Monday, February 25, 2013

The CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION Demonstrates How Economical a Hatchet-Job can be: One Well-Placed Paragraph Can Do It.

The CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION Demonstrates How Economical a Hatchet-Job can be: One Well-Placed Paragraph Can Do It.

The NEW YORKER blog listing Hershel Parker’s MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE as a January 2013 "Book to Watch Out For," concluding its brief description with this: “Parker writes with a rare combination of humor and passion which hooks the reader into this potentially arcane subject.” Perfect, I thought, humor and passion—I think I’m funny and Lord knows I am passionate about literature. Someone at the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION saw this mention and asked Northwestern University for a copy of the book.  On January 28th David Wescott interviewed me by telephone for just over an hour. Then on the first of February Rose Engelland, the CHE “Photography Editor,” emailed me asking if I could give her permission to use a photo of me. To keep things simple I agreed, although it was an old bearded picture, taken from the jacket of the 2008 MELVILLE: THE MAKING OF THE POET, not the recent picture from the new book. On February 4 in an email Wescott thanked me for working with the CHE “art department on getting a photo.” He wanted confirmation on my place of residence and age and two more items, my status as retiree from the University of Delaware and the working title of a future book. I suggested that he use the specific title, “H. Fletcher Brown Professor Emeritus, University of Delaware” and that he include the full title of the book I am working on, “ORNERY PEOPLE: WHAT WAS A DEPRESSION OKIE?” As published, the article did not contain the photograph from the 2008 book but instead the Eaton portrait of Melville, credited to “Rue des Archives, PVDE,” not Houghton Library, and did not include either “H. Fletcher Brown Professor” or the subtitle. Well, Delaware likes to have its endowment lines acknowledged, and I wanted the explanatory subtitle, but okay. So far, so good.

Most of the article fairly reports what a said on the phone or else what I say in the book. I don’t mind being called in the first sentence “an archival-research fanatic,” and I hardly think justice is done in saying “Melville Biography is made up of many small vendettas,” but okay. 

The problem starts with the last line of the first paragraph, the assertion that my two-volume biography garnered “to Parker’s mind, unwarranted condemnation from many within the academy.” Now, the straightforward thing to have said would have been that Parker elaborately assesses the damage done by two particular reviewers in 2002, Richard Brodhead in the New York TIMES and Andrew Delbanco in the NEW REPUBLIC.

The facts are very simple. 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. Scholars had known since 1960, for sure, that Melville had finished a book in mid-1853 and still had possession of it in November of that year.  (I discovered the title, THE ISLE OF THE CROSS, later, in 1987). The fact is that everyone had known all about POEMS since 1922—not Raymond Weaver in his 1921 biography, but everyone 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”: “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 say about my merely surmising the existence of the two lost books is true. Melville’s letter to the Harpers on 24 November 1853 proves the existence of a work he could not publish “last Spring,” and my March 1990 AMERICAN LITERATURE article on THE ISLE OF THE CROSS lays 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—in the 1921 trove in the Duyckinck Collection of the NYPL are 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. And besides that, Jay Leyda later found a rejection of the volume by Scribner. We know that two publishers, at least, rejected the volume. Full documentation is in my biography which Brodhead and Delbanco were reviewing.  How can anyone read that 12-point memo and question that Melville had finished a collection he called POEMS? 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. Weirdly, in his 2005 book Delbanco mentions the existence of the books he said I had merely surmised. 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.” This was very serious damage to my reputation and to my health.

To explain why I might sound a tad annoyed in some of my comments to the reporter on the telephone it would have been essential to state the nature of my grievances against Brodhead and Delbanco: they had done horrific damage to me by lying about what all scholars and I knew about the 1853 and 1860 books. This was not a matter of interpretation: it was a simple matter of facts.
Instead of moving from the first paragraph (“to Parker’s mind, unwarranted condemnation from many within the academy”), the CHRONICLE report proceeds to this paragraph:

Critical reviews appeared in newspapers, magazines, and journals, and 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"). 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.

What happened? This is a totally fabricated paragraph. I can’t find “editorial principles” in Brodhead’s review and can’t find it in MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE. Of course, my quarrel with Brodhead had nothing to do with editorial principles but only with his saying I merely surmised the existence of two lost books, and in particular that only I in my “black hole” had identified POEMS. Why did the CHRONICLE reach back to a review by Delbanco in the NYRofB in 1997 instead of looking at his accusation in 2002 that I had made up two books which I claimed Melville wrote but which are now lost? And of course the “name” of THE ISLE OF THE CROSS is not in dispute but the existence of the book, and of course it’s not “the importance of an 1860 manuscript called ‘Poems’” but the existence of that book. The last paragraph says a “falling-out” followed—a falling out with Brodhead over “editorial principles”? and a “falling-out” with Delbanco over what—his criticizing my “misreading of sex and sin”? Anyhow, who was misreading? Feeling victimized, after 2002 I “drifted away” from the Melville Society. No, after the new-leftist takeover in 1990 I stopped going to Melville Society meetings, except when I got to climb pyramids in Central America one year. My standards are flexible!

Now, any good critic, and not just a New Critic, reads every following paragraph with this fabricated second paragraph in mind. What made the New Criticism so easy to apply that much of it is based on how real people read all the time. You put that second paragraph in, the one about “editorial principles” and “misreading of sex and sin,” and every harsh thing you quote me as saying after that is transformed into the rantings of an old codger who believes without warrant that he has been criticized too much by reviewers, who really had merely disagreed on editorial principles (principles, after all) and who really recognized that he had written with “love and devotion.”  You would have to be loony to complain about such reviewers. So with this setup, was it any surprise that the first comment in the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION starts “Hershel Parker Crazy”?

By the strategic fabrication of the content and by the strategic placement of the 2nd paragraph, the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION defended the President of Duke University and a chaired professor at Columbia while injuring me all over again. Rather than laying out the genuine grievance, the CHRONICLE damaged me all over again. 

If Tesla can shame the New York TIMES into an apology over its review of Tesla's Model S sedan, can I shame the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION into printing an honest paragraph in place of the fabricated 2nd paragraph?

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