Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Working Contents and Draft of Preface for MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE


§ I.--Biographer and Biography (with short headnote)
01 Melville and the Footsteps Theory of Biography
02 Textual Editor as Biographer in Training: The Norton Moby-Dick and the Northwestern-Newberry The Writings of Herman Melville
03 Entangled by Pierre: Doing Biography Away from the Archives
04 Creating The New Melville Log and Starting the Biography
05 Facts Which Do Not Speak for Themselves
06 Desiderata and Discoveries in Traditional Archives and Databases

§ II.—Critics vs. Biographical Scholarship (with short headnote)
07 Agenda-Driven Reviewers: Melville in the Insular New York Newspapers and Magazines vs. Global Loomings from “Ragtag Bloggers” and Litblogs
08 Little Jack Horners and Archivophobics
09 Biographical Scholars and Recidivist Critics
10 Presentism in Melville Biography
11 The Late 20th-Century Mini-Melville: New York Intellectuals without Information
12 The Early 21st-Century Mini-Melville: New York Intellectuals without Information

§ III.— Biographical Scholarship: Demonstrations and Challenges (with short headnote)
13 Melville as the “Modern Boccaccio”: The Fascinations of Fayaway
14 Melville’s Courtship of Elizabeth Shaw
15 Melville's Short Run of Good Luck (1845-1849): Fool’s Paradise without International Copyright
16 Melville without International Copyright (1850-1854): A Harper “Sacrifice” for the “Public Good”
17 Melville and Hawthorne’s Dinner at the Hotel in Lenox
18 Why Melville Took Hawthorne to the Holy Land: Biography Enhanced by Databases and an Amateur Blogger
19 Melville as a Titan of Literature among High-Minded English Admirers: The Kory-Kory and Queequeg Component
20 Damned by Dollars: Moby-Dick and the Price of Genius



Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative

My topic for rumination on a September 2007 run on the beach at Morro Bay was how to get out of writing a 500-page condensation of my two–volume Herman Melville: A Biography (Johns Hopkins, 1996 and 2002). I had told the life, in those two taut volumes--taut, I say, although each ran to more than nine hundred pages. The books were long because they were filled with old episodes freshly illuminated by new cross lights, old fragments of clues transformed into narratives by new documents, and a good many previously unheard stories which I had summoned forth from old newspapers and previously untranscribed letters. The first volume had earned a permanent slot on the Pulitzer Prize website as one of two finalists and each volume had won the highest award from the Association of American Publishers, the first in "Literature and Language" and the second in the renamed category, "Biography and Autobiography"--the only time, I gather, that both parts of a two-volume set had won. I had done my best, and no new biography was warranted by the handful of sparkling new items I and a few others had discovered or by the belated solution to a few vexing puzzles. Besides, if I condensed the already succinct narrative into a mere five hundred pages, who would ever again read the full rich story in the two volumes? To publish a condensed version when so much dazzling news was still not assimilated by Melville critics and general readers--why, that would be to immolate decades of heroic dedication, wouldn't it?

As always during runs along the Pacific, I surfed the recesses of my mind, this time for shapes and titles. Two years earlier after lurching queasily on the dunes I had made a quick check: no alcohol--must have been an earthquake. As I ran this time, bafflement gave way to instant exultation when a title came unsummoned in: "Melville: An Inside Narrative"--the subtitle a gift from Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative). In my diary: "What a great liberating title for the one-volume biography." The book would be a different sort of biography, its nature yet unspecified. I was nowhere near ready to start writing it, but I could work on other projects contentedly because I had a title that would draw forth the proper contents when the time came. The director of Johns Hopkins University Press kindly gave me an amended contract for this hypothetical Melville: An Inside Narrative, then in May 2009 graciously released me from the contract because I wanted to place it at the same press as another book.

