mention Thomas Bailey Aldrich with such disdain as a forgotten poet and not discuss, not mention at all, his popular The Stillwater Tragedy, which opens with an extended passage written in loving homage to Hawthorne's set piece in The House of the Seven Gables on the passage of the night and the morning while a corpse awaits discovery? Brodhead singled out Aldrich because he had seen his name but had not read him. What of all the other nineteenth-century writers he had heard little or nothing about? Brodhead, like Robert Milder, exemplifies the folly of practicing the New Historicism without historical research.

What can be said about Brodhead’s treatment of Melville in this School book? Let me just point out that Brodhead grounds a theory of creativity on his reading of one of the most famous passages in Melville: “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,--it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.” This, of course, is from the letter to Hawthorne long dated ?1 June 1851 but which I redated in my first volume to around mid-May, on the basis of a newly discovered letter from Melville’s sister Augusta. Three times, Brodhead cites this passage, first on p. 20: “Hawthorne’s influence on Melville takes the form first of a personal interaction, then of a literary relation. But both of these form part of a larger story too: the story of how (in Melville’s term) an “other way” of authorship got established as an artistic possibility, in America in the 1850s.” On p. 24 Brodhead says: “Melville’s state in the year after Mardi is that of a writer for whom writing has become, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, the focus of powerful new drives and ambitions. . . . He now learned in hard practice what he had airily accepted in theory: that if he was going to write in that self-delighting “other way,” he would jeopardize the income his growing family depended on, and forfeit too the sort of public approval that had emboldened him to experiment in the first place.” Then on p. 33 Brodhead comes back to this letter: “Writing Moby-Dick did indeed take fortitude . . . . And it was his ability to believe that his self-willed, publicly unsupported writing efforts had the exalted value this concept promised, I would claim, that gave him the courage to write ‘the other way.’” (To be clear: Brodhead nowhere follows the text in correctly italicizing “other.”)

Why single out these passages rather than tote up a long list of errors? Because Brodhead’s reading of this passage so damningly gets something so important not just slightly askew but flat out backwards. Melville was lamenting to Hawthorne, as all scholars have known for many years, that what he most wanted to write, what would have given him highest pleasure, was banned because it would not pay. (Argue if you want to that he ought to have taken highest joy in Moby-Dick; perhaps he rightly did, but perhaps he at some profound level wished to have done something else or to have done parts of that book differently. Certainly he wished he had been able to focus on it longer and more consistently!) Melville cannot write what he is most moved to write yet he cannot wholly suppress himself and write the other popular way, say even more popular variants of Typee and Omoo. So the product, specifically Moby-Dick, is a mixed up affair, partly what he is most moved to write, partly what he thinks will sell best. There: that’s a simple explication. How is it possible that Brodhead writes “that if he was going to write in that self-delighting ‘other way,’ he would jeopardize the income his growing family depended on, and forfeit too the sort of public approval that had emboldened him to experiment in the first place”? Intent on his grand fanciful argument about Hawthorne helping Melville “realize himself as a writer,” Brodhead fails the first test of a New Critic, to pay attention to the words of his texts. (He was not alone in his carelessness: look on ix at the names of those some of those who read and approved this ass-backwards reading before the book was published. Harold Bloom reprinted the chapter, uncorrected, in his “Period Studies” series, American Renaissance (New York: Chelsea House, 2004, 201-240.)

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