Saturday, January 19, 2013

Wineapple's Inadmissible Loathing of Nathaniel Hawthorne

            Hating your author is bad form for a biographer.

I was baffled when I first read Wineapple’s depiction of my attitude toward Nathaniel Hawthorne in her 2002 review in the NATION: “Parker focuses on Melville’s relationship to Hawthorne. But it’s one of his book’s more contradictory themes, since Parker is irritated by the pairing. Neighbors only for eighteen months, the two authors afterward saw one another about three more times but in the nineteenth-century eye were yoked forevermore, Melville in the background and remembered, ‘if remembered at all,’ snaps Parker ‘as a man who had known Hawthorne, the literary man who had known Hawthorne during the Lenox months’” (39). In continuing to quote her I do not pause to correct factual errors in her reporting: “Of course, Parker isn’t the first biographer implicitly to lay the blame for Melville’s neglect at Hawthorne’s feet” (40). I never do that. Strangely, it is Wineapple who blames Hawthorne for taking “Melville literally” (40; “at face value” in her 2003 Hawthorne biography, 244) and not writing about Moby-Dick. Then Wineapple went on with what looks (at first glance) like a wholly irrelevant comment on another biographer: “Laurie Robertson-Lorant, whose earnest Melville: A Biography appeared the same year as the first installment of Parker’s biography, doesn’t much like Hawthorne” (40). What does that comment tell us about Wineapple’s focus? She goes on: “Despite Melville’s capaciousness, Parker is convinced that envy preoccupies Melville, though the evidence suggests Parker is the envious one, so riled is he by Hawthorne’s posthumous reputation and Melville’s sinking one. Parker closely identifies with Melville, at times too closely, and will cross swords with anyone who ignored, outsold, criticized or just plain didn’t like Melville” (40). Earlier I “snapped” and now I am “riled”? No. Envious? Riled “by Hawthorne’s posthumous reputation”? No. This makes no sense to me at all. I do mention jealousy in a particular context, Melville’s returning in 1869 to the Curtis Hotel, where he had last seen Hawthorne before he left Lenox: Melville, I say, “began to reflect (jealously, skeptically, judiciously, and still lovingly) on the mental, aesthetic, and physical characteristics of the man who had so bewitched him and now so outshone him” (2:683). See how far those words are from the vulgar words Wineapple uses to describe my attitude.
 I remained baffled until Dennis Donoghue’s review of Wineapple’s biography in the Los Angeles Times (September 28, 2003) made her psychology clear: “Wineapple seems to have wearied of her subject and become exasperated with his debility” (R16). Growing contemptuous of Hawthorne herself the longer she worked on her book, she seems to have projected her own disdain for him onto me (and onto Robertson-Lorant) so she could punish me for the feelings she could admit in herself. Melville was never my hero, but I loved him the more I learned about him. Other biographers admit to becoming irritated at their subjects, and everyone holds up the horrific example of Lawrance Thompson, who so radically changed his opinion of Robert Frost. Wineapple, meet Thompson. Writing biography can bring out the best in you, or not.

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