The actual book (as distinguished from the title) began in May 2009 as a detailed prospectus in the double-or-nothing package I offered to Northwestern University Press, this book and The Powell Papers (2011). I would salvage "Damned by Dollars," the final essay in the 2001 Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick, and I would speed the book along by including other heart’s darlings of mine such as my 1960 MLA talk, “The Metaphysics of Indian-hating” and "The Confidence Man's Masquerade,” both in the 2006 Norton Critical Edition of The Confidence-Man. What could be faster to put together than a collection of good old pieces? Why, it was half written already! The press offered contracts in early June, the week the Northwestern-Newberry Published Poems (with me as the new General Editor) was released. Intensely excited by outlining the new project, I behaved with uncharacteristic recklessness: I abandoned everything else I was working on and started writing the new book. It refused to become a collection: “Damned by Dollars” had to stay in, and another piece or two, in revisited form, but the old-favorites album would have to be delayed, or even published posthumously like the longtime NN General Editor Harrison Hayford’s Melville’s Prisoners (2003), for, it turned out, I had new things to say. The emerging contents dictated a new title.

Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative is divided into three main sections. §1 is autobiographical, the first four chapters dealing with my long preparation for writing a biography. Biographers like Carl Rollyson with multiple subjects (Rebecca West, Norman Mailer, Martha Gellhorn, Lillian Hellman, Marilyn Monroe, on to Amy Lowell and beyond) may gasp at my narrowness (more than half a century for a biography of only one writer!) while I marvel, in turn, that anyone can wrap up and bury a corpse one week and next week write the birth scene for a new subject. Melville research took me a long time. The last two chapters in this section describe some of the revelations and puzzlements I encountered in the actual writing and afterwards.

§2 deals in rigorous detail with the hard turn away from factual study of Melville that literary criticism and reviewing have taken in the last sixty-odd years, a hostility to documentary facts that is, in its most extreme form, unique to Melville biography. After working on my biography in something akin to solitary confinement until mid-way through the first volume, I was violently assaulted. Like no other biographer of an American writer, I was the victim of a devastating pre-emptive strike in American Literature, the formerly staid scholarly journal newly seized by the forces of Political Correctness. Although nothing from the great trove of Melville documents discovered in 1983 had yet been worked into any biography, this “New Melville” special issue of American Literature contained a “Cease-and-Desist” warning: “We already have full-scale biographies of Melville”! I persisted, only to find that no other biographer of an American writer had ever been subjected to such concerted denial of documentary evidence. In 2002 three reviewers, starting in the New York Times, painted me a being untrustworthy because I made two reckless surmises as if they were facts—first when I described Melville as completing a book in 1853 (something well known to Melville scholars since 1960), second when I showed him trying to publish in 1860 a book he called “Poems” (something known to everyone since 1922). The documentary evidence, of course, was visible on the pages of my biography these critics were reviewing. Melville has been and remains unique among great American writers in the quantity of recently discovered documentation and in the ferocity of the hostility to such information, even today, in newspapers, popular magazines, and academic journals (including American Literature, still).

In accounting for this hostility I focus on the influence of Charles N. Feidelson, Jr., the New Critic who at Yale for decades waged an unholy war against scholarship on Melville, starting with his contemptuous dismissal of Jay Leyda’s The Melville Log in 1951. The repudiation of scholarship at Yale and elsewhere impoverished the next generations of academics, so that in the 1980s (while Feidelson still, or again, held sway over new young theorists) well-meaning critics proclaimed themselves New Historicists without knowing how to do historical research and even, a few times, tried to draw evidence from manuscript documents without first learning how to transcribe nineteenth-century handwriting. In this section I trace the lamentable politicizing of the American academy. I also expose the decades of arrogant, ignorant partisanship in the mutual-admiration cliques of the major reviewing organs, the New York City newspapers and magazines. Relentless adherence to a life-denying literary theory, the New Criticism, I decided, has deleterious consequences not just on literary criticism and what passes as biography (as in one piece entitled “A Brief Biography” which ignores troves of new documents). Worse still, such a theory ultimately damages the character of its practitioners, because to blind yourself to Melville’s aspirations and agonies, to treat him as an abstract “author figure” or “literary personality” (Feidelson’s term) and not a real man, in the end leads critics to blind themselves to the aspirations and agonies of living people. Yet I am optimistic: I see the rapid systemic decline of whatever was good in reviewing in the mainstream media and academic journals as more than compensated for by the burgeoning of intelligent reviewing in personal blogs and litblogs, many of them ephemeral still, but constituting a phenomenon to be reckoned with in the evolving shapes of American publishing.

