Monday, February 11, 2013

Being Mostly Fair but Mealy Mouthed in the Chronicle Review

On Being Mealy Mouthed:

Evert Duyckinck’s diary, end of January 1860:

Herman Melville called for some volumes of the Essayists to take with him to his winter reading at Pittsfield. Says the mealy mouthed habit of writing of human nature of the present day would not tolerate the plain speaking of Johnson, for instance, in the Rambler—who does not hesitate to use the word malignity!”

            In “A Leviathan Task of Biography” in the Chronicle of Higher Education 11 February 2013 the writer avoids ugly words such as “falsehood” and “lie.” I have no complaints about most of the review, although I wish it had indicated the extent to which my book deals with the “genre of biography,” something Carol Rollyson noticed at once, according to his post in Biographers Organization International. What I want to deal with here is the extreme reluctance of the CHE to face the fact that reviewers can lie about the authors of books they are reviewing. Has this ever happened to any biographer in the world before it happened to me? Has it ever happened to any biographer since?

            In 2002 Richard H. Brodhead lied about me in the New York TIMES, saying that it was merely a surmise of mine that Melville finished a book in 1853 and that I alone in my “black hole” thought that Melville had finished a book called POEMS in 1860. The fact is that scholars had known since 1960, for sure, that Melville had finished a book in mid-1853 and still had possession of it in November.  (I discovered the title, THE ISLE OF THE CROSS, later, in 1987). The fact is that everyone had known all about POEMS since 1922. What Brodhead did was bad, but what Andrew Delbanco did in the NEW REPUBLIC was worse: he not only said only I had surmised the two books, he said I could not be trusted anywhere because I was given to such fantasies. According to Delbanco, my second volume, like the first, “must be used with caution” (34): “He [Parker] is sure that when Melville traveled by slow boat to San Francisco in 1860, he expected to find waiting for him a finished copy of a book of poems that he had entrusted in manuscript to his brother for transmission to his publishers before leaving the East. (Such a book was never published—and it is a surmise that Melville ever wrote it.) . . . . In short, Parker trusts his own intuition completely, and, presenting inferences as facts, he expects his readers to trust it, too.”

            Nothing that Brodhead and Delbanco allege here is true. These are lies. Melville’s letter to the Harpers on 24 November 1853 proves the existence of a work he could not publish “last Spring,” and my AMERICAN LITERATURE article on THE ISLE OF THE CROSS in the March 1990 laid out the evidence for the exact or closely approximate date of Melville’s finishing the book he took to New York City in early June 1853. As far as POEMS goes, the documentation is extensive—letters from Melville and his wife to Evert Duyckinck, for example, as well as Melville’s 12-point memo to his brother Allan on the publishing of POEMS. How can anyone read that memo and question that Melville had finished a collection he called POEMS? And besides that, Jay Leyda found a rejection of the volume by Scribner. What Brodhead and Delbanco say is false. They lied about my work in such a way as to trash my credibility. Delbanco, in particular, went out of his way to say that everything I said had to be used with caution.

            Paula Backscheider says, “For an academic to be accused of ‘making up
things’ . . . is the most serious charge that can be levelled against him or her
and may discredit that person forever.”

            I may die still widely discredited and shamed in print and on the Internet by the false accusations of Brodhead and Delbanco, as well as those later made by Elizabeth Schultz, who echoed their accusations in the COMMON REVIEW.

            Yet the Chronicle of Higher Education cannot say the word “lie,” or address directly my defense in MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE. Here is what the CHE says:
“Parker, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Delaware, found himself at odds with such Melville scholars as Richard Brodhead (who raised questions about Parker's ‘editorial principles’ in The New York Times) and Andrew Delbanco (who, while criticizing Parker's misreading of sex and sin, did declare, in The New York Review of Books, that "Parker's biography is written with love and devotion").  [But this was not the 2002 review of the biography in the NEW REPUBLIC and of course is not a matter that would make me at odds with anyone.] Critics' skepticism centered on two issues: the name of a lost Melville story ("The Isle of the Cross") and the importance of an 1860 manuscript called "Poems." A falling-out followed, and Parker, who felt he had been victimized, drifted away from groups like the Melville Society.”
            See how this blurs the issue, almost as if I had been overly sensitive to reviewers’ pointing out that I used the run-on construction too often or that my adverbs were strained. “Editorial principles”? No: the accusation was that I made up POEMS, which no one else had ever heard of, just me in my “black hole”!  The “name of a lost Melville story”? No: not the NAME of the book but the fact of Melville’s writing it, the fact of its existence.
            The Chronicle of Higher Education apparently could not deal with a fact as ugly as falsehood, it would seem—not when a purveyor of false information is the dean of Yale College, then President of Duke University; not when the purveyor of false information is a chaired professor at Columbia University.
            This part of “A Leviathan Task of Biography” makes me look like an author who is peeved at reviewers’ picking at his inept prose when dealing with the greatness of OMOO and not praising him highly enough for his reading of "The Piazza."
Why do I love Melville? Why, he’s the man who says that “the mealy mouthed habit of writing of human nature of the present day would not tolerate the plain speaking of Johnson, for instance, in the Rambler—who does not hesitate to use the word malignity!”

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