§3 consists of demonstrations in the use of evidence and challenges to further research. Using episodes not fully developed in my biography or else told only in chronological fragments rather than in coherent, wide-ranging essays, I put under the microscope what goes into meticulously assembling and conscientiously interpreting documentary evidence. Starting in 1962 my days added up to years spent transcribing manuscripts and reading newspapers in microfilm or crunched over flat tables (only the blessed New-York Historical Society let me stand at a spine-friendly slanted table). Here I supplement my old discoveries by documents from recently available newspaper databases and other electronic sources. In some of these chapters I demonstrate what can be learned from the Internet beyond what we thought we knew, as when I tell a grisly story, new to me, about how the Harpers exploited the International Copyright situation against Melville early in 1852. Especially in this section, I invite skeptical scrutiny from the reader and challenge young scholars to go beyond what I have done. “Young scholars,” throughout this book, does not necessarily refer to those in colleges. We have entered a period when very few academics do archival research and those who do (mainly students of Melville’s interest in art and in his books and the marginalia in them) are perhaps outnumbered by the small handful of imaginative and resource-full librarians and business-people whom I think of as divine amateurs. Melville research as never before is open to any benignly obsessive man or woman with a good computer, and the best of these researchers will find their way to the manuscripts, in time. Some of them may take up my challenge in the next-to-last chapter to harness the Internet in plotting the literary and personal interconnections among early British admirers of Moby-Dick, actually creating what I ignorantly wished for in the late 1980s, a database daisy-chain.

The endnotes constitute a significant fourth section of the book. Some of them do normal duty of identifying sources (with the help of the capacious “Works Cited”). Many of the longer endnotes constitute a section that might be called Melville and Biography rather than Melville Biography. Much of this book about Melville biography is autobiography, and Sidonie Smith in her Modern Language Association “Presidential Address” (2011) wants us to know that “autobiography studies, with its capacious reach, is now a site of prodigious theoretical activity.” Having circled back toward the realm of Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons (1984), that book of textual theory, literary theory, and creativity theory, in some endnotes I relate my present enterprise to what I and others have to say about the theory and practice of autobiography and biography. While in the first three sections I keep the focus on Melville biography, in endnotes I discuss problems in Melville biography that other biographers and theorists have confronted in their work. In such notes I expatiate enough that a reader can think critically about issues while being lured on to thoughtful works by writers such as Paula R. Backscheider, Robert D. Hume, Paul Murray Kendall, Ray Monk, Stephen B. Oates, and Barbara W. Tuchman, as well as being lured back into further reflection on my own expositions on Melville biography and historiography. Heretofore, only a handful of writers on biography (notably André Maurois, Virginia Woolf, Leon Edel, Richard Holmes, and more recently Hermione Lee) have had their dicta applied, tested, or challenged by later biographers. Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative puts forward ideas of many biographers and theorists of biography and all sorts of life-writing in order to test them against what I have learned in working on Melville and writing my biography as well as what I have learned about autobiography and biography in writing this book.

For all my conviction that unique forces have created the modern attitude toward Melville biography, I mean Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative to take a seat in the same great dining hall where honorable cousins such as Paul Murray Kendall’s The Art of Biography (1965) and Paula R. Backscheider's Reflections on Biography (2001) sit at the upper table. I mean Melville Biography to sit near the table occupied congenially by Richard Holmes's Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985) and collections such as Telling Lives (1979), The Craft of Literary Biography (1985), Biography as High Adventure (1986), Mapping Lives (2002), and Lives for Sale (2004). I see it as sitting across the room from theory-envying and theory-driven unruly, eccentric step-cousins once or twice removed like Ira Nadel’s Biography: Fiction, Fact, and Form (1984), William H. Epstein's Recognizing Biography (1987) and his collection, Contesting the Subject (1991), David Ellis's Literary Lives (2000), and Michael Benton's deceptively innocuous Literary Biography (2009). In real life the Internet has brought me into contact with previously-unknown stalwart double and triple Scottish cousins in the American South who look and act like me. Nothing so joyously fulfilling has befallen me in academic life except talking to James B. Meriwether one night in 1967, as I tell in the second chapter, but I take comfort from a number of biographers and critics of biography who have fought through to complexly challenging ideas akin to mine. With luck Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative can sit at a table alongside like-minded printed cousins such as William M. Murphy’s piece on John Butler Yeats and Mark Holloway’s piece on Norman Douglas in The Craft of Literary Biography, Robert D. Hume’s Reconstructing Contests: The Aims and Principles of Archaeo-Historicism, and Ray Monk’s “Life without Theory: Biography as an Exemplar of Philosophical Understanding” as well as imaginarily-seated electronic cousins such as Dan Green’s The Reading Experience 2.0. (Confession: being in the 4th quarter of my century, I print out pieces by the Internet blogger Green so I can mark them up.) I count on these allies to join this book in pushing one end of our table against the door so as to bar out marauders.

The fact is that despite its immense popularity literary biography is under attack from subversive interlopers, and not only theorists of biography and theorists disguised as biographers. Archival research proving arduous, would-be biographers have begun redefining archives, expanding any narrow conception of archives to include geographical location as archive and abandoning objectivist standards of truth. Instead of aiming to recover what someone wrote, one theorist now suggests transcribing manuscripts according to the critic’s rhetorical agenda. Even the use of historical records is now challenged. Many critics and would-be biographers seem determined to theorize the genre of biography out of existence.

These Malay pirates of literary biography, springing up, weapons drawn, from the bottom of the ship in the treacherous fashion Melville describes in Mardi, will not succeed. As long as libraries preserve archives such as the Gansevoort-Lansing Collection of the New York Public Library or the Melville and Morewood papers at the Berkshire Athenaeum or the Melvill-Melville papers at Houghton Library, or the Shaw papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, pilgrim researchers will come, even if only a dedicated few. There will always be a few literary detectives who devote months or years to the pursuit of documents in the confidence that at last they will sit at midnight in a little bare motel room in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and turn through a big shoebox full of what looks like only bills of lading until they spy a blue folded paper, clearly a letter, a letter with the signature “Really Thine, H. Melville”--a letter reassuring Melville’s wife’s young step-cousin Sam Savage: “Concerning the foot-ball part of the business, why, we are all foot-balls, more or less--& it is lucky that we are, on some accounts. It is important, however, that our balls be covered with a leather, good & tough, that will stand banging & all ‘the slings & arrows of outrageous fortune.’” Literary detectives will sit in dark rooms peering at their computer screens, doing their ultimately-advanced searches. They will imaginatively misspell (Mellvill, Mellville, Hermann, and more) when accurate spellings turn up nothing. They will try their equivalent of “froward” and “godless” on Google every few weeks for most of a decade, as Scott Norsworthy did until he discovered a source for some of Melville’s once-baffling notes in the back of his Shakespeare. They will boggle at a passage in a Melville text and find riches, as I did when I Googled “Napoleon” and “outline” and “tree” and discovered that Melville in The Confidence-Man was referring to a then-famous example of hidden art. There will always be a few frequenters of known archives, a few imaginative trackers of missing archives, a few librarians who recognize gaps in their institution’s papers and reach out their hands for lost treasures, and a few “divine amateurs” who believe that the facts matter and that they can identify some of them from their computers or in raids on distant libraries. And for literary biography, there will always be readers who want to know about the living man or woman whose deepest being infuses the books they love.